The Optimal Geometry of Social Design

Peter Jones Transformation Design

Apparently, that shape is not a “T.”

Kevin McCullagh (as well as Humantific’s own Elizabeth Pastor) attended and spoke at the DMI Design Management Conference earlier this month and now tells on Is it Time to Rethink the T-Shaped Designer in CORE77.  First of all, I’m jazzed to see DMI ratcheting up the relevance. And thanks to a tweet from Cooper’s Dave Cronin, I found and was inspired by this critique of Kevin’s. I wonder, if not a Mr. T, what is the geometry?

Read Kevin’s piece first.  I added to the comments “What’s forgotten in the T-model is that you need the requisite variety of multiple T’s to make a sufficient team. A firm such as IDEO can build or recruit a deep bench in no time if they fell short on a challenge. Other firms, not so much.”

The T-shaped person model works well in complex design and innovation projects where multiple contributors with deep expertise in a discipline (the T’s vertical) work together in teams. Each T holds leads from their vertical strength, and the bar across the T represents generalist breadth and perspective.

But T-shaped expertise can be isolating, as the focus remains on vertical skills but not domain knowledge. Unless you’re one of the top design firms, you probably don’t have the deep bench or domain capacity to lead complex social sector design projects. If you don’t actually have the experience in transportation systems, your firm probably shouldn’t be redesigning passenger train systems. Consider the new design trends in healthcare (which certainly needs the help). Generalists should not be learning about Medicine as an on the job experience. I continue to recommend that senior designers dedicate and specialize in selected domains (Minding your user’s business, interactions, 2005) a position that has never really been popular. Designers want the flexibility to switch among projects that appeal to a skillset, not to be tied down to just healthcare or education.

However, social systems (and social sector services)  are complex domains carrying years of embedded practices and certain cultures.  It is not a matter of bringing a new method or process to the problem. Its a matter of complexity in the domain itself.  Consider how design research is approached in cognitive systems engineering. Leaders in the CSE field blend cognitive psychology, systems engineering, and design skill and sensibility. AND they work in selected complex applications sufficiently (e.g. healthcare, weather, military systems) to show their methods as credible and their outcomes substantive.

Beyond the Mr. T Model

The argument is made that the stack of skills in the T model is sub-optimal for the scale of the problem. The traditional artifacts of designing add value but do not even dent the system. But then design is a positive and outcome-oriented practice, there’s always a lovely contribution to be made. Yet traditional design practices (what NextD calls Design 1.0 and 2.0) are insufficient to bring sustainable changes to social systems such as organizations, distributed social services, complex institutions (universities, school districts), cities.

What design teams lack is the ability to plan for complexity, credible and authentic expertise in the problem domain, and sufficient variety of disciplines in the dedicated team to surround the issue and understand it. What Humantific calls sensemaking before changemaking. But for sensemaking to make a difference in wicked problems, it must reflect the variety in the social system. To “make collective sense” of a problem area, we must rely on the wisdom and experience of stakeholders who live and die in that sector to individually and collectively represent their value base, defining concerns, visions and goals, and perspectives.

Wicked problems have no ready solution, and designers are trained for outcomes. We need systemic thinking tools to identify true root cause and leverage points for action. These points are recognized by those who live in the problem domain.

Its good to remember that the UK Design Council’s RED project was in this “space” early, when transformation design defined the process. Their pilot projects were great learning experiences, but we should admit that more is needed than a few case studies. No other profession would hang a shingle to practice with such brief exposure to a complex field. After all, people’s lives and finances are at stake in the social sector more than in the commercial world, where being a “user” is a matter of choice.

Now it appears service design is filling that transformation space, but I see a replay of the transformation lessons in over-application of the skillset and metaphor. Yes, service design is a powerful metaphor, but is still an overlay of design thinking, not a thing. We might realize services are complex systems and their total redesign may not serve all values effectively. In complex service systems, not everything is designable. An emergent design approach can a helpful path to systemic innovation as well.

Activating New Geometries

What is the optimal shape? This is not a trivial question in this context. Social systems are not “designed” in the same way as artificial systems. They are a type of natural, human system with cultures, power relations, economies, competing values, and emergent regulatory mechanisms. You have to be careful which wire to cut.

Systems theorist Aleco Christakis has been inquiring into the geometries of systems and language. Being Greek, from Archanesia, and a physicist by training, his insight into optimal shape is reflected in the steps of structured dialogue.  From his book How People Harness their Collective Wisdom we see the following series of structures that represent a geometrical representation of collective problem solving using Structured Dialogic Design:

These processes are derived from over 30 years of development of what John Warfield called the Science of Generic Design, and Aleco calls Structured Design Science. Their research pursued the ways in which patterns of collective understanding and decision making might be clarified, codified, and practices as a rigorous science.

And since there’s a book on the construction and meaning of these structures, I’ll let the book narrate that story for now.

So allow me to suggest the geometry of a wheel to replace the T. A wheel with spokes – deep rounded T’s surrounding a hub in the center. The hub is the shared concern of the situation.  Each member, joined at left and right around the wheel’s edge, represents one stakeholder in a collective social system. If you remove one member, you no longer have a wheel. If you remove the hub, the center or focus, you no longer have traction.

The designer must become another stakeholder, at the edge of the wheel, with those who participate fully in the system.  Some designers hold a special responsibility to facilitate decision processes, and may work the circle as a whole, yet not have a stake in the outcome. But central to this geometry is the notion of inclusion, that social design is insifficient if the whole system is not represented. If a key constituent cannot participate, the solutions and action will remain unsustainable or will perpetuate exiting power relations.

I realize this may seem a divergence from the concept of the T-shaped person. However, one of the key problems in social design is the complexity of scaling action and outcomes. The way to scale design problem-solving to a meaningful locus of action is to include all relevant constituents of the wheel and deputize them to decision making.

For recent work on these concepts, see Christakis and Flanagan, The Talking Point: Creating an Environment for Exploring Complex Meaning.