Category Archives: experience

The design process isn’t the problem. You are the problem

(harsh, but true)

This debate keeps cropping up like a seasonal virus. Once again, I encountered a bit of chatter across the internet and amongst practitioners on the ol’ topic that design thinking  has failed to live up to its hype. This is a post explaining why I believe these reoccurring debates flare up, and why they continuously reignite.

I am in a pretty unique position. I have experience and perspective as both a design academic and design practitioner. In research I spent four years as more or less an observer; watching the design process from afar in order to elevate insights which may be buried in the day to day that often robs us of adequate reflection. As a researcher, I forgot just how much crap there is to wade through when neck deep in the detail.

I don’t mean this to sound negative. The crap I am talking about is the everyday: the admin, the mundane, the mess of life that day-to-day work seems to generate. Throw in budgets and tight timeframes and we barely have space in our brain to remember where we parked the car in a given day.

Two states of design thinking

There are two manifestations of design thinking and design practice; internalised (lone) design thinking and externalised design thinking that manifests collectively and collaboratively from a group. I wrote a bit about collaborative design thinking in my thesis, and this is certainly where much of the discussion about the practice of design thinking is situated. What intrigues me is that there is a lot of writing on the benefits of adopting design/thinking, equally as many articles against design thinking, yet little has been discussed about the specific reasons why design thinking may not work.

Most often when things are mysterious, intangible and elusive like design thinking, it helps much more to know what design thinking is not in order to understand what it is. Here is my take on the topic.


The 5 commandments on how to kill design thinking (and obliterate innovation)

1. Formalise the process

The generic framework of the design process (discover, define, develop, deliver) and its many variations is a great way to try to articulate the process designers adopt in their practice. I don’t believe these stages were ever meant to be applied in a strict, orderly fashion, because for most designers the interaction between each phase is not clear cut and can often intuitively swirl back and forth. Yet, I have witnessed many designers and design teams within organisations cut clear deadlines and metrics against each phase which hinders much organic growth.

It is understandable that when presenting design to a client or upper management who are not familiar with the process one becomes tempted to report against fixed phases. This makes you look like you have direction and status metrics by which you can report on a regular basis. But most often than not, this formality robs creativity, adaptation, experimentation and discovery-particularly in novice teams. It not only sets a precedent and expectation that design is predictable, fixed and linear, but it also sets a cultural tone that you cannot step outside of the square.


2. Suffer from Steve Jobs syndrome (or just be an a$$)

Unless you plan to operate as a lone designer, you are single handedly going to kill design thinking in the team you work with with a bad attitude. I am surprised (and annoyed) by how many self-proclaimed design thinkers narrow-mindedly spit on other ideas in favor of their own. And I am not just talking about ideation sessions where you explicitly state that ideation time is to defer judgement. I am surprised about the behaviour around this sacred, creative ‘safe’ ground. A true designer, or design thinker, is open and encouraging. He or she will build upon ideas or at least be open to the possibility and opportunity of an idea no matter how far-fetched. This encouragement and support is what spurs creative ideation, and as time passes on a project, lowers inhibitions amongst members so that the design team can freely climb higher and more innovative pursuits.


3. Be uninspired by creative people and ideas

This is often interlinked with the previous point and is probably the most surprising anti-designerly attitude that ails many teams. If you scrunch up your nose at creatively silly ideas, feel embarrassed to laugh at yourself, or shut your mind off from exploring unrelated fields of knowledge and activity, then you are sorely limiting yourself to the mundane. Which is surprising since most individuals working in a design process want to describe themselves as an innovator, entrepreneur or artist. I feel much of this comes down to fear of failure which is perhaps the most destructive mindset…


4. Fear failure

I have argued many, MANY, times that fear of failure is the absolute kryptonite to a designerly approach. This fear is also the kryptonite to your success in life, in general. This is why a design approach is liberating for many- it allows, encourages and accepts risk and knows that risk often results in failure. Failure is a good thing, it equals strength and knowledge. Failure helps you make decisions just as much as success does (and is a better teacher at it). Often fear is propagated within a team due to the issues described above and in conjunction with the understandable anxiety around reputation, job security, and the like. If your boss or organisation does not support and understand that the design process is not a one track trick to success- that it also actively encourages failure- then you need to step back and ask yourself if the culture is ripe for the implementation of a design approach.


5. Put all of your expectation into a designerly approach

expectation is the root of all heartache

-a really cool guy from the 1600s

The design process won’t save you. It is not a panacea, and it is naive to assume that it will be the saviour of your troubled business and/or project. This is perhaps why i never understood the continuous debate over the success/failure of a design approach. No model, method or fad to emerge will ever be the answer- it is knowing when and in what context that a method will best achieve the desired outcome. This is why we have experienced design professionals and consultants whom understand if the characteristics and strengths of a design approach will be suitable towards the context and project at hand. Thought needs to be taken when deciding whether to use one approach or another, and design thinking is no exception to this consideration.


The Jerry Springer ending

I’ll admit that as a researcher I took design thinking for granted. I believed so much in the process of design and design thinking that I lost sight of the fact that design is incredibly delicate and sensitive. Sensitive to people’s attitudes, behaviour and application. A designerly approach in itself is not the answer; design needs the right people to manifest the qualities that so many business professionals admire. In either the midst of the meta through academic research, or distracted by the detail in practice, we have lost sight of the real fragility of design thinking.

but hey, what do i know


The end of an era: reflective practice

I am entitled to be just a little dramatic with my headline as I have now officially completed my thesis. Those who follow me on twitter would have noticed the excited tweets. I know that many have been asking me for my thesis, and I can assure you that it will be published online within the week- there are just a few more hidden hoops to jump before i can publish it, but more on that in a bit…

So, I figured now is a good time to reflect on the journey that was the almighty PhD pilgrimage into academic enlightenment. This is less of a practice-based post and so perhaps it will be of more interest, or use, to those considering an academic pathway or who perhaps are curious as to what to do after a PhD. I have chosen to write this based on the most common questions and comments i received during and after my studies and will conclude with hopefully some helpful advice.


Common question #238: What is the point of doing a PhD, let alone in design?

Depending on your definition of influence and impact, this question is (imho) often expressed out of naivety and ignorance. However, I can see how someone can construct the argument that a PhD is pointless, but it all comes down to value and perspective. If you value the pursuit, tradition and history of scholarly practice, you will understand how humbling it is to contribute to a long history of reflections, insights and theories from many scholars and practitioners committed to evolve and expand knowledge. But if you are of a more practical nature, the analysis, reflection and documentation may seem superfluous, and often at times, outdated to current trends.

It is true that you do a PhD in order to obtain a license to work as a researcher. It is also true that in many instances research is often a few steps behind practice. But what is not true is the assumption that the skills you acquire in doing a PhD are impractical for the “real world” (my most loathed statement. What is the “real world”, anyway? and to whom?). I am in the very fortunate position to have come out of academia and be able to return to industry practice in the field that I studied. So I can attest to the many transferrable skills developed in studying for a PhD:

(These are particular to qualitative/case-study PhD’s and to design practice)

  1. Writing skills. This is a highly valuable skill in general, but particularly if you are required to write reports, proposals, thought leadership, etc.
  2. Strategy. I really believe most PhD’s are highly strategic. You have to scan the field for untapped opportunities then assess many multiple theories, options, and methods for your plan of attack. As I now work in strategy (or strategic design), which involves both strategy and design research, I have realised that much of the formative ‘fuzzy’ front end of design thinking is very similar to the process of PhD research.
  3. Critical thinking. Well, you can’t find a better place to develop critical thinking than through graduate research. And I challenge anyone to dispute how valuable critical thinking is in most industry based practice (except, maybe, for the arts?)
  4. Public speaking and presenting. I also don’t think anything could prepare you better for client pitches like a review board of professors and/or conference presentations. PhD’s are perhaps best adept at forming and presenting arguments whilst defending anticipated rebuttals.
  5. Field research. This is specific to those who conducted primary research and may end up working in a design field or industry applying a design/thinking process that requires field/ethnographic research. As mentioned earlier, the design, methods, analysis and synthesis inherent in design practice are the fundamental building blocks for completing a PhD.
  6. Articulation of ideas. Particularly if you are client-facing, being able to clearly and coherently articulate your point/ideas across and in a way that is intellectually accessible to those around you who may not come from your depth of knowledge, is an incredibly persuasive asset.

I am sure there are many more I could think of, but these are the PhD skills I use most often on a day to day basis in my work.


Common question #592: Why didn’t you stay in academia?

There are a few reasons why I didn’t continue down the academic path right now. To be brutally honest, I wanted a rounded career and feared that if I continued with a career in academia I would be labelled an ‘out of touch academic’. This is unfortunately a reality for most academics, even if it (most often) is not true. It is very hard to return to industry after a PhD, (at least in Australia, it seems) let alone after working as an academic for many years. Despite the fact that I already had industry practice, I wanted to obtain more industry experience related to my thesis. I am still open to the idea of returning to academia (hint hint) and will continue to publish from my thesis. Right now the thought of remaining on a very low salary after four years of a near-poverty-wage scholarship is simply suffocating.


id like to know what having money feels like


Common question #475: What are your reflections on academia and practice?

I will keep my thoughts brief, as I am currently writing a deeper blog post on this topic. But the TL;DR of it is that, as an academic, you have much more time and freedom to exhaustively reflect on a topic and come to a deeper and more insightful conclusion. Industry has no tolerance for time-consuming, self-indulgent activities like reflective practice. For the most part, this reflection is not needed.. but I feel it is incredibly important if we are going to aim for creativity, let alone innovation, in any kind of practice. Again, this is where a PhD graduate could really add value and particularly if from a design background.


So to those still studying for their doctoral thesis- know that you have a choice and that there are options beyond just a post-doc. Present your skills in the right context and language to the industry you are applying and you will find that you have much more to offer beyond the assumption that academics are “just thinkers”. One good thought is worth more than a thousand mindless prototypes.


(Watch this space for a post that contains my thesis)


Global Service Jam 2012

Ah yes. A little delayed but here nonetheless…

My role at this years global service jam was not dissimilar to my role at the sustainability jam. I was asked to be involved by one of the primary organisers, Gin, who i had met from the sustainability jam.

I figured that participating in the organisation of a jam (again) would strengthen my understanding of workshopping, teamwork and facilitation. I didn’t expect to learn anything more insightful than i did from the sustainability jam (as both events are pretty much identical in nature) but i kept my mind open. I also knew that pulling together a service design toolkit might actually be trickier than the sustainability toolkit i had collated previously (will explain later).


We held a meet-n-greet event prior to the jam. Image courtesy of Cat Dos Santos

Our initial meetings included the two initiators of the Melbourne jam as well as a few employees from Melbourne based service design company Huddle. Huddle offered to host the service jam in their office and meetings leading up to the event grew in numbers with more employees offering a helping hand. By the time of the event, we had 8 organisers on board; 6 Huddle employees, the two initiators and myself. This was a tremendous effort compared to the sustainability jam, which had only 5 organisers helping out.

The extra aid was beneficial for keeping multiple tasks running with momentum, such as media and promotion.  Aside from organising the toolkit, structure and facilitating at the event, I was asked to invite a “professional” to speak at the opening night on design thinking and service design. There was no better person in my mind to invite than my secondary supervisor, and Swinburne’s go-to-guy for academics studying design thinking, Gavin Melles.

The network wall. Image courtesy of Cat Dos Santos

Other organisers were also asked to hunt around for speakers and “mentors” for the event. It was decided that all organisers would be ‘facilitators’, i.e., people offering general help over the weekend, and that we would also include mentors – people who are ‘specialists’ or ‘professionals’ in a specific area.


Prior to collating the toolkit, I needed to create the structure of the jam that would run over the weekend. This is because the toolkit is inherently the structure of the jam as well as a guide of methods that groups can work through over the 48 hours. I still cant stress enough how important this was for the jam in general, because after now having witnessed 2 jams I can say with confidence that the most organised and developed concepts were groups that stuck to the process structure and used the toolkit as a guide.

Image courtesy of Cat Dos Santos

I do not enforce the kit on anyone. It is a choice for participants to make; if some feel confident with the service design process, they need not use it. But most of the participants at the jams are new to these sorts of process methods and want to learn, and as such need a guide to help them stay on track.


Collating the toolkit was not as easy as i first thought. This was because service design is so iterative that it was difficult to clearly define methods as belonging to a specific ‘phase’ of the process. Almost all of the methods could have been used in any stage of the process, and i pointed out to groups that it is OK to feed  back through previous phases as their projects develop. This was one of the the primary differences between the service jam and the sustainability jam. The sustainability jam toolkit required more research from a broader range of methods as it was open to any sort of outcome. As a result, participants didnt have much time to ‘feedback’ through phases and it was easier to clearly define phases and collect methods that suit specific steps in the project (which also ensured participants didnt go back and forth through phases and waste time).

The business model canvas. Image courtesy of Cat Dos Santos

The other issue I encountered was a lack of service design resources. I realised that there really wasnt much out there that i could draw upon to put into the toolkit. As a result, I borrowed a few methods from marketing and business disciplines because there simply wasnt enough service design methods to collect. Fortunately, keeping the kit thin was key and I managed to fill out 5 phases with approximately 3 methods in each phase:

1. Inspiration: 

-This includes the theme given to the jammers to work with
-Brainstorming techniques (taken mainly from design thinking: so similar to the susjam brainstorming section…a lot from, IDEO, etc)
-In this section participants decide on a type of service they want to go with, or even an existing service they might like to fix or add to, etc.

2. Understanding: (empathy)

-Includes understanding the values and needs of the customer/user- value mapping, etc
-Who the customer is/defining the market of the service and why it is a need/of value to this customer/demographic
-A rough but holistic understanding of how each facet in the service operates (using mapping tools) so they dont focus too much on just the customer and forget about the ‘bits’ in and around the service. Ensure is just as much about holistic organisational design /business structuring as it is about understanding the needs of the customer
-This is the initial “insight” they gain from understanding their service and (needs of) customer

3. Shaping

– This is where participants start to think a bit deeper into the structure of the service, the touchpoints customers might encounter and the experiences they want to map out.
– This phase and phase 2 will be interchangeable, aka a feedback loop. After initial insight into defining who the customer is, participants may use shaping techniques and realise they might want to go back and re evaluate what the true need is with more insight and information

4. Mapping

– This is basically using a variety of mapping tools to map out the business structure, value grid, customer experience map, customer journey, touchpoints, etc…this is the final ‘draw up’ of all of these different aspects which prepare them for..

5. Presentation

– The easy part as mapping phase pretty much does all of the presentation work. All participants have to do is explain and present the maps they created for their service

In terms of a logical progression through a service design project, this seemed like the most appropriate and rapid structure for the jam that would result in a sound outcome. I also tried to make sure that each step was as simple as possible and refrained from using too much technical jargon.

The Jam

Jamming. Image courtesy of Cat Dos Santos

The service jam has a pre-defined outcome. This makes it easier for participants to focus on what they need to create (unlike the sustainability jam) but also makes it easier for participants to get lost in the details of each phase of the project.

Unfortunately for me, I became ill leading up to the event and was forced to miss the opening night. I could only devote a few hours over the weekend to observing and helping teams. Despite the short amount of time i spent at the jam, i did learn quite a few things from my time there…

What I observed

1. Groups worked more independently than in the sustainability jam. This could be due to the character of participants, but I think this could partially be attributed to the fact that everyone knew their goal was to create a service. This subsequently created a false confidence in some groups.

2. Some groups got lost in the details. Even though everyone knew what they needed to do, there was a LOT of talking, to-ing and fro-ing amongst some team members. I dont think many even realised they were getting lost until a mentor stepped in to point it out. This largely was initiated due to time.

3. Time was not dominant enough. I said this last time about the sustainability jam and ill say it again. Time was not present during the jam. There needed to be a sort of omnipresent pressure from time ticking away- whether this be done by projecting a large clock on a screen, or having a watch on each table. Something like this needed to be done. Having a clock/timer ticking down over participants psychologically pushes individuals to work to deadlines and make quicker decisions. I also realised that having facilitators occasionally chime, “2 hours to go”,  does not trip the psyche to react in the same way as a countdown might.

4. The most thorough projects were ones that utilised the toolkit. It was great to witness groups using the kit, however some only picked up the kit once they were running out of time. The more successful projects appeared to have worked their way through the kit, ticking off each stage which resulted in work completed to be presented.

5. Some mentors felt their input was more disruptive than productive. This may be true for some groups, and perhaps the presence of facilitators and mentors was not as useful as for the sustainability jam (due to point no 1). But when groups needed help, it was a tremendous asset to have a mentor step in and offer professional advice on how to swiftly move on. I wouldnt argue against using mentors in jams, but knowing when to step back and step in is vital for this role.

One more thing…

we're a team!

we're a team!

Compared to the sustainability jam, most of the ‘insights’ i learned from the service jam were based around communication amongst organisers as opposed to observations made about the jam itself. Having a larger team working on the jam proved difficult at times, as internal conversations and decisions were often made without group consultation. It proved again how important it is to include all volunteers in the decision making process and how important it is to have one person managing the tasks of the group. Some tasks fell through due to this. It is easy for members in a large group to feel that someone else may take on a role/job. These are some  of the drawbacks of having extra help on board- someone needs to constantly ‘check in’ to see if everyone is doing their bit. This would be an important piece of advice i would pass on to future organisers, wherever they may be.

And oh yeah! Here is the toolkit! Feel free to download and use at your leisure, or even let me know if you found it useful on a project 🙂

<div style=”width:477px” id=”__ss_12026976″> <strong style=”display:block;margin:12px 0 4px”><a href=”; title=”Melbourne Service Jam Toolkit” target=”_blank”>Melbourne Service Jam Toolkit</a></strong> <div style=”padding:5px 0 12px”> View more <a href=”; target=”_blank”>documents</a> from <a href=”; target=”_blank”>stefanie85</a> </div> </div>

Workshop with Hiroshi Tamura for PINC12 Conference

My time was limited during the Participatory Innovation Conference held at Swinburne University, but I managed to register a spot to participate in a workshop with Hiroshi Tamura, the Director of at The University of Tokyo.

A description attached to the event was as follows:

Title: Idea Brokering, a workshop technique for innovation

The Earthquake and tsunami that took place on March 11th has taken away thousands of lives on that day in Tohoku Region of Japan. Media since then has covered the disaster and the consequent Fukushima nuclear accident, however, has done so little apart from confusing people with rich yet cryptic data of little relevance. Yet one thing was certain, which is that we could no longer expect changes to take place in this society unless we actively come up with innovations ourselves. Now, the question is: how can we bring that change?

As practitioners, we find ethnography a perfect source of information to breed ideas for people to act upon. In this workshop, we will introduce a workshop method called “idea-brokering”, which we utilize ethnographic, human-centered view to raise awareness on the social issues. An example case would concern the behavioral and motivational changes of people in Japan that are taking place today. We will then describe key points how the workshop can be designed and be prepared. Towards the end we will open up the discussion for how we could practice ethnography for social innovation.

We invite participants of the conference with experience and/or interest in:
* Research in sustainability, communications, energy and water, products and services
* Research in corporations or institutions with mild/little practice on human-centered design or innovations
* Design for behavioral and motivation change
* Creative workshop methods

Having a keen interest in sustainability (and Japan in general) i was really intruiged to learn more about how the Japanese have been using design methods to tackle unfamiliar issues that had been born in the tsunami aftermath. Specifically, how the use of human centered design methods have been employed and to what effect they have been successful in developing sustainable solutions.

Work, work, workshopping!

The workshop began at 9am. Mr.Tamura (i should really be calling him sensei Tamura out of upmost respect) asked participants to sit at tables with others from the same country/region. I was at a table that included three other participants, a large A3 piece of paper, a packet of fat markers, some post it notes and a little orange envelope.

Mr (*sensei*) Tamura gave us a brief intro on himself, the structure and outcome expected from the workshop. He then, with a warning, played a video of the tsunami wave engulfing a village center in Kesennuma.

I had been following the tsunami and the ongoing disaster it has caused for the residents in and around the prefecture of Fukushima since March 11. I watch NHK world (both in English and Japanese) to keep myself informed, along with independent news sources on the web. I thought I had seen almost all of the footage available from the disaster- until i saw Mr. Tamura’s video.

It was truly heart wrenching. It was sickening to the stomach. It was not the fast, explosive and dramatic scene we all knew and saw published in our mainstream media. The video was approximately 10 minutes long and was shot in POV from a man standing on his roof, narrating what had just happened (the earthquake that hit 15 min prior to him recording). Five minutes go by, and you see people move from a brisk pace to running hysterically. Cars begin to drive out of the streets and then the water starts to slowly pour in. Only once the water hit, the tsunami sirens went off- but by this point it was too late. Over the course of the next five minutes, you see the water enter rather slowly in the streets, rise higher, wash cars with people trapped inside and eventually fall beneath its wrath. You witness people dying and can hear the desperation and cries of the people stranded on the roof, helpless to those below. This footage was literally a slow and painful death. By the end, the water had reached the rooftops of second story buildings.

Mr. Tamura explaining Idea Brokering

I suspect that this movie was a strategic move to shock the participants, ignite empathy and raw human emotion. After all, to be a good human-centered designer, surely you must be good (empathetic) with and towards humans. Im not sure how others felt, but it distressed me enough to really want to think hard about the issues we were about to tackle and find some kind of plausible solution. If this was the intention behind Mr.Tamura’s video then he certainly succeeded.

Mr. Tamura proceeded to describe his experience during the earthquake and the chain of reaction that followed around Tokyo:

  • Lost mobile connection
  • Realised how 1 to 1 communication was important during and directly after the event
  • caused traffic jams
  • all bicycles had sold out due to the above for transportation
  • long queues to withdraw cash from ATMs as many machines stopped working
  • Supermarkets were cleared of produce- emptied due to panic

He then described ongoing problems that still affect residents in the surrounding prefectures of Fukushima. It was later revealed that the little orange envelope sitting on each of our tables contained images of these ongoing problems with related headings (see image above). They are outlined below:

1. Tsunami Tendenko

Tendenko roughly translates to ‘everyone for his or herself’. It is the teaching that when a tsunami strikes, you look out for no one: not your parents, children, friends but your self. This sounds counter intuitive to the Japanese culture of community and as such many adults sacrificed their lives for their children. Only five children died when the tsunami struck. To read more about the ideology and founder of Tendenko, click here.

2. Identification

Passports, wallets, etc were lost. Hard to identify misplaced or missing persons.

3. Secondary Hazard

Debris and biohazard from nuclear spillage is still present as a secondary hazard

4. Privacy

Due to moving into temporary shelters, there is a lack of privacy amongst displaced persons.

5.Lacking Local Information

No source of info for locals to track missing persons. Information provided from government itself was scarce

6. Lifeline, old+new

Daily necessities cut off for over 2 months

7. Delivering to Consumers

Processed food was hard to get to survivors because of issues with packaging (particularly plastic wrap, etc)

8. Credibility over Authority

9. Neon Nation

Lights in Tokyo were turned off for half a year, most of the city was in darkness except for street lights.

10. Adjusting technology lense

Since the disaster, taxi drivers are now relying more on GPS navigation

11. After forced changes

The disaster has changed family networks. Survivors are more likely to spend time with family and company

12. Migration trigger

Trains from the affected prefectures stopped running because of the tsunami, which were vital connections when travelling to Sendai or Hiroshima

13. Community, old+new

Local people who lost their traditional homes were given temporary housing. This housing lasts for only 3 years. It also created a new community within this temporary village.

Feel exhausted? Yup. It was definitely overwhelming to see so many important and serious issues that still have not been fixed.

So what are we to do with all of this information? Answer: An inspiration session!

All of these topics are main issues that are in need of resolution today. Our goal was to decide what topic/problem was of interest or importance and work together to provide a solution. After picking an issue, we were guided into the ‘inspiration session’ of the workshop, which involved a new orange envelope dropped on to each table containing images of various common japanese (cultural) inventions or daily products:

random inspiration material to use for developing our solution

And here is a close up just so you fully understand the sort of random pieces of inspiration we were given to use

really random eh??

Now this brings me to the most important part (and point) of this post….


The method used in this workshop reflects precisely one of the main methods Victor Papanek (check previous post) was famous for promoting in sustainable design. Originally developed by Arthur Koestler, bisociation is a method that aims to inspire innovative creations by bridging completely unrelated material together.

I did not touch on the method of bisociation in my post on the history of design thinking (as it would’ve been far too long), so I am going to dive into Papanek’s approach briefly here as it directly reflects what Mr. Tamura asked us to do in this workshop.

Papanek’s theory of bisociation for sustainable design

Papanek took the concept of bisociation and applied it in his practice of sustainable design. Papanek used this method to create innovative and sustainable products prototypes, utilising existing (unrelated) materials and objects as sources of inspiration. This allows designers to take what is already available to them to construct an outcome that is sustainable and renewable through these (often local and existing) resources.

Papanek made this method of creation practical by including an additional measure for the outcome developed. Solutions formed from the exercise are filed under feasible time frames or areas of development, such as: “2-5 years: a concept not quite ready for production” or labelled as “gimmicks”. This categorisation of feasibility from the idea brokering sessions Papanek employed allowed him to analyse his ideas and proceed with the best and most feasible outcome.

We need to be doing more of this, especially for sustainable design

This is a really powerful method of idea generation and one that is not used often enough in design let alone sustainable design. I was really excited when i realised that what we were doing in Mr Tamura’s workshop was Papanek’s method of bisociation for sustainable design. I believe this to be the future for innovation and if anyone has been keeping an eye on innovation in Japan, this method appears to be at the heart of many mind blowing Japanese inventions.

And If in case you were wondering what our group came up with, here is our outcome:

A self generated information kiosk to be placed in temporary villages

Our chosen topic to address was community old + new and lacking local information. The ‘inspiration’ triggers we used was an image of a bike storage rack, a self generated radio and portable waterproof tv. The concept was to mount the portable waterproof TV onto the bike storage contraption which was to be powered using energy generated by community members cycling together. Kind of like those sustainable smoothie kiosks where individuals ride a bicycle to power the blender.

All we need now is to analyse this idea using some of Papanek’s feasibility methods and principles. But it is just amazing that we could have conceived a (somewhat) sustainable solution to a current, real world problem using (culturally specific) inspiration material completely unrelated to the problem at hand. All in just two hours. Imagine what could be done using this method in two months, or two years??

Global Sustainability Jam [Part 2]

In Part 1 of this post, I began explaining the rationale behind issues that needed to be addressed during the preparation for the Melbourne Sustainability Jam toolkit. For those of you who read part 1- I salute you! For the rest of you: here is the link.

Now, to continue on from where I left off…

Why these contexts were important to consider

Open to any form of outcome

Even though today we can argue that just about everything is a type of service, the jam was not explicitly about designing services. This meant that I was not confined to using service design methods, but could take advantage of human centered and design thinking toolkits. I anticipated that most of the outcomes generated would be in some service shape or form, but did not rule out the possibility of solutions such as products and technological applications to be developed. This made it much more difficult to focus the weekend on one area, and would add an extra step of refinement for groups to work through.

Open to any problem definition, no project boundary

This open ended outcome meant that there was no defined purpose. The only boundary groups had to work within was defined by sustainability and the theme for the weekend: playgrounds. So participants would not come to the jam with the certainty that they needed to focus on creating a ‘service’ or ‘digital application’ or ‘online social network’. This meant that a whole extra step needed to be created as part of the design process.

The phases of the design process for the Sustainability Jam

In normal circumstances a client gives you a problem to resolve, whereas this open structure of the jam meant participants had to find that problem first, brainstorm what they wanted to resolve and define the problem-question that they wished to answer with a tangible outcome. This fuzzy and open step of the process was the most important and needed methods that could help participants efficiently brainstorm under no constraints and refine these ideas so that there was a clear problem or need to answer.

No prior knowledge on design methods

Participants who registered came from extremely diverse backgrounds. Only few had come from a design background, and less  with an understanding of service design or other design methods. This was great for the fact that everyone was keen to learn about the toolkits that are being used by IDEO and Stanford, but meant that the methods i chose to pull together needed to be easy and readily understood by all individuals – especially for absolute beginners. Limiting the number of methods in each phase also answered to this issue, so that participants wouldn’t feel confused or overwhelmed choosing between tools. At a maximum, there were five methods in one phase and at a minimum, three.

Yummy post-its! Image courtesy of Will Donovan

What I learned from this event

In terms of the toolkit, I realised that the most useful, easily understood and rapid methods came from the IDEO Toolkit for Educators. The most time consuming methods came from the Human Centered Design Toolkit and the remaining from the Stanford D.School Bootcamp -sitting somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Surprisingly, I only needed to refer to four service design methods during the prototyping and presentation phases. The bulk of the methods were largely to do with facilitating ideas, inspiring outcomes and organising thoughts. For those of you who can’t decide what toolkit is right for your project, I have put together an awards list to acknowledge the best (and worst) of what is currently available to use

The Award for the most popular method

This one goes to Stanford D.School for its ‘Composite Character Profile‘.

The Award for the least popular method

Without a doubt, Stanford D.School takes out the least used method with its ‘Critical Reading Checklist‘.

The Award for the most useful method for empowering democratic opinion

A tie between the IDEO Toolkit for Educators, ‘Share what you know‘ and D.School’,s ‘Saturate and Group‘ methods.

The Award for the most popular prototyping method

Service Design Tools, ‘Storyboarding

The Award for the most time consuming toolkit

IDEO’s Human Centered Design Toolkit

The Award for the most confusing toolkit

Service Design Tools (Website)

The Award for the most rapid and efficient toolkit

IDEO’s Toolkit for Educators

The Award for the most readily understood toolkit by any person

IDEO’s Toolkit for Educators

The Award for the overall most outstanding toolkit for beginners and rapid workshopping

And it wouldn’t be a genuine awards ceremony without some kind of rigging. The winner is… The Sustainability Jam Toolkit!

The Award for the overall most outstanding toolkit

IDEO’S Toolkit for Educators


The other important skill i learned from this event is facilitation. The wonderful part about the jam was everyone was very receptive to the toolkit and eager to attempt most methods. In some moments, dominant characters would take centre stage leaving quieter group members as passive observers. This comes to no surprise as a group will naturally figure out its hierarchy. But when things got a little out of hand, some of the facilitators had to ‘step in’ to allow equal consensus on an idea and suggest ways to empower all members to have a say. For me, the best method that answered this is issue was post-it note-ing ideas (for use of a better description), sticking to a wall or piece of butchers paper, then re-arranging these ideas into themes.

Are you sick of post-its yet?

There were a few toolkits that utilised this process (each with their own unique heading) but the concept is the same. In doing this, more passive members could vocalise their thoughts and ideas equally with other individuals, as well as breaking down the role of a ‘scribe’ who tends to display control.


With such a short deadline, participants fell into the trap of focusing too long and hard on idea generation than properly executing a concept. This was also anticipated, however, reminding groups to make executive decisions and move forward became a tedious task. It is hard not to get caught up in an idea with one person, let alone five others with varying perspectives. I felt that should I be involved in a scenario like this again, there needed to be constant pressure from time. Discussing the event with the organisers afterwards, we agreed that there needed to be some sort of timer or countdown projected on a large screen, in essence ‘looming’ over the groups. Time needed to be made visible. Ironically, I observed that it was only when groups were starting to work under pressure towards the deadline, that they made the most use out of the toolkit.

In the end..

The winning concept was a service called Pimp my Playspace. This group had the opportunity to participate in the Melbourne’s start up weekend and pitch their idea to a panel of investors.

This event was a great experience, not just for myself but for my research as well. In an ideal world, I would have included methods from other sources, but could only use what was available to me under creative commons license (hence why almost all kits were from IDEO). The event taught me that in a rapid problem solving environment, a step by step toolkit is stifling and inefficient- perhaps this applies in general. At the same time, I realised that it was important to have a guide tailored towards a type of scenario so that the right mindset could be established before tackling certain issues. All project problems are unique and deserve a unique approach, but guides that approach unique environments that are empowered by research and experience, will create more efficient results without needing to wast time re creating the wheel.

Melb susjam.toolkit

View more documents from stefanie85
This was requested and used by other organisers around the globe over the weekend. Feel free to download it for yourself.

Research Vs Practice…the ugly truth

There is something almost forbidden when you mention research and experience in the same sentence. It is usually towards the end of our undergraduate that we make a choice on whether we should continue studying or dive into the pool of professional practice. Today, our society (at least in Australia) is largely driven by industry experience. Depending on what field you come from, research is either the instigator of innovation or a back-seat observer. With exception of industries whose practice is based and relied upon on ongoing research (sciences/medicine) no side of the research vs experience argument is-in reality- any more valid than the other. But considering this is a blog about design, i am going to focus solely on the (un)importance of design research in design practice.

You can’t innovate in a vacuum

I am a big believer in not doing any type of work in a vacuum. I dont believe anything insightful or innovative can be created without knowing what exists, how it exists and comparing creations to others insights, work and suggestions. When i was studying to become a graphic designer, my tutors drilled it into our heads that research was imperative towards making better designs. So it makes sense a field that is grounded on an iterative and reflective process, would reflect through research to better its craft. Logically speaking, this field would also adopt and respect research.

This is far from the case.

Towards the end of my degree when students were excitedly planning their future, i suggested continuing with study towards a masters. The room divided. Half of my classmates cried, “More study?! What a waste of time! It does nothing for your career or the industry!” and the other half mumbled, “perhaps it will make me a better designer?” When i graduated from my masters, the same discussions were in motion- this time with most of the students feeling prepared enough to go into the workforce, the large majority ‘burned out’ by uni, and a handful considering the long haul into a PhD.

Intellectual war

I already had it set in my mind that i wanted to continue studying. This is because i love to learn and i love to discover and analyse findings i have made. But when i began asking industry professionals their opinion on my chosen career path (the people who i was certain would respect my decision) i received an overwhelmingly negative and unsupportive response, more so than what i had received from my peers.

So why the turf war? To me, it all can be summarized in three simple sentences:

1. Industry professionals don’t like their years of experience being undermined by a few years of study conducted by a researcher.

2. Research is usually too abstract or detached, detailed or impractical for industry professionals to adopt and employ in practice.

3. Research isn’t classified as experience, largely due to number 2 and 1.

Now im not blog bashing industry professionals. I too would take the same attitude as most exhibit. But even those who have clocked years of experience and returned to uni to complete a PhD are met with the same bemused expression from colleagues. The reasons for this i believe comes down to:

1. Ego

2. Misunderstanding

Ego works on both ends. Both researchers and professionals like to believe they know better about their practice. More importantly, misunderstanding on the nature and the value of outcomes from research is the greatest issue students face when justifying doctoral study. Too many times have I heard fellow classmates question the ‘point’ of doing a PhD, observing friends climbing corporate ladders (whilst shaking their heads in pity at all of the students below), and receiving criticism that researchers do ‘no real work’ and simply ‘bum around uni’.

The reality of our field today

The reality is that the design field is cutting its nose to spite its face.

There are not many cases where i can say that a practitioner and a researcher have met with mutual respect for one another, with an equal understanding of the value behind their chosen mode of acquiring knowledge they both have of the field.

Right now, the design industry wants to evolve. It wants to be better, a more serious practice. But like individual development, design as an industry cannot evolve in a vacuum. When professionals and researchers decide to acknowledge both modes of knowledge generation as valuable experience, the question of whether to study or practice will no longer be an indication of right or wrong/poor or successful paths- but needs that are chosen in order to advance the industry. We need professional and research experience to better inform and shape the path of our design industry. This will not be achieved alone- either in a studio or in an office.