Redesigning Personal Food Environments to Promote Wellness


A variety of influences in our immediate, everyday environments can cause us to make poor food choices and to overeat – influences like super-sized portions in cafeterias and restaurants; bulk packaging in supermarkets; big dishes and serving spoons that encourage us to pile on more food than we should; snack foods sitting around, tempting us constantly at work and at home. This Master of Design thesis explores the ways in which individuals can redesign their everyday personal environments, from kitchens to desks to cars, to disrupt unhealthy patterns and create positive cues to support their desired behavioral transformation.

View thesis online


A National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that between 2007-2008, about one-third of adults in the U.S. were obese and more than two-thirds were either obese or overweight (Flegal et al, 2010). Obesity has risen dramatically in the U.S. over the past twenty years and, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a major risk factor for the leading causes of death in the nation, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. The rise has been attributed in part to the development of “obesogenic environments,” a term describing the external influences that promote overeating, unhealthy foods, and physical inactivity (Swinburn et al., 1999).  Faced with this widespread yet nebulous threat to public health, researchers have adopted an ecological approach to analyzing the many interconnected personal and environmental factors that influence health and eating.

An ecological approach emphasizes the connections between people and environment. It also recognizes that behavior and environment not only influence each other, but that they do so at multiple levels of interaction ranging from macroscale to microscale (Swinburn et al., 1999; Story et al., 2008). Macroscale environmental factors refer to the upstream influences that impact behavior on a population level, such as regional and global transportation networks, advertising campaigns, agricultural and food policies, and food distribution outlets. Microscale environmental factors refer to influences within the individual’s immediate settings, such as package and portion size, plate shape, room layout, lighting, and dining companions (Rolls, 2003; Wansink, 2004; Sobal et al., 2007; Wells, 2007; Wansink, 2008).

Interventions at multiple levels, collectively spanning physical, sociocultural, economic, and political dimensions, are likely needed to transform obesogenic environments into health-promoting ones.  While policy makers wrangle with the food industry over proposed upstream changes like soda taxes and bans on trans fat, relatively few interventions have been attempted at the microscale level in which individuals live and interact on a daily basis (Story et al., 2008). Simple changes at home, like serving dinner on salad plates instead of dinner plates, minimizing distractions like television, and serving vegetables family-style while keeping the other serving dishes out of sight at mealtime, could significantly reduce the number of calories people consume (Wansink, 2006).  An ecological approach to combating obesity and promoting wellness requires the design of personal environments that support healthy food choices and eating behaviors. By learning how people make food decisions, how aware they are of environmental influences on those decisions, and how resulting behaviors affect health, interaction designers can reshape these environments to support, rather than sabotage, people’s efforts to live healthfully within the larger ecosystem of food environments.

Project goals

The goal of this project was to redesign aspects of microscale settings that influence food choice and eating behavior – what I am calling the personal food environments – to promote wellness and complement interventions at higher levels. Prerequisite to this goal was understanding the present relationships between individuals and personal food environments, and particularly the ways in which people shape or cope with aspects of those environments that challenge their health aspirations. Throughout the process, I used an ecological approach to investigate the relationships between food information, food quality, eating behaviors, eating environments, and food distribution environments.


Domain Exploration

I began by mapping the system territory of the problem: the personal food environments and the factors that influence people’s food choices and eating behaviors within those environments. This effort involved an extensive literature review of existing research within economics, marketing, medicine, nutrition science, psychology, and public health. As part of this literature review, I examined previous, related attempts to shape food choice and consumption behavior through environmental interventions and identified the principles of environmental psychology that influence the effectiveness of design solutions.


To understand where environmental redesign efforts have low-cost, high potential for impact, I conducted interviews to learn about people’s food experiences, rituals, and attitudes and documented my observations of personal food environments such as supermarkets, restaurants, kitchens, dining rooms, and vending machines. During this phase, I also identified participants to involve in longer-term study. I documented these participants’ day-to-day food environments and behaviors through a photo food journal.

Prototyping & Evaluation

After synthesizing my research, I created a series of prototypes at various levels of fidelity. These prototypes helped me explore whether increasing individual awareness of ambient cues influence food decisions, how to make the long-term consequences of impulse food choices personally salient, and how individuals might alter their personal food environments to support individual eating plans.


I produced a research report describing my process, final design criteria, and conclusions, as well as one to four working prototypes of different concepts that can be used to shape the influences of personal food environments on behavior.


Mark Baskinger, School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University
Mark Gross, School of Architecture, Carnegie Mellon University
Jessica Wisdom, Department of Social & Decision Sciences, Carnegie Mellon University

Reading List

Austin, S.B., Melly, S.J., Sanchez, B.N., Patel, A., Buka, S. and Gortmaker, S.L. Clustering of Fast-Food Restaurants Around Schools: A Novel Application of Spatial Statistics to the Study of Food Environments. American Journal of Public Health 95, 9 (September 2005), 1575-1581.

Brownell, K.D., Kersh, R., Ludwig, D.S., Post, R.C., Puhl, R.M., Schwartz, M.B. and Willett, W.C. Personal Responsibility and Obesity: A Constructive Approach To A Controversial Issue. Health Affairs 29, 3 (March 2010), 378-386.

Brownell, K.D. and Horgen, K. B. 2004. Food Fight: The Inside Story of The Food Industry, America's Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About It (1st ed.). McGraw-Hill.

Flegal, K. M., Carroll, M. D., Ogden, C. L., & Curtin, L. R. Prevalence and Trends in Obesity Among US Adults, 1999-2008. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 303, 3 (2010), 235-241.

Horowitz, C., Colson, K.A., Hebert, P.L. and Lancaster, K. Barriers to Buying Healthy Foods for People With Diabetes: Evidence of Environmental Disparities. American Journal of Public Health 94, 9 (September 2004), 1549-1554.

Johnson, R. K., Appel, L. J., Brands, M., Howard, B. V., Lefevre, M., Lustig, R. H., Sacks, F., et al. (2009). Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation120(11), 1011-1020.

Loewenstein, G., Brennan, T., Volpp, K.G. Asymmetric Paternalism to Improve Health Behaviors. The Journal of the American Medical Association 298, 20 (2007), 2415-2417.

Nestle, M. 2007. Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition, and Health, Revised and Expanded Edition (2nd ed.). University of California Press.

Rolls, B. J. Supersizing of America: Portion size and the obesity epidemic. Nutrition Today 38, 2 (2003), 42-53.

Sallis, J.F., Owen, N. “Ecological Models of Health Behavior.” In Health Behavior and Health Education: Theory, Research, and Practice 3rd Edition, edited by K. Glanz, B.K. Rimer, and F.M. Lewis. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, USA, 2002. 462-480.

Sobal, J. and Wansink, B. Kitchenscapes, Tablescapes, Platescapes, and Foodscapes: Influences of Microscale Built Environments on Food Intake. Environment and Behavior 39, 1 (2007), 124-142.

Story, M., Kaphingst, K. M., Robinson-O'Brien, R., & Glanz, K. Creating Healthy Food and Eating Environments: Policy and Environmental Approaches. Annual Review of Public Health 29, 1 (2008), 253-272.

Thaler, R. H. 2008. Nudge. Yale University Press.

Wansink, B. Environmental Factors That Increase the Food Intake and Consumption Volume of Unknowing Consumers. Annual Review of Nutrition 24, 1 (2004), 455-479.

Wansink, B. 2006. Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (1st ed.). New York: Bantam Books.

Wansink, B. and Sobal, J. Mindless Eating: The 200 Daily Food Decisions We Overlook. Environment and Behavior 39, 1 (January 2007), 106-123.

Wells, N. M., Ashdown, S. P., Davies, E. H. S., Cowett, F. D., & Yang, Y. Environment, Design, and Obesity: Opportunities for Interdisciplinary Collaborative Research. Environment and Behavior 39, 1 (January 2007), 6-33.


I spent the afternoon in the digital fabrication lab in Margaret Morrison and got to see models being created in 3D modeling software and carved by machine. So cool!

How to build a paper pop-up piano

As a mini-project in the course Making Things Interactive, I created a prototype of a pop-up piano with six keys. When a key is pressed, the corresponding musical note plays through a speaker. A pull-tab can be also be pulled or pushed to dim or brighten an LED by means of a paper variable resistor.


  • 4B or 6B graphite pencil
  • Arduino
  • bristol paper
  • copper eyelets (metal findings for jewelry making)
  • copper tape
  • cutting mat
  • glue
  • metal ruler
  • needle
  • piezo speaker
  • LED
  • tape, nonconductive (artist or scotch works)
  • wire, beading
  • wire, insulated
  • X-Acto knife

Step 1: Pop-up keys

Measure, cut, and fold six pop-up piano keys along the mid-line of one sheet of bristol paper; this will be the top sheet of the pop-up. Fold another sheet of bristol in half; this will be the backing sheet of the pop-up. If desired, cut the silhouette of the top half of both sheets into an interesting shape.

Construction Notes:

Paper piano keys pop-up
Paper piano keys pop-up

I hadn't made pop-ups before, so I practiced with regular paper before I started using the (more expensive) bristol paper. Based on my first trial run, I reduced the height of the piano keys from 1 inch to 0.5 inch. The lower key height reduced the amount of bowing the paper did when pressed down, which helped it spring back to its original form when released.

Drawing piano keys on bristol
Drawing piano keys on bristol

I did a second trial run of the pop-up with bristol paper. The bristol was thicker than regular paper, and based on my results, I decided to reduce the key height further, from 0.5 inch to 0.25 inch, to improve the key-press action with this particular material. For my final prototype, I also drew and cut the keys before folding the paper in half, so that I avoided having a fold line across the top surface of the keys (faintly visible in the next photo of my second trial version).

Pop-up keys - second version
Pop-up keys - second version

Step 2: Key switches, side #1

On the bottom sheet of bristol, lightly mark with a pencil where the underside of the piano keys will be and coat the area with an adhesive conductive material such as aluminum foil or copper tape. This area will be one side of the switch mechanism that will activate when a key is pressed. Using a needle, poke one hole in the mid-line fold of the paper and stick a copper eyelet through it so that the round part is sticking out from the back side of the paper and the rod is on the front side. Tape the rod of the eyelet to the conductive surface area of the paper with copper tape.

Construction Notes:

Pop-up backing sheet
Pop-up backing sheet

Originally I had each key switch wired as an independent circuit, as shown in the above photo. Later in the construction, I changed this so that they tied together on the bottom with copper tape because all the switches connect to +5V through this bottom layer. Making this small change enabled me to remove all but one of the copper eyelets that extended through the fold line and simplified the wiring in the back. I used aluminum foil to increase the conductive surface area under each key because I only had about 10 inches of copper tape at my disposal and wanted to make it last.

Step 3: Key switches, side #2

To make the other side of each switch, lay the top sheet on top of the backing sheet so that you can see the backing sheet through the gaps the pop-up keys make in the top sheet. Using the needle, poke a hole through the backing sheet beneath the surface of each key and stick a copper eyelet through the hole so that the round part is sticking out from the back side of the paper and the rod is on the front side. Tape the rod to the underside of the piano key with copper tape so that when the key is depressed, the rod makes contact with the conductive surface on the backing sheet, closing the switch.

Step 4: Paper variable resistor

To make the paper variable resistor, cut a narrow paper strip out of a sheet of bristol and demarcate a strip about 0.25 inch wide. With a graphite pencil (preferably 4B or 6B), scribble like mad in this area until the surface is completely coated with graphite. Calibrate using a multimeter and two paper clips, attaching one paper clip to one end of the graphite-coated strip and moving the other paper clip along the strip while measuring the resistance across the clips. Glue the strip (graphite facing up) to the lower half of the backing sheet along the left or right edge or, if you feel like throwing caution to the wind, repeat the scribbling/calibration procedure directly on the backing sheet itself.

Paper variable resistor construction
Paper variable resistor construction

Step 5: Pull-tab

Using a needle, poke a hole through the mid-line fold of the backing sheet where the graphite strip meets the backing sheet and stick a copper eyelet through the hole so that the round part is sticking out from the back side of the paper and the rod is on the front side. Attach the rod portion to the graphite strip with a piece of copper tape. Cut another paper strip out of bristol that is 1 inch wide and slightly longer than half the length of the backing sheet. This will be the pull-tab that changes the resistance of the paper resistor. In the area of the top sheet of the pop-up that lies directly over the graphite strip, measure and cut a long narrow slot such that the pull-tab can slide along it and make a 1-inch slit perpendicular to the slot near the edge where the tab will be pulled. Thread the pull-tab through the slit and attach to the slot with a piece of bristol so that it slides easily. (See The Elements of Pop-Up by David A. Carter and James Diaz for more detail on constructing the pull-tab mechanism.)

Using a needle, poke a hole through the mid-line fold of the backing sheet where the pull-tab meets the backing sheet and and thread a length of beading wire through the hole. Attach the beading wire to the underside of the pull-tab with a piece of copper tape, making sure that it does not contact the piece of tape on the graphite strip.

Step 6: Wiring

Wire up the switches and variable resistor to the Arduino using the beading thread and copper eyelets that are extending through the backing sheet. Wire up a piezo speaker and LED for outputs. Adhere the Arduino and breadboard to the back of the backing sheet.

Construction Notes:

Originally, I had a 220Ω resistor between the speaker and the output pin on the Arduino (the smallest resistor I had). The sound coming out of the speaker, however, was very quiet. When I removed this resistor, the notes played at a better volume for demonstration purposes and, more importantly, the speaker did not burn out.

Step 7: Code

I referenced Tom Igoe's Tone Output example and used the Arduino Tone library to play the musical notes.

See the code for the Pop-up Piano.

Gong Whacker 3000

Behold my latest masterpiece for Making Things Interactive, a dazzling demonstration of mechanical movements.


circuit driving the DC motor


4-bar linkage


pivot point made of pipe cleaner twisted and duct-taped to my rapid-prototyping rig (aka my desk)



string harness holding wooden dowel

Unrelated to the final device, this is an earlier attempt at creating a Geneva drive out of bristol board, Q-tips, and foamcore. When the disc turns, it moves a pin affixed to its surface. That pin threads through a slot in the wheel, turning the wheel intermittently. However, on the next disc revolution, the pin doesn't quite line up with the next slot on the wheel. When it comes to making wheel and gear mechanisms, precision is important.


Making a footswitch

For the course Making Things Interactive I am taking this fall, I had an assignment to make a switch. I decided to make a footswitch, which you can see in action here:

To make the footswitch, I used two cutting boards that were laying around the house. To the bottom board, I taped a sheet of aluminum foil and made a border of foam tape around the edges. On top, I stuck the second cutting board with a wire taped to the underside. The foam tape created separation between the two boards, yet was springy enough that when a person steps on the top board, the wire taped to its underside comes into contact with the aluminum foil on the bottom board, closing the switch. When pressure is removed, the top board springs up again, opening the switch.




The politics of word choice: wellness vs health

Coming up with a suitable title for my thesis proposal has been an unexpected challenge. My project's goal is the promotion of health or wellness, but which word should I use – health or wellness? If I had only read this NYTimes article earlier, I could have saved myself some time. By using the word "wellness," I am apparently endorsing a movement that began in the 1950s that seeks, not to eliminate illness, but to maximize individual potential. Got that? Oh, the politics of word choice...


I think I am now addicted to inspiration.

Today's TEDxCMU event featured speakers ranging from entrepreneurs to artists to musicians to writers. Actually, most (if not all) of them fell into more than one of those categories. In order of appearance:

Jonathan Fields A former attorney turned author, blogger, and entrepreneur, his talk (according to my own informal poll) was a audience favorite. The three questions he says to ask yourself when considering whether to pursue something you want yet fear:

  1. What happens if you fail, and how will you recover?
  2. What happens if you do nothing?
  3. What happens if you succeed?

Hint: the second option most often leads to a life of quiet desperation and lifelong regrets.

MK Haley A 16-year Walt Disney Imagineer, she recently joined the faculty at the Entertainment Technology Center at CMU. Apparently, she got tired of working for The Mouse. Key takeaways from her talk:

  1. Nap your way to success!
  2. What would happen if we all supported each others' ideas instead of shooting them down to stoke our own egos? Innovation, that's what.
  3. Never eat lunch alone.
  4. Thank your role models.
  5. Be a role model.

Jackson Chu This Carnegie Mellon freshman studies design (woo!) and gave a stirring performance playing two pieces on a Chinese violin-like instrument called an erhu.

RF Culbertson An entrepreneur and professor at the Tepper School of Business at CMU, he gave a  valuable and entertaining talk on the importance of personal investing. His closing remarks, delivered in rap form, ended with this parting advice: Don't "should" all over yourself.

Nathan Martin This punk/metal rocker turned suit-wearing CEO of Deeplocal Inc. delivered some of the best messages of the day:

  1. Think like an amateur
  2. Think like a deviant
  3. Solve problems without technology if possible

Yes to all three!

Chris Guillebeau A traveling writer, he is living the dream, as far as I am concerned. His talk was great, but I confess I spent much of it trying to figure out how to pull a John Malkovich on him so that I could live his life. I think he said not to pet crocodiles, but if you do, be sure to download a permission slip first. Err, I probably should have paid closer attention.

DS Company Carnegie Mellon student organization Dancers' Symposium entertained the audience with a modern dance number that involved a lot of arm waving and hairography.

Stacey Monk The founder of nonprofit startup Epic Change, Stacey shared a very personal life lesson that changed her trajectory from that of a power-seeking corporate leader to a proud follower - I want to say empowerer - of people who are doing amazing things in their communities with few resources.

Chase Jarvis This photographer, director, and social artist has an impressive body of work that speaks for itself. His main message: share your ideas. You benefit from implementing others' ideas anyway, so help the symbiosis happen.

For more detailed info, see the live notes posted by a blogger who was sitting next to me in the media room. (In case you're wondering, my media job was to take photos during the breaks for the school paper.)

I also enjoyed getting to know my seat neighbor, who is a traveling yoga DJ. He drives all over the country, booking gigs at studios and building his own business from the ground up. Talk about fearless!

Spring break update

Spring break has come and gone without really being. At least, that's how it felt as I spent all week in Pittsburgh, reading and writing for school assignments and thesis preparation. I am glad I got things done, though, especially when I consider all that lies ahead. A quarter-long mini course I had been taking, Adaptive Service Design, has just ended. On the bright side, that means I'm only going to be taking four classes for the rest of the semester instead of five. The sad part is that it was a course with really interesting readings and classroom discussions that flowed freely, buoyed by a natural enthusiasm and curiosity that's rare to find. This was the first time the course was taught, as well, so I feel lucky to have had the experience. For my final project, I created a service blueprint for an adaptive campus dining service, which I will discuss in greater detail in a later post.

Also this week, I finished reading an excellent book called Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink. It's full of entertaining anecdotes about food psychology experiments conducted at Cornell, one of the most memorable being a comparison of how much soup people would eat out of a normal bowl versus a covertly self-refilling (aka bottomless) bowl. The finding: people use their eyes, not their stomachs, to gauge when they are full. I won't give anything away, but there are some asides specifically about that study that made me laugh out loud.

I'm halfway through another book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. This book's about choice architecture - the design of environments in which choices are made. It's not as funny as Mindless Eating but still thought-provoking. Some of it reminds me of the material in my Information Design and Rhetoric course, the takeaway being that no design can be neutral. Beatrice Warde's crystal goblet may be an aspiration, but it is also a mirage, ever unreachable. And since design always influences, the designer has a responsibility to influence with intent.

I Spring break! WOooooOOooOoo!

Lecture day

I just attended a university lecture by Chuck Klosterman, journalist, pop culture philosopher and author of books such as Eating the Dinosaur. In a self-aware storyteller style reminiscent of a stand-up comic, he talked about a variety of things, including Why are things the size they are? How are a blues club and a zoo similar? What is the relationship between reality and realness? How is the Unabomber's Manifesto relevant to society today?

These kind of lectures remind me why I enjoy the university environment. Not only was the talk entertaining and interesting, the students in the audience asked questions that were equally thought-provoking. I especially liked the debate that sparked over whether new media creates a low ceiling for creative thought - whether the images we see in television and movies limit our ability to imagine things outside our own experience.

Earlier in the afternoon, I attended a talk hosted by the Carnegie Mellon School of Design. Ezio Manzini, founder of the DESIS (Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability) Network, described how designers are harnessing social resources to tackle sustainability issues. Citing examples from urban vegetable gardens to co-housing, the smiling Italian emphasized four characteristics of successful projects in this area: small, local, connected, and open. The Q&A session afterward for this talk provided additional food for thought.

What kind of foundation is today's generation laying for future generations? Are designers becoming a professional field without an industry? What is the relationship between sustainability and resilience?

I look forward to pondering these questions further, in between the bursts of concentration I will, of course, devote to my course work and thesis topic musings...

Future Generations

One of the instructors in my graduate design seminar related a reaction that someone once had during a class exercise years ago. It went something like this: "Why should my work serve future generations? What have they ever done for me?" He brought it up as an example of the egocentrism he wishes designers to  purge from their mindsets. But I think a serious consideration of these questions reveals a very compelling answer in favor of a future-oriented approach in design.

What have future generations done for us? Well, their very existence validates that the present generation will have survived successfully enough to propagate our species. We won't have blown ourselves into oblivion or rendered our environment otherwise uninhabitable. In short, future generations signify that we won't have screwed up humanity beyond all hope. Naturally, future generations can't communicate this comforting revelation to us. The fruits of our labor will be realized in their lifetimes, not ours.

So, getting back to the original question, why should our work serve future generations? In the spirit of being audience-centered, I shall address this question from a self-interested perspective. Future generations will be more affected by our actions than we are, just as we are more affected by the actions of past generations than they were. You can call it the butterfly effect, compounding, or whatever you like. Our work affects future generations whether we intend it to or not.

If we work either without regard to how our actions will affect future generations or suspecting that our actions are likely to cause harm to future generations, we  decrease the likelihood of their existence. The grosser our negligence, the fewer future generations there will be. If the number of future generations goes to zero, then our generation is the end of the line. We end humanity. Do you want to take credit for that? No? Then get to work and stop bitching. The future is waiting.

Of course, if you are really, really successful at eliminating all future generations, there will be no one left to blame you. So I guess the takeaway message is, do whatever you like, but do it well.

Thoughts on teachers

The role of teaching assistant is new to me, but after one week, I have already learned three things from peeking on the other side of the student-teacher divide.

Realization #1: Teachers have lives outside teaching.

This may be a throwback to the egocentric perspective of childhood, but I am still adjusting to the realization that instructors don't simply appear at the start of class and dissipate after class into the ether to dream up new assignments while us students deal with all the trials of "real life" - all that stuff that we think our teachers don't appreciate, like all the work we have to do for our *other* classes, our mile-long list of errands, that social event that's going to take up our entire Saturday... Turns out, our instructors have stuff like that to juggle, too - stuff that gets in the way of their being able to flawlessly anticipate their students' needs and questions.

Realization #2: Teachers have two jobs.

Like other professionals, teachers have to be knowledgeable about the subject they teach. Unlike other professionals, they cannot dedicate forty hours a week to continually develop that knowledge because they have to - oh yeah - teach classes. In addition to keeping their specialized knowledge current, they also have to develop the skills to effectively convey that knowledge to other people - people of differing backgrounds and priorities who all have their own preferred styles of learning.

Realization #3: Teachers are learning how to teach while they are teaching.

There is no universal solution for getting knowledge into someone else's brain, let alone thirty different brains simultaneously. Teachers have their experience and perspective to guide them, but they also use student feedback to do their jobs effectively.

A Layman's Reading of "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning"

Reading #2:"Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning" Working Papers from the Urban & Regional Development Horst W.J. Rittel & Melvin M. Webber

Bitch bitch bitch. Whine whine whine. Suddenly everybody's an expert, and nothing's good enough, despite the fact that we have well-trained professionals in countless fields. Well, if you think the situation's bad now, just watch while we tackle issues that are actually hard! Goal-formulation, problem-definition, and equity issues are going to weaken the professional's support system in a serious way.

In the 1960s, professionals in the U.S. were asked to consider the systems they dealt with more actively, what they do and what they should do, rather than what are they made of. This "goal-finding" turned out to be difficult. Boo. Meanwhile, people began protesting the systemic processes of contemporary American society left and right. Think the civil rights movement, the student movement, the anti-war movement, consumerism, conservationism, etc. Planners had to pay more attention to end-results, because obeying The Man was no longer a valid excuse for screwing up.

In the face of discouraging complexity, planning and policy sciences have been regarded as potentially viable means of improving society. But are social professionals up to the enormity of their task?

We have learned to question not only the efficiency but the appropriateness of a given solution. We have also become more sensitized to the interconnectedness of systems and, thus, more apt to realize that a targeted action may have undesired consequences.

Problems no longer appear as straightfoward as they once did. Defining and locating the problems turns out to be as difficult as outlining their solutions.

Creating a planning/governing system is difficult for one gigantic reason: we can't see the future! It doesn't help that societal problems do not have a steady state solution. They are less like science and engineering problems and more like Whack-A-Mole. We call them wicked problems in reference to their tricky and difficult-to-describe nature. Also because we've always wanted to see how many times we could use the word "wicked" in a scholarly paper. 49.

Even the task of describing wicked problems appears to first require identification of their solutions. If that doesn't blow your mind, consider this: no matter how good a solution we find, there could always be a better solution. There is no way to tell for sure, so we just stop working when we get hungry or sleepy.

Also, there is no do-over for solving wicked problems. The system cannot be reset, and we can't tell how long the effects of a particular attempt will last.

Come to think of it, we don't even know what our end goal should be. Crap.

Posted via email from corinna's posterous

A Layman's Reading of The Design Way: "The First Tradition"

I am in design school, but I am not a designer. As I plow through stacks of assigned readings, my non-designerly brain is straining to distill erudite works into comprehensible nuggets. And entertain itself late at night. Here goes... Reading #1: The Design Way Chapter 1: The First Tradition

Everything kickass in human history that someone did on purpose should be considered design. And the geniuses who achieved these things should be called designers but probably weren't because the world has never fully appreciated the awesomeness that is design. (Note to future-designer self: Create an experienced reality to fix this!)

Imagine something that doesn't yet exist, then make it: that's design.

Designers can't know the full impact of their creations ahead of time. They're not God, duh. But their creations can still have large-scale impact, either good or bad.

Why do we design? To survive, to improve, to develop, to create. And because we can. Designing gives us a sense of control over our lives and an opportunity to move closer ourselves to perfection.

Back in Plato's day, thought was hot, and manual labor was not. This situation didn't bode well for design, which unites thinking and making. The situation today isn't much better. Consider: we still distinguish between blue-collar and white-collar work. Does maintaining this distinction serve us?

The pre-Socratic era had the idea of design broken down into useful chunks, but by the middle ages, it had become oversimplified to the point where people mostly abandoned design as an answer as they struggled to deal with the changes taking place around them.

Nowadays, people react to problems in their lives by trying to solve them. But some problems cannot be effectively solved with a problem-focused mindset. They are part of a larger system that cannot be optimized by ignoring all but one or two of the revelant variables.

Design wisdom combines reason with observation, reflection, imagination, action, and production. Being design-wise means you can shift from an analog experience of life, to a digital or analytic perspective of the world, and back again.

Agents of change: chance, necessity, and (design buzzword...) intention.

"Design utilizes a process of composition, which pulls a variety of elements into relationship with one another, forming a functional assembly that can serve the purposes and intentions of diverse populations of human beings." (pulled verbatim because this sentence did interesting things to my brain)

A designer should critically analyze the nature of design. Think and practice with intention. Spread the word.

Through nerd-colored glasses

I just attended the first session of a course called Design: Past, Present, and Future. It is pretty much what it sounds like: a survey of design history from 15,000 BC to the present day, with speculation on future directions. Sitting through the instructor's halting, verbatim reading of his slides was mostly an exercise in contained boredom, but the class finished with a thought-provoking, structured discussion of the evolution of design. We selected examples of design from the past, ranging from cave paintings to illuminated manuscripts to the Rococo style; identified modern-day analogues; and projected how the designs may continue to evolve. Plenty of my classmates came up with examples from the present, but I noticed that the two people in class who contributed almost all of the ideas in the future trends category were me and another person in class who, shall we say, skew nerdy. Take a look at a few of the ideas brainstormed:

cave paintings graffiti tattoos murals laser beam projection into the atmosphere interactive wall panels fabric touchscreens
petroglyphs icons emoticons still and animated images as txt messages logos with scannable embedded information
cuneiform laser-cut printing graffiti in cement die cuts 3D printing customizable object extruders
Rococo style excessive weddings dense data visualizations data presentations that appeal to senses besides vision - smellovision???

Most of the conjectures for the future were inspired by things we'd read about or seen as emerging technologies that could one day be developed into commercially viable products. It seems extraordinarily difficult to come up with visions of the future that don't stem from something familiar and present. What do you see coming down the pipe in the next 20-50 years?

Dark Knight/Toy Story 2 Trailer Recut

Here is a version of a Toy Story 2 trailer video cut to the audio track from a Dark Knight trailer. Although both the video and audio sources were probably used without permission, the resulting recut on YouTube is entertaining in its own right because of the juxtapositions the creator chose to make. Watching it reminded me of the ongoing debates surrounding copyright and fair use which Professor Henry Jenkins explores on his blog. Disney in particular gets a mention for its extremely aggressive copyright control practices.