interactions magazine

This is from 2012 | 9 minute read

Design, in the Big and Small

Designers, who have for years been called upon to design a single object or product, are now being asked to design entire systems, to explore experiences and emotion, and to take on large-scale social problems—so-called wicked problems. This requires a shift in skills, and with this shift has come a change in expectations by both designers themselves and the ecosystem of disciplines that surround them. The shift in expectations has not necessarily been positive. For although designers can now reap the benefits of increased salary, more control, a larger selection of meaningful projects, and professional recognition, they must also pay the price of increased chaos, complexity, and challenge in their work. Anecdotal evidence has shown me that both practicing designers and students of design are simply intimidated by the responsibility and scale of design problems. They are, in a word, overwhelmed by what is expected of them.

Most people encounter a feeling of anxiety as they learn new approaches, theories, and ideas. This feeling typically goes away once they gain a degree of competency and build a repository of relevant experiences upon which to draw. But in the context of learning design, while skill-based anxiety subsides fairly quickly, there is a second level of anxiety that is harder to overcome. This is the anxiety of the subject matter itself, the problem space in which a designer has begun to explore. For students working with wicked problems, this is the feeling of being overwhelmed by a topic that is too big to truly master, like homelessness or education. The complex associations and interrelated issues of causality, along with the politics, the emotions, and the importance of the work, can have fairly substantial negative consequences on students of design. The students burn out quickly.

I have found that a particular idea of designing in the large and small can help mitigate this stress and anxiety. It's less of a skill or method and more of a way of thinking about design and coaching students during their learning. It's a way of considering the relative nature of problems and being more aware of how problem constraints work in the context of design.

Designing in the Large

When designers start working on a problem, they utilize methods of contextual research to explore a problem space. This has several goals, including:

  • to gain empathy with a target audience,
  • to gain knowledge about a certain topic or discipline,
  • to identify opportunities for design-driven intervention, and
  • to establish a working relationship with various stakeholders or constituents.

There is a less obvious thing that happens during this research. The act of researching creates artificial boundary conditions around the problem space and acts as a container for creating a sense of manageability. Establishing boundary conditions makes a problem seem artificially tractable and minimizes the amount of anxiety one may have on encountering it.

Consider an example. Two of my students were researching eating disorders in teenage girls. When tasked with building a research plan, they could start in any number of places. They could conduct research with girls at a school. They could talk with counselors. They could interview parents. They could immerse themselves in teenage culture. There are countless ways to approach the problem. In this case, they started by engaging with a counselor, and so they imposed an initial boundary condition around their research—and around the entire problem space.

Over time, they conducted a few more contextual inquiries with counselors. Some of what they learned overlapped with the first participant, while some of the information was new. The knowledge they gained from these other participants served to both solidify portions of the original boundary condition and shift and extend the boundaries in new ways.

Each subsequent participant who repeats information or content serves to reinforce the initial boundaries, much like each subsequent and overlapping stroke of a pen serves to further saturate a piece of paper. And just like pen on paper, this has diminishing returns; after hearing the same information from multiple participants, it stops having an impact on an already solid boundary condition.

Next, the research team shifted to focus on girls, conducting immersive ethnography with some teenagers. The things they learned from these girls had very little in common with what they heard from the counselors. It almost seemed as if they were talking about two entirely different topics! This contradiction started to change the boundary conditions of the problem space.

Yet the human brain seeks desperately to make sense of the new information in light of the old, so through interpretation the research team was able to connect the seemingly disparate research. They hypothesized a story about how the materials were connected, and that connection served to once again create a unified whole of a problem space.

This is designing in the large. The designers started in a broad, open, anxiety-ridden space. Through their actions, they artificially constrained their focus. Each new piece of data and each new interpretation changed the constrained problem space, so the boundary condition was constantly in flux. Yet the boundary condition existed, and this implied that the problem—the intertwined, wicked, systems problem—had been, to some degree, trapped. And this served to minimize the anxiety the designers felt about their work.

Designing in the Small

Trapping the problem space is important, because it gives the designer the feeling they are making progress. In fact, no progress has been made toward designing anything, so there must be a shift from the large to the small. This is a process of focus, which comes about by making something.

The designer now focuses on a particular part of the problem space that is been contained. Novice designers frequently don't know what to focus on, and remain within the high-level boundary of clarity among a broad sea of confusion. But for experienced designers, focusing happens naturally. These designers pick up on a particular quote, action, or behavior and feel it has value—that there is "an insight in the data." And so they make forward progress by making something. At this high level, they typically create a list of insights, an articulation of design criteria, or an initial sketch that seems to relate to the focus area. My students, who were researching eating disorders, next created a theory of change that described a hypothesis; they proposed that there exists a relationship between manual dexterity, control, and eating disorders.

This making is a form of zooming in, and so by creating this initial hypothesis, they changed the boundary conditions of the space again: It became much narrower.

Now the designer may make another artifact—a sketch, a wireframe, a service roadmap, a diagram. And again, the boundary conditions change and become narrower.

My students created a service roadmap that described how a teenage girl might engage with a service where she makes things with her hands, giving her a situation in which she can be engaged with extreme control. The "solution" to the problem became obvious, because the space of the problem had become increasingly narrow. Of course the answer to addressing eating disorders in girls is to get them to enroll in a class where they make craft-based artwork and sell it online; given the boundary conditions, it's the only thing that makes sense.

Getting to this point takes a great deal of time, and a lot more steps than the three shown here. It's a process that becomes clear only in retrospect, as the fluxing of the boundary condition had to happen incrementally, slowly, and through visual conversation. It is at this point that many students stop, because they have tamed complexity, and because they are either exhausted, out of time, or both.

Even Smaller...

But to encourage a student to zoom in further and establish an even more detailed sense of boundaries is to hone their attention to craftsmanship. As the designer moves in closer to the solution, he or she now begins to encounter issues of how the solution manifests itself. It is no longer an idea; it is now a thing, and even if that thing is invisible (like a service), it has extremely nuanced solution details.

How do the girls know about the service? How do they enroll online? What does the payment flow look like? How do they pay, if they don't have credit cards? What happens during the class? Who is there? Where is it held? What do they build?

Each of these questions is fundamental to the success of the solution, and each decision constrains the solution space further. These are the details of design that make a solution "sing," as this is what is known as "sweating the details." These details are tedious, difficult, subjective, controversial, and will frequently force the designer to back out of the boundary space and recast the boundaries all over again. These details describe specific shades of a color, or pixels on a button, or words on a pamphlet, or rules in a policy. Learning to think in the big and small is difficult; learning to go this last mile is tremendously hard for designers who are new to the process of design, because it took them so long to get anywhere at all.


In reality, there are no boundary conditions. Everything described here is theoretical; it is a way of considering a design problem inside the head, and of reflecting on how a design changes during the process of designing. This makes it difficult to learn preemptively, and adopting a view of design from the standpoint of boundary conditions seems to occur only through experience.

A design educator can make this theoretical construct real to force students to understand how boundary conditions can support their design abilities. This can be done in the following ways:

  • Describe the process of boundary conditions prior to beginning a project, and explicitly map the phases of the project to the idea of "zooming in" on the problem space.
  • Provide completely artificial deadlines for reaching various boundary conditions, and connect these conditions to design artifacts. For example, after one week, students must zoom one measure inward, in order to identify the people they are serving. After two weeks, students must zoom two measures inward, in order to identify the work and problems these people have, and so on.
  • Sketch the problem space on a large canvas and begin to identify how literal area on the canvas relates to specific aspects of the larger problem. Redraw the canvas each week, zooming in.
  • Have the students explain how each designed artifact has constrained, shifted, or expanded the contained problem space.

The act of design is complicated, and for students of design, it's emotionally exhausting. Designing in the big and small—and in the minutia—can help students of design come to terms with the complexity of the design process. One of my students describes the process as "an emotional roller coaster," and they are right. Learning to observe and consider boundary conditions is a way of enjoying the ride.


Kolko, Jon (2012), "Design, in the Big and Small". In interactions magazine, July/August, 2012.
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