research questions!

It's been a little while since I updated in this space, but I've been hard at work formalizing my goals and hypothesis. As a part of that, I've locked down my guiding research questions; and am sharing them here. If you have any feedback, please let me know!

The questions divide my work into two categories: communication and social structures. 

Communication: What are existing successful and unsuccessful communication models in design education and design practice?
Social Structures: What are existing social structures whose members participate for non-fiscal motivations, and what are the characteristics of these structures?

These questions feed into my working hypothesis:

Fundamental differences exist between academic design and practicing design. Rather than mourn these disparities, we can choose to celebrate them and take advantage of them. A focus on identifying contextual advantages between loci can, and should, be leveraged to enable increased levels of individual agency for the three foundational execution spheres of the design community: education, learning, and practice. There is an opportunity to enable connections and conversations between currently-siloed members of the community, enhancing their efficacy, and, by extension, design as a holistic practice.

Things are about to get crazy around here, but it's good to be off and running!

a later list

As I continue to delve into Wenger and deepen my understanding of his definition of communities of practice, small truths consistently pop off the pages.

The latest is a fantastic (and fairly exhaustive) list of indicators of the existence of a community of practice. There are fourteen characteristic behaviors outlined by Wenger, but I've selected a few salient examples here:

sustained mutual relationships (harmonious or conflictual)
absence of introductory preambles, as if conversations and interactions were merely the continuation of an ongoing process
the ability to assess the appropriateness of actions and products
certain styles recognized as displaying membership
jargon and shortcuts to communication as well as the ease of producing new ones
(wenger, 125)

These characteristics are presented as part of a larger dialogue on the nature of locality in communities of practice, and the effect of contextualization on both the establishment of the community and the boundaries of its reach. Wenger wisely acknowledges that the mental definition of CoPs must be localized to some degree, as too broad of a scope "would miss crucial discontinuities among the various localities where relevant learning takes place." (ibid.) As Wenger's definition of CoPs hinges in a significant way on learning as a foundational characteristic of certain social groupings, it is vital that there is an expression to allow for (in)formal groupings of multiple CoPs, or an allowance made for social groups founded on learning and common goals that nevertheless are too discontinuous to be satisfactorily reified as a single community of practice. 

Enter constellations of practices. This expression allows for a multiplicity of connection methodologies, ranging from physical tangency (disparate companies sharing a co-working space, for example, would comprise a constellation of practice) to intra-organizational relationships (the HR department and shipping department of a given company might have little in common on a daily basis, but their joint membership in a larger organization establishes their constellatory relation). Now scalability is possible- we can now talk about a group of nurses who work in a particular emergency room, or the global health profession with the same fluidity and lucidity.

an initial list

From Wenger's Communities of Practice we find an intriguing early description of the typical behavior of a certain body of practioners. Namely:

  1. Resolve institutionally generated conflict
  2. Espouse a communal memory
  3. Allow community joining through participation
  4. Create a localized lexicon and lens
  5. Promote an interwoven atmosphere to defeat the monotonous elements

Consider the classic film Office Space, widely noted as a definitive look into the lives of mindless office drones. Yet, in light of Wenger, what do we find? The protagonists resolve institutionally generated conflict (destroying things with bats), espouse a communal memory (an implicit fear of "the Bobs"), create a localized lexicon and lens (TPS reports!), and participate in an interwoven atmosphere (the cheeriest birthday celebration in recent memory). 

As I continue to process through Wenger, I find myself frequently underlining phrases and sentiments that I have experienced- concepts that make me say "That's right!" Many are common sense, but as Wenger himself says, "[c]ommon sense is only common-sensical because it is sense held in common." (Wenger, 47, emphasis mine).

where design is going, and how to be there- cheryl heller

"To fulfill design’s promise, the most important shift we need to make is letting go of the entrenched mental model of design as the point of itself; as the end product rather than as a means to something greater. Makers are justifiably proud of what they make, and can come to view the artifact as the answer. There is a tendency to view the site, the poster, the logo or the product as the purpose of design when it is not. We will only make design a force in creating the future if we see it not as an end in itself, but as a tool, a medium, a lever in a process of ongoing transformation—and if we take full responsibility for the transformation we engender. “What will we accomplish with this?” is the question we must never forget ask, and to honestly answer. That will be the work of the designer of the future." (Cheryl Heller- Where Design Is Going and How to Be There, AIGA, 1/3/13)

Heller's brilliant conclusion to her AIGA article resonated deeply with me- I am constantly struggling with the current trend of design as a mental exercise, an academic endeavor, an "under theorized" field. There is a reason we are designers and not anthropologists, or philosophers or pure artists. Simply put, we make things. Things that help people. Things that have positive impacts. We don't just sit and talk, we get up and do.

It is far too easy to fall under the siren's call of design as a discussion or a paper, or yet another TED talk. It feels good, and you get a lot of cool people to nod their heads and clap you on the back afterwards. But is that point? Where is the line between self-adulation and the requisite calls to action and responsibility that we as a community must hear every so often?

I encourage you to read the whole article. You can find it here: