2.4 Re-embedding Design

If tools are shaped to their makers, it is clear that design thinking, design research, and other common western design practices have been shaped to fit the minds and group dynamics of western people. While simply importing useful tools is often society’s first steps, eventually tools evolve in their new environments to be more useful for their new hosts. How, then, would we expect design practice to evolve in an Eastern, embedded world?

In this section, I compare a few western design practices, note the aspects that make them work in a western context, and the challenges they may face moving forward.

Tools: Dis-embedding and Re-embedding

Cultures are immensely complex and often times making nuanced arguments can be difficult amidst the noise of psychological, sociological, and material aspects of a human situation. These discussions become more complex in the analysis of organizational action because a method, process, or practice is often simultaneously a reflection and intended augmentation of the behavioral attributes possessed by the actors in the system.

If, however, we act on the assumption that these processes, practices, and methods are tools for achieving certain ends, we can metaphorically explore these two aspects.

Consider a common tool: the screw driver.

The screw – in size and shape – is an immensly valuable device in a number of situations. Unfortunately, it is really hard to turn a screw with one’s fingers. The screw driver, as a tool, has evolved to bridge the gap between the mechanical screw and the fleshy, clubsy finger. Its physical manifestation, therefore, has evolved as the result of two forces:

…to augment fingers by playing to their strengths and compensating for their weaknesses. The handle is a reflection, therefore, of both

I therefore argue that a tool is chosen or created by a crafts person that accomplishes the task at hand by (1) playing to the abilities she has and (2) augmenting her weaknesses. The tool, therefore, is simultaneously an expression of the weakness and strength of the human hand.

(quote in here by Herbert Simon about the use of artificial things as tools to enable individuals and organizations to think)

As we turn to the toolbox of western design methods, it is important that we see them in the same light: both a reflection of the strengths and weaknesses of the Western mind. They are tools that fit comfortably in our organizations to bridge the gaps in thinking that – due to our cultural nature – we often face.

To understand what Eastern tools may look like, therefore, we must determine both the strengths and weaknesses of Eastern thought. To understand how design processes will grow requires a juxtaposition of these tendencies against Western tools.

Human Centered Design

Even in the west, making “humans” “central” to design is starting to show shortcomings….

As we look forward, we will see an evolution of tools to focus not simply on the psychological aspects of a human decision, but the sociological, material, and temporal aspects of systems. We will see a rise in synthetic models, such as Laadi’s Installations Theory model that seeks to layer these aspects together in the west.

It is important for us to remember, however, that cultures only create tools for problems that they have. Westerners – who invented Human Centered Design as a way to re-embed an understanding of context into discussion and decision making will continue to evolve the tools that help this contextualization.

Eastern designers, however, are less likely to naturally overlook context – these tools will solve problems that eastern designers don’t have. It is an emphasis not on agency that these designers will need to overcome, but an emphasis on field dependency.

We may, therefore, see a rise in the east of tools that help designers separate objects from their context…?


The concept of the persona is already beginning to evolve as designers look toward more complex systems.

A Persona is a “prototypical user or customer of a product or service. As an artifact, personas help designers and other project stakeholders “see through the eyes” of an individual to craft solutions that will work better with the user in mind.

Personas work as long as we assume that (1) a user has a consistent amount of attention in different contexts and (2) a user operates apart from a network that plays on the user over time.

For example, designing for a healthcare system payment system in the US may benefit from a “Persona” that selects health insurance, signs up, receives information, and makes a payment. Most of the decision making in this situation can be easily mapped on a journey map and, while different types of users may have differences in abilities or knowledge, the assumption of the design tool often assumes a single person in a specific role making the decision with critical points between different rolls (doctor, nurse…) also playing their parts.

Cultures with less of an emphasis on individual agency, however, have much more subtle and sociologically complex ways of acting and making decisions. On a healthcare project in Latin America, for instance, the single “role” of patient or decision maker may be spread across a number of people who. The tool of “persona,” – which is often built by talking to individuals – ceases to be useful because individuals make decisions differently based on whether or not they are embedded in a group.

As we look toward more effective ways of understanding human behavior in more embedded contexts, we will need to understand knowledge sharing and decision making using the language of network and systems dynamics rather than simply studying individual human behavior.

Lively Discourse

* Lively discourse in design thinking
* “human centered” rather than having more expansive models like Installations Theory which include the material environment and social implications as a part of what influences the individual.
* Lean and Agile – design as progressively growing rather than static
* Object-oriented rather than systems-oriented design discussions.
* Less faith in “truth” being derived from the individual (maybe?)

Evolutions in the moral mandates of design

The west has seen a push toward design being not only a pragmatic but a moral tool to encourage social outcomes.

Positions on Liberal Paternalism

In 199X, architects (did whatever…) and in 199X, industrial designers created The Designer’s Accord, an agreement to work toward creating industries that used more sustainable material practices. In 2017(?), design consultancy IDEO began a new campaign (blah blah… “Circular Design”).

The turn of the 21st century also saw a new interest in the west to apply design practices to social problems such as world poverty. The publishing of books like “Design for the other 90%” and projects such as the “Life Straw” of (whoever’s) Water Pumps in Africa seeded an interest in young designers to look toward broader world problems.

In the digital space, movements like Dark Patterns (*) seek to self-identify interaction patterns that take advantage of behavioral economics to channel users toward making decisions that are felt to be unjust.

Across the spectrum, therefore, designers are starting to read their own moral, ethical, and political views into their craft of material artifacts, and, in many cases, trying to branch into areas outside of the commercial space.

Most of this interest has resulted in relatively unimpressive results, and as the second decade of the 20th century approaches, designers are becoming increasingly critical of the industry’s rather impotent ability to create wider impact. We can expect to see more introspective designers take a deeper look at the way practices and processes are constructed in attempts to reconfigure the traditional design toolbox. A few early attempts, such as frog design’s “Collective Action Toolkit” may provide fruitful. (But I need to learn more about it, actually, to see how it is constructed and whether it has had positive effects).

In either light, what is clear about the shift away from neoliberal principles in the west is that the source of “truth” and “quality” of a design is shifting from centering on the objectives to the user to the ethical or moral stance of the designer. If Hofstende’s predictions about the robustness of cultural values remain true, though, we will continue to see an emphasis on the empowerment of individuals as a goal of design, even if the implementations become more paternalistic.

In the west, therefore, the prerogative of the individual is unquestioned. This is NOT an aspect of more collectivist cultures.

Eastern and Western dynamics of privacy

The effects of the Uberization on local economies