Last Christmas I bought myself an activity tracker. The wearable represented not a reward for the exercise I was already doing but in preparation for what I was about to start doing. I realize this reads like a setup for failure—but not so—I set out to do 10,000 steps a day and I did. I am not sure what helped the most: the utility of the wearable or the notifications that primed my motivation. The thing is, even though my research is about behavior change I am not interested in tech-driven behavior design. This essay is about research projects that explore the role of design for engaging the person who is not even contemplating changing their behavior… yet.

For decades my education and practice was in communication design. I believed my capacity to negotiate Donald Schon’s reflective conversation with the materials of a design situation defined my expertise [10]. My world was making things. This changed five years ago when I began to teach in a graduate design program that frames the large-scale, systemic challenges society faces as transcending disciplinary boundaries. Today my students and colleagues see themselves as designers (usually), researchers (sometimes) and doers (always). In a transdisciplinary context the capacity to facilitate generative conversations with diverse stakeholders defines the expertise of the designer. In Schon’s day the architectural model was at the heart of negotiating the materials of the situation. Nowadays navigating the social context is what drives future action. This new world may be less about things, but I would argue it is still about making.

At the heart of the thesis in the Parsons School of Design MFA in Transdisciplinary Design is an attempt to improve the human condition one humble project at a time. Whether it be a civic innovation pilot, a response to a humanitarian crisis, or a K12 learning initiative all projects are attempting to shepherd people through some kind of change. However we soon concluded that positing plausible theories of change is easier than interrogating how real behavior change is enacted. As designers we master the ability to sell: to promote, inform, and seduce customers to want a product, to be brand loyal. But what do we know about getting pre-diabetic kids to change diets or to persuade busy households to compost food waste? How might we lead people through substantive, sticky change without resorting to calls to action that read like PSA campaigns?

At the heart of a designer’s iterative process is recognition that we make shifts so we can make possible. This is how we use critical making to craft new habits, new futures, new ways of being.

The recent increase in design research methods publications show how design methodology is adapting and evolving. In addition we need new ways to evaluate the traction and impact of the interventions we design. Once, I believed that the materiality of artifacts embodied the critical contribution of design. But today, the imperative to make things happen trumps the making of things. The role of making no longer focuses on the artifact but instead everything is considered in relation to the future scenario afforded by the artifact. Every-thing is designed yet no-thing can be designed in isolation. Critical making in this world comes with a liberating definition. Design is not reduced to the thing that is made but in the spaces the making-of-things opens up. Think about how prototyping and piloting are methods we use to make believe so that we can make real. Disruption and provocation are tactics we use to make waves, troubling the status quo in a quest to make right. At the heart of a designer’s iterative process is recognition that we make shifts so we can make possible. This is how we use critical making to craft new habits, new futures, new ways of being.

Transforming Mindsets: 3 Case Studies

Teaching in a social design context reoriented my experience of design. My research into 21st century learning tilted my allegiance from design to the learning sciences. The theoretical and methodological exchange that came from working with cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists and education researchers required me to be humble about the limitations of design and clear about the value of collaborating with designers. The projects introduced here are recent research or teaching projects into the challenge of transforming learning mindsets. The snapshots illustrate how my collaborators and I positioned the role of making by negotiating the reflective and generative conversations with the materials and stakeholders of the learning situation.

The Transtheoretical Model (TTM) integrates insights from multiple disciplines to propose a staged behavior change process that takes someone from not recognizing a need for change right through to establishing an ongoing practice of the new behavior [8]. In TTM the purchase of the activity tracker would be seen as starting in the middle of the 5-stage process at the “preparation” phase, the stage before “action” and “maintenance”. Many social design interventions operate at these latter stages since mobilizing action lends itself to the persuasive rhetoric and functional utility of products and communication.

However, an underlying question for my research is what can design bring to the earlier precontemplation and contemplation phases of behavior design? In the learning sciences, John Hattie’s meta analysis of education research concludes that increasing a student’s perception of his or her own ability is one of the most effective interventions for improving performance [6]. I questioned whether Carol Dweck’s research into how our mindset limits us from leaning into challenges or putting in persistent effort might inform the work required to prepare for real behavior change [3]. Over the course of two years and multiple scrappy pilots my lab collaborators and I explored how the human-centered, solution-seeking, and speculation-driven attributes of design might contribute to the task of shifting mindsets and promoting new behavior. One key insight that emerged from the practice experiments was the importance of liberating our definition of making from the making of things [5].

Make Together to Make Known: The Role of Co-design and Storytelling

Early 2014 Riverdale Country School commissioned us to design a professional development workshop that translated Dweck’s research into educational practice. Typically in these workshops the science behind the theory is introduced to advance a teacher’s understanding. As designers we sought to use research from multiple disciplines to develop a theory of change that did not focus on the science or the student.

Our storymaking, collaborative intervention focused on several behavior change principles that harness bringing people together to share experiences. We drew on research into the power the stories we tell of ourselves have over us [4], and the importance of limiting beliefs we might hold on to from our past [7]. We embraced research that normalizes individual’s experiences to help us understand that we are not alone [1], at the same time respecting that our intrinsic reasons for doing something are more powerful motivators than external, extrinsic incentives [12]. The workshop underscored the value of co-designing (making together) so we might collectively translate and surface (make known) the actionable principles embedded within the psychology research. This participatory approach to collective narration created a space for the teachers to be vulnerable, share their stories and envisage new ways of being.

Make Tangible to Make Possible: The role of Imagination and Speculation

This first project focused on the past we bring to the present, in contrast the second project tried to avert and probable future for a preferable one. Dunne and Raby describe speculative design as a “catalyst for social dreaming” [2]. The B’twixt meta-learning record is a speculative artefact conceived to provoke debate around the consequences of recording not what courses students pass but surfacing what we can tell about graduates future capacity for learning given their university performances. B’twixt operates as a prop for engaging the collective imagination of a university by speculating on a new way to make student learning visible.

  • The Archipelago of Possibilities workshop prepares K12 teachers to rethink the mind frames they bring to their classroom practice.

Make Sense to Make Shift: the Role of Framing and ReflectionThe interviews at the outset of this project underscored how hard it is for communities to imagine a radically different scenario from what they know. People believed that “lifelong learning” and “learning on the fly” reflect the dynamic professional landscape we live in and recognized the lack of integrity that comes with reinforcing the misconception that a GPA is an indicator of individual’s abilities. Yet unanimously interview subjects were not convinced a learning record could meaningfully reflect the non-cognitive skills highly valued by employers. However, people’s reactions to the speculative prototype were profoundly different to the cynicism held for the idea. The tangible prop draws people into debate over the tradeoffs against the current model—the conversation can shift from a place of pessimism to optimism. Tonkinwise describes design’s relationship to making possible can be understood as equal parts realistic and fantastical [11]. B’twixt does this by addressing real concerns (minimizing the human burden cost for gathering the data) and dreaming big (students only being able to access grades once they had uploaded his/her learning from failure moment video). B’twixt negotiates this tension by radically disrupting the transcript as a “receipt” for a college education and incrementally transforming current evaluation practices. The profound shift in cynicism versus enthusiasm between the before and after conversations shows how the tangible realization of an idea, no matter how tentative, can expand people’s appetite for change.

Putting into practice insights that had emerged from the previous projects graduate students in the Transforming Mindsets studio designed the Archipelago of Possibilities. The students conceived of an early-phase workshop for K12 teachers as part of a 4-year funded research project on teacher change. The medium-term goal is to prepare teachers to rethink the mindframes they bring to classroom practice [6]. But before getting to the preparation stage the teacher needs to find an intrinsic motivation for letting go of her current way of teaching. The workshop was designed to create a space where the teacher could metaphorically take a vacation from the everyday classroom experience and imagine the holiday activities he would focus on if only s/he had the time to invest in fostering deeper learning.

  • Sample pages from the B’twixt meta-learning record.

The teacher is shepherded through a sequence of framed activities to reflect on the mindframes he or she would be excited to improve, questioning how they want to “travel” to the island and then crafting a “souvenir” to remember the promise of the holiday by. The integrated experience is heightened by the conversations prompted by making the individual’s decisions visible (the souvenirs, the travel guide, mode of transport). In framing acts of making, narrating and discussing the experiential exercise immerses participants in the act of sense-making the teacher they want to be. After multiple pilots of the workshop the consensus was that the experience felt antithetical to traditional professional development which typically implores a teacher to adopt a new practice. Instead this workshop draws teachers into enthusiastically using their newfound understanding of their own passions (make sense) to inform who they want to become (make shift).

Make Moves to Make Happen: the Role of Mindfulness and Action

These projects introduce three insights about making in the explicitly social context of behavior design. Respect for the research advanced by other disciplines is the first underlying premise. The effectiveness of the designed outcomes become amplified by the learning sciences research that informs our theories of change—the references would change if we were talking about climate change or public health but the point would be the same. Seeking out knowledge from other fields requires disciplinary humility and is matched by the ongoing need to articulate what design brings to collaborations. These complementary positions drive the third insight around the call to recognize an expansive notion of making. For it is in integrating the affordances of designing with the empirical research of other disciplines that the potential for new practice spaces emerge.

The empathic, human-centered core to the initial faculty workshop is forged by the value of making together. Drawing on social belonging, motivation and narrative research the participatory approach of making together helps make known the tactical moves teachers could use to change the mindsets holding them back. Appropriating from fiction the speculative, future-oriented nature of design is behind the B’twixt record’s role as a prop. In making tangible an abstract idea the university community could locate the prop-as-future-scenario in multiple contexts (advising, recruiting, formative feedback) to collectively dream of the consequences and implications across the whole learning ecosystem. The reflective yet solution-oriented focus of design is core to the Archipelago journey. The activity invites the individual, in a social context, to make sense of their current practice so the teacher can reflect on how to make the shifts necessary to realize the future-self they want to be.

This expanded notion of making does not diminish the value of crafting things so much as ask us to be mindful of what we are making — to consider how we make space for collaborating, make space for new thinking, make space for future action.

This expanded practice of making is less artefact centric and yet the role of material intelligence and form-making is still critical. The Archipelago could have worked without the crafted illustrations, yet an early observation in the pilots was that people leaned in and began to invest in the exercise when handed their own travel guide. The poetics of the souvenir, as commitment device, becomes a material reminder for the participants once the activity concludes. These material exchanges play an important role in engaging the hearts and minds when contemplating future action. A simple show of hands could have communicated what aspects teachers’ hold dear, yet this quick move would fail to lead anyone to invest in substantive change.

This expanded notion of making does not diminish the value of crafting things so much as ask us to be mindful of what we are making—to consider how we make space for collaborating, make space for new thinking, make space for future action. The scale and complexity of the social problems we face can lead disciplines down a path of intractable analysis and potential paralysis. Otto Scharmer presents mindful action as the counter to an action-less mind [9]. Critical making is a key affordance of design, it defines our humble capacity to make a move, to propose, to enact, to provoke. In our quest for sustainable change let us be mindful that beyond the apps, trackers and data-visualization there are mindsets to be transformed and design has a role to play in helping to make that happen.


I would like to acknowledge my collaborators: Mai Kobori for the Riverdale Country School project and Yi Zhang for the B’twixt Record of Learning. The student team behind the design of the Archipelago of Possibilities are: Isabella Brandalise, Ricardo Dutra, Sophie Riendeau, and Ker Thao. The projects would not have been possible without generous support by the project partners: Riverdale Country School, the at Stanford University and Melbourne School of Graduate Education at the University of Melbourne.


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