Critiquing Contemporary Design Philosophies

Most contemporary design philosophies (whether processes, schools of thought, or otherwise) follow the subject-object model. The subject-object model is both harmful and misguided. Harmful because it places us at the center of the universe, thus ignoring anything that isn’t us. Misguided because, by nature of placing things on the shoulders of our own perception, we leave the world open to the insidiousness of subjectivity.

Two examples of how design processes and schools of thought suffer from this:

  1. Agile methodology requires user stories. User stories are driven by the following format: “As a < type of user >, I want < some goal > so that < some reason >.” In agile, the stories drive sprints, which drive the process. Stories are driven by user perspective, and thus are inclined toward subject-object thinking.
  2. Human-centered Design. It’s right in the name. People are at the center of the design process and research in this methodology. Problematically, this means that other things (the environment, animals, future humans even) are not given as much importance in the process (or, at least, are only given importance in relation to their usefulness to humans).

I’m currently writing a paper that analyzes these two problems and proposes an alternative way forward for, specifically, the design of things. More to come.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Idea Realization Lab Annual Report 2018-2019

A while back one of our Lab Specialists at the IRL, Claire Rosas, came up with a great idea to release a report summarizing activities at the Idea Realization Lab over the last year. After a lot of hard design and compilation work from her (and the rest of our student workers!), we’re pleased to release the first ever annual report for our space. Enjoy!

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Insight, Bias, and Dynamic Systems in a De-centered World

We are not at the center of the universe.

The de-centering of humans from our understanding of the world will play an important role in the future of design. Whereas most current design paradigms operate under a human-centered ontology, much contemporary philosophy runs contrary to that point of view (this is at the heart of our ID 101, Industrial Design course at DePaul). In a world where the human is no longer at the center, we must recognize that an object’s meaning isn’t simply juxtaposed against its human usefulness. Objects have many unknowable qualities that we cannot, or have not yet, perceived.

This simple point, forwarded by thinkers like Ian Hodder and Graham Harman, brings us to some interesting questions. In Hodder’s Entangled, he shows us a picture of a Mesolithic site with an interesting twist. “But we can do something subversive — put in an object that does not fit. This is absurd. A concert piano? Suddenly, the things, including the piano, force us to look at them more carefully.” In making this point, Hodder touches on an important aspect of art that Harman points out in Object Oriented Ontology. Namely, that art gives us peripheral awareness of the qualities of things that can change our understanding of what that thing might offer. We can gain new insights (Hodder might call them schemas) into a thing by imagining the abnormal.

So, humans are not at the center of design, objects have unknowable qualities, and we can gain insights into those qualities through different exercises. What follows is a roughly formed thesis built on this foundation that explores what it would be like to have the ability to tinker with the qualities of things:

  1. This idea of gaining insights into a thing’s qualities has fascinating implications for designers. If you understand that you’re only interacting with certain qualities of a thing, but realize that others might exist, then you can gain insights (through creative process or otherwise) that change your understanding of its shape.
  2. These insights, by nature of being a certain snapshot of one’s mindset, are time-bound. They are a particular understanding of a thing at a particular point in time, and as such, may change over time in the mind of the designer. And yet, once the designer takes this understanding and uses it to create another thing, that ontology is codified into an object. We often refer to these as biases.
  3. Here is the biggest leap. By imbuing an object with electronic bits, we can add new affordances (or qualities) to it. Janet Murray’s four affordances of computers gives us some direction on this, in that “everything made of electronic bits” can potentially have these qualities: procedural, participatory, encyclopedic, and spatial. These affordances give us the ability to change the qualities of electronic things on-the-fly. As computers increasingly become embedded in non-electronic objects, then, who’s to say that we won’t have the ability to change the qualities of all objects around us as needed? To expose otherwise hidden qualities?

As a designer, the question then becomes how to approach 1, 2, and 3. How do we gain insights into an object’s qualities, understand where our biases come from, and meaningfully design objects that reflect both the qualities of the thing as we understand it, and its new electronic qualities?

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

We’re Designing Embedded Systems All Wrong

One of my primary projects this summer is to research embedded hardware design processes, toy design processes, and to develop a framework for creating embedded, interconnected toys that addresses both practical design and ethical considerations. This comes out of a need I’ve identified through co-designing and developing several projects in the field (Thotcon 0xA, Thotcon 0x9, Thotcon 0x8, Big Data Outbreak, for instance). Namely, we have processes for creating software and processes for creating hardware, but when you’re looking to do both, combined and at scale, there’s not a lot of literature out there on how to proceed.

That’s not to say the literature doesn’t exist. The body of knowledge on the topic of embedded systems design can be found, for instance, but is fairly sparse and mostly uses an adapted version of agile (typically XP). Additionally, most of the research looks at the design of objects from a human-centered perspective, which has its own limitations when we’re talking about designed objects (not necessarily humans) interacting with other objects.

Suffice to say, I find most of these approaches to be lacking. My experience developing for embedded systems has led me to the following conclusions:

1) Applying software development processes to hardware and firmware development is insufficient. The feedback loop with software is much tighter and easier to control than with embedded systems. With embedded systems, debugging contains both a physical and digital element. Additionally, the loop between writing code and testing code is dramatically different when, ultimately, that code must move to a separate platform for testing. I suspect there may be some connection points here between six sigma and agile processes.

2) Thinking about the design of ubiquitous systems from a human-centered perspective is totally flawed, and yet, most of the literature out there makes this mistake. It seems to me that in order to design objects at scale that work together, we need to move beyond the human, which is just one component. How do those objects work with each other? How do they work with the rest of the world? This line of thinking quickly veers into the realm of object-oriented ontology (OOO).

3) There are important ethical considerations to be addressed when we begin to put embedded, interconnected systems into the wild at scale. By their nature, these systems add a layer of hidden qualities to the physical world by embedding computer algorithms and data stores into the world. Of course, objects already have many hidden qualities, but embedded systems allow those qualities to (theoretically) be controlled by others invisibly. As my advisor at DePaul says, an embedded system represents a snapshot of a particular ontology at a particular point in time, with the value judgements of that snapshot being encoded into the world. This line of thinking connects to what David Rose calls enchanted objects.

As part of this summer project, I’ll be re-designing the Thotcon 0xA badge to make it more of a consumable product — this will be my case study. I’ve also been assembling current literature on embedded design, OOO as applied to design, and ethical considerations of developing toys and hardware systems. And so, to close this post out, here are a few whitepapers and books that I’ve found useful (The Limits of HCD, by the way, is a “shots fired” kind of piece and I love it):

  • Enchanted Objects: Innovation, Design, and the Future Of Technology
    David Rose – Scribner – 2015
  • Object-oriented Ontology: a New Theory Of Everything
    Graham Harman – Pelican, an Imprint Of Penguin Books – 2018
  • Educating the New Makers: Cross-disciplinary Creativity
    Mark Gross and Ellen Yi-Luen Do – Leonardo – 2009
  • Piloting Lean-agile Hardware Development
    Maarit Laanti – Proceedings Of the Scientific Workshop Proceedings Of Xp2016 on – Xp ’16 Workshops – 2016
  • The Limits Of HCD
    Vanessa Thomas-Christian Remy-Oliver Bates – Proceedings Of the 2017 Workshop on Computing Within Limits – Limits ’17 – 2017

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

The Educational Makerspaces Interview Series

I recently completed a series of four podcast interviews with folks from higher ed, K-12, and libraries who all run makerspaces and are involved in the educational advancement of making. You can check out all four episodes on This Should Work*, but here they are in sequence:

Aaron Hoover, Olin College

Terry Steinbach and Betty Shanahan, DePaul University

Jeff Solin, Lane Tech

Sasha Neri, Harold Washington Library

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

TSW* 21 – Sasha Neri

This Should Work* has crossed the 20 episodes mark with this fun interview: Sasha Neri of Harold Washington Library. Check it out!

Sasha Neri runs the Harold Washington Library Maker Lab in the Loop of Chicago, Illinois and runs Chicago’s yearly Maker Summit. This is the fourth and final part of our educational makerspaces series, and I’m happy to have Sasha on to talk about how makerspaces work in a library setting, and the benefits they have for the broader community of patrons that libraries serve.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Institutional Change and Process

As we spend the summer planning for the Idea Realization Lab, I’ve been reflecting on delivering value, processes, and how to go about systemic institutional change. I think I’m starting to notice some patterns between what we’re doing at DePaul, and other organizations that I’ve led to varying degrees of success/failure.

  1. Organization begins with a grain of an idea, but a degree of unknown value proposition. Organization spends ~ 1-2 years identifying value proposition while iterating on idea. I call this the “don’t let anything get set on fire phase.” This phase is marked by rapid iteration, ad hoc development of processes, institutional friction due to cultural differences, and a healthy dose of excitement and energy
  2. Organization discovers a grain of a value proposition, and has largely solidified the product. Organization must now create measurements (Key Performance Indicators) to realize the value proposition, processes to deliver on said measurements (strategies), and methods by which organizational leaders can track the tactical effects of said strategies. This phase is marked by seemingly bureaucratic (but important!) internal institutionalization + rapid growth and expansion of resources and the beginnings of an ability to effect institutional change. Pay attention to over-institutionalization, or you may lose what sparked the idea in the first place.
  3. Organization has now grown into its capabilities to effect change more broadly than its original zone of comfort. This could mean that the organization has the ability to change the culture of the larger institution it is part of, or that it has a wider effect on culture/society (see: Apple). Organizational culture becomes zeitgeist — it is consumed by the broader audience, and becomes part and parcel. This phase is marked by growth steadying and power solidification. Be wary of losing track of how you arrived at 1 and 2.

Based on the work we’re currently undertaking, I’d say that the IRL is at the beginning of phase 2. We are working on institutionalizing ourselves with the broader goal of effecting change at DePaul and in Chicago, and as a result, have begun to build the processes necessary to support that change. If that’s the case, we have about another couple years before we are able to realize 3.

After 3? I don’t know. Have never gotten beyond that.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Idea Realization Lab May Report

Big thanks to our (now ex-) student worker Fiona Baenziger for building this report (and congrats on graduating!).

Our numbers continue a trend toward growth. Excited to see where they go next year!

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus


I’ve been reading the book Free to Focus by Michael Hyatt on the recommendation of my friend Rudy. A few things in the book have already directly translated into time savings for me, so I thought I’d recommend them here.

  1. A freedom Compass worksheet. The compass is split into four vectors where you outline what you’re passionate and proficient at, and figure out how to delegate the rest. This sits right next to me on my desk at DePaul now to remind me what the highest leverage things are for me, and what things I should let go of.
  2. A “not-to-do” list. A list like this had never occurred to me, but it’s such a simple and effective tool. List the tasks, meetings, relationships, and opportunities that always come up for you, soak up a lot of your time, and provide little to no return. This list also sits next to me at my desk, as I’m particularly prone to pursuing opportunities beyond their usefulness.

Both of these tools (along with the task filter that contributes to the compass) can be found at Hyatt’s website.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Setting Goals

Setting our yearly goals for the Idea Realization Lab and Idea Realization Lab 2 for AY 19/20.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus