Design for living complexities, a course in development

Extracted from, a wikipage that invites reader input
Design is about intentionality in construction,
which involves

  • a range of materials,
  • a sequence of steps, and
  • principles that inform the choice of material and the steps.

Design always involves putting people as well as materials into place,
which may happen by

  • working with the known properties of the people and materials,
  • trying out new arrangements, or
  • working around their constraints (at least temporarily).

Critical thinking involves understanding ideas and practices better when we examine them in relation to alternatives.
This course exposes and explores alternative designs through

  • history (showing that things have by no means always been the way they are now),
  • archeology of the present” (shedding light on what we might have taken for granted or left as someone else’s responsibility/specialty),
  • comparison (looking at the ways things are arranged in different organizations and cultures), and
  • ill-defined problems (in cases of real-world “living complexity” that invite a range of responses).

In a sense, critical thinking is in design from the start, because design cannot proceed without the idea that there are alternatives to the current way of doing things.

Each course session:

  • issue about design [see below],
  • presentation (drawing on videos available online),
  • a case related to that issue -> students’ design sketches to address the case,
  • add to or revise a growing set of principles for critical thinking in design [listed below each issue].

1: Waste

Byproducts are products

2: Play

A yin and yang of design is intentional planning and play, to the extent that play involves ongoing experimenting and adjustment in putting people as well as materials into place.

3: Gathering into community

Putting people into place—as designers, users, co-designer-user—may happen by working with what you know about people, facilitating new arrangements, or working around their constraints.

4: Enabling

All disabilities can be reframed as opportunities to a) enable others and b) learn from those who are differently abled

5: Design thinking

(making such thinking available to all)
Imagine that you don’t say “it’s not my problem” or “this seems too hard for me to solve,” and imagine instead that, whatever your age or background, you can rise to the challenge and contribute, through a series of steps, to a prototype to be tested in the real world.

6: Craft, improvisation, innovation and uptake

(design thinking in professional and commercial practice)
Craft, innovation, improvisation and uptake are well-managed learning.

7: Standards, Modularity and Infrastructure

“All invention is borrowing” (D. Pye, furniture designer); infrastructure already in place, standards and modularity enable the designer to know the properties of borrowed materials and have some sense of the possibilities and limits of adaptation into new arrangements. Indeed, Pye’s dictum reminds us to build on what is already in place, not assume that new is better.

8: Local particularity

“All design is local” (to paraphrase Tip O’Neill)—ultimately what is designed has to work for particular people using the materials that can be made available in their particular setting.
To that end, a) the knowledge of the people most affected by the given issue needs to be brought into play and b) participation needs to be facilitated in ways that ensure that the full range of participants are invested in collaborating to bring the resulting design to fruition [see Gathering into community)
A corollary is for designers not to rely on early adopters of innovations, but to pay attention to users who, while prepared to adopt innovations, need them to be integrated with their own practical day-to-day concerns and specific situations [see innovation and uptake].
Finally, a corollary of all that is to acknowledge local distinctiveness or vernacular is to demand that the new keeps places worked in, lived in, not standardized, maintains employment etc.

9: Spanning distance

People distant in space can have their cultures profoundly shifted by mediated connections, especially those made around new technologies and the commodities they give rise to.

10: Integration of diverse social and material worlds

Instead of dividing real world complexities into many local situations (as if they were well-bounded systems with other processes pushed into the background or hidden for the time being), we can examine “intersecting processes” that cut across scales, involve heterogeneous components, and develop over time.
There is always a tension between, on one hand, local knowledge and solidarities forged through working and living together in particular places and, on the other hand, application of trans-local perspectives, abstractions, or other resources–or withholding such resources.
Within the intersecting processes, there are multiple potential points of engagement, which need to be linked together “transversally” in a manner that is intentional and explicit. In other words, if sustained engagement in local situations is desired to ensure that design is not a “solution.. for the problems that people don’t have” (Myles Horton), what else is needed to mitigate the consequences of decisions made in governments and corporations operating on a larger spatial and temporal arena?

11: Keeping track

Possibilities for surveillance are an unavoidable by-product of standards and of keeping track of the effects of one’s design.

12: Improving by taking stock (from design to adoption & adaption by others)

Making space to reflect, using various tools or processes, before proceeding either from one phase to another or on from an activity or event, makes it more difficult to simply continue along previous lines, opening up possibilities of alternative paths to proceed.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (

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