Information architecture & UX strategy consultant

As of March 2023, I’m available for work as an independent user experience consultant/freelancer.

I’m transitioning back into this role after nearly two years working exclusively with one web design & development agency, so I don’t have a formal website for my consulting services yet. As a stopgap, or an early “prototype”, I’m going to write a bit about what I do and how I work.

On this page:

What I do

I partner with digital product & service leaders, design & development teams, and marketing & communications teams to help make systems work better for the people who experience them, using human-centered design techniques.

Specifically, I do information architecture, UX strategy, and UX leadership along with the hands-on research and design to support those activities. The majority of my ~12 years in practice have been spent in-house, in enterprise contexts where there are complex business processes and lots of stakeholders who need to be considered when planning technical change.

I’ve helped to deliver complex software products, content-heavy websites, and system-level improvements to digital & IT services. For example, I have:

  • Designed tools for content authors to more effectively present information to the public while making it easier for constituents to navigate government services. We built new features, templates, and content types into the content management system, which is used by communications staff across all state executive agencies. Leveraging this new flexibility, we later delivered recommendations for the complete restructuring & streamlining of content on Unemployment Assistance.
  • Redesigned workflows for AIR Worldwide‘s catastrophe risk modeling software, used by the insurance industry to model the impacts of hurricane, flood, and other disasters. These workflows support repeatable decision-making with complex probabilistic risk models applied to large insurance portfolios.
  • Planned and designed B2B websites to centralize large bodies of content that were previously scattered across as many 50 microsites, thousands of web pages, and thousands of PDF documents—all of which a single person would have to muddle through in order to do business with the organization in question. (More realistically, they don’t bother with it and make a phone call for that information instead.) In-depth content analysis and restructuring led to easy-to-use solutions.
  • Conducted research, design thinking workshops, and roadmapping for the holistic improvement of university-wide IT services at Tufts University—including everything from end-user training, software, and classroom technology to the behind-the-scenes infrastructure, service desk, and on-site IT support procedures—to determine how all of these resources could better align to support hybrid meetings and classes across four campuses.

Your organization may not look like one of these examples, but if your customers or staff experience difficulty accessing services, get lost or misled when looking for information, or are frustrated because the tools and content available to them don’t match the work they are trying to do…

Or if the team(s) responsible for these solutions feel unsure what content or features you really need and why, are misaligned on design priorities, or struggle with disorganized content and/or functionality that has incrementally accumulated over time but was never really given care and attention as a whole…

Then you may have an information architecture problem that someone like me can help with!

Why you want me on your team

My work increases clarity, structure, and alignment for teams dealing with messy and ambiguous problems. I bring a collaborative mentality and a design-driven approach, as well as a strong point of view that keeps the process focused on the needs of the business and of users. Along the way, your team will level-up their capabilities to understand and improve the user experience.

I may offer the missing piece in areas that teams often find challenging, whether because of a gap in expertise or because of a lack of time to focus deeply in one of these areas:

  • Information architecture (IA): Even a small-scale solution can be messy and resist your best efforts to simplify it. This goes deeper than the design of the user interface (UI). Information architecture defines the underlying conceptual structure, categories, relationship, content types and labeling systems that will make the user experience easy to understand, navigate, and maintain across products and communication channels. It also enables the team to break down their work in a logical structure, guided by clear goals, requirements, success measures, and delivery plans. (This may sound familiar if you are a product manager–IA is a great partner to product management.)
  • “Discovery” and UX strategy: How to meet user needs is not necessarily obvious. Is the whole team aligned on “why” we are building what we’re building? Do we have a strong understanding of the worlds of our users and stakeholders and what they really need in order for them (and you) to be successful? And has that knowledge been translated to a clearly defined strategy for design, development, and content? Discovery means getting to the root by investigating the larger context of people, process, knowledge, and technology to find out what the issues are and how they are related. Understanding this problem space provides a better starting point to set technical priorities. Team-driven UX artifacts, objectives, and requirements help us translate our original intent to a well-informed solution approach.
  • UX leadership: We all aim to be customer- and people-centered. In practice, this needs to be translated to the right design, research, and continuous improvement activities. A UX-driven process keeps us honest throughout the gritty details of design and implementation, ensuring the result is useful and usable. With experience driving the UX process at all stages of the development lifecycle, I can work with you to incorporate UX-based approaches into your roadmap and/or facilitate the team’s process with a balance between research, creative thinking, and delivery.

How we can work together

I’ve worked with a variety of product, design, development, and marketing/communications teams in agencies, government, nonprofit, education, and large corporations.

I view myself as an embedded member of a cross-functional team, working with you collaboratively and invested in our collective success. This means that, even when I am working independently, I strive to do it transparently and invite meaningful participation whenever possible. Building a shared picture/shared understanding and maintaining alignment behind the scenes are key to delivering and sustaining a good user experience.

Work with me on a targeted project to explore a question, develop concepts, or build a roadmap. Or hire me to go all-in on a large, extended project. Some of the roles I might play are:

  • Partner with a product leader/owner or other business lead to conduct research, identify areas of focus, or to define/expand upon a vision for design and development
  • Support/extend a design team that has some UX capabilities already but needs deeper focus, expertise, and/or guidance for a particularly challenging project
  • Drive IA and UX processes for an agency or consulting firm that has a temporary need due to either a gap in expertise or a spike in workload

Based in the Boston, MA area, I operate as a Massachusetts-based LLC and am available for remote work with clients anywhere.

Contracting vehicles and approved supplier/vendor lists: I have worked as a subcontractor of both web development agencies and staffing firms that have existing relationships with governments and other organizations.

Contact info & more about me

Designing the Design Process: Beyond the Double Diamond (new workshop)

Note: Contact me if you’d like to be notified about future opportunities to attend this workshop.

In the 1960s, scholars in the Design Methods Movement believed that design could be turned into a science—that a “single rationalised method”1 for design could be established, or even automated using computers.

That vision, certainly a problematic one, never materialized—but many of the design process models from that time period still live on in our work today.

Graphic by Molly Taaffe, with visuals from Designing Designing (John Chris Jones, 1991) and “Designing as Reflective Conversation with the Materials of a Design Situation” (Donald A. Schön, 1992)

On March 28, 2023, I’ll be presenting a half-day workshop at the 2023 information architecture conference (IAC) with Molly Taaffe and Julie Cohen. I’ve stated that this is a workshop on “the most passé topic in design, ever”, but in truth, I’ve always been fascinated by mid-century thinking on design methodology and the lessons that it offers, even when considering the problematic history and current reality of design and design thinking.

The workshop will explore historical and current views on design methods, centering on a live, group critique of selected design process models as a vehicle for us to develop our own point of view on contemporary design methodology.

Here is the official workshop description from the IAC program:

Information architecture and UX are practiced as forms of design—the design of products, systems, and desired futures to satisfy human needs and values.

In practice, we use models of ”the design process” that are over 20 years old, if not a half century old. Our field is rapidly changing, and we know that the Double Diamond doesn’t tell the full story of how we work. Are existing models of the design process still applicable to information architecture today? Do we need new process models to help us design changeable and resilient structures for a complex, information-driven society?

For both new and advanced practitioners, this half-day session is both a workshop and a collaborative roundtable where we’ll explore these questions as a group.

We’ll use Hugh Dubberly’s compendium of design process models, and Design Methods by John Chris Jones, as source materials to compare, contrast, and critique historical models of “the design process”. We’ll unpack core themes and theories that explain why and how design “works”; discuss personal challenges/tensions we experience in putting a design process into practice; and come away with concrete ideas on how to improve our / our teams’ approach to design. Finally, we’ll look at examples of contemporary, more radical models of design that confront challenges such as system complexity, power dynamics, and ethical responsibility.

This workshop is an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of design methodologies, hear insights from peers who experience similar challenges in other organizations, and contribute to a conversation about the evolution of IA and UX practice.

1 Cross, N. (1993). A History of Design Methodology. In: de Vries, M.J., Cross, N., Grant, D.P. (eds) Design Methodology and Relationships with Science. NATO ASI Series, vol 71. Springer, Dordrecht.

Reforming vs. dismantling systems in the design field(s)

I had a brief exchange with Vivianne Castillo about reforming versus dismantling systems in design and technology. Vivianne wrote a brief post on what it looks like when organizations focus on reforming versus “dismantling systems that advance inequity”, which has been a recent theme in HmntyCntrd community conversations. I had suggested that when it comes to the status quo in design, however, our critiques often do not go far enough to dismantle, still only reforming what exists.

Below are a few thoughts on what reforming versus dismantling systems in design means to me. While I don’t want to trivialize or dilute those words by using them this context, I think it’s a useful distinction to help us frame aspects of design that also advance inequity.

Reforming vs. Dismantling…the framing of design:

  • Saying “We believe we can do good while still making a profit” vs. Acknowledging the ways in which making profit may be fundamentally tied to doing harm
  • Extolling the power of design to make the world better vs. Critiquing the limitations of design as a practice


  • Talking about how to make product design more ethical vs. Doing product design for more ethical businesses instead
  • Treating responsibility and ethics as long-term goals, then settling for “good enough” à la iterative methodologies vs. Redefining “good enough” based on what is responsible and ethical at the current moment
  • Trying to build products that solve social and environmental problems vs. Addressing problems through existing resources, knowledge, and people and not building products unless necessary
  • Talking about biases (etc.) in product design vs. Talking about the capitalistic systems that design enables, whether it does so through inclusion or exclusion

……professional associations, conferences, education:

  • Inviting people of underrepresented identities to professional conferences & associations so that they are “represented” vs. Giving up authority so that new people will lead our conferences & organizations
  • Removing bias from CFPs / peer review / conference curation vs. Being intentionally biased towards curating a conference that addresses issues people aren’t talking about enough, with speakers who know enough to talk about them
  • Incorporating ethics into existing conferences and programs vs. Starting new associations, courses, and pedagogies (hello, HmntyCntrd)
  • Improving the way design/UX communities educate practitioners about design/UX vs. Allowing the field to be transformed* by practitioners outside design/UX

Following Vivianne’s lead, I’ll ask: What does dismantling systems in design and tech look like for you?

I’m also posting about this on LinkedIn for discussion.

* This wording came indirectly from a conversation I had a few months ago with Andrew Maier, who suggested that instead of trying to get the organization to practice design the way I think it should be done, what is needed is a shift in mindset to: “I am willing to be transformed by this job.”

Information Architecture in the Anthropocene

I’m pleased to share that a paper I’ve written, “Information Architecture in the Anthropocene”, will be published in the forthcoming book, Advances in Information Architectureedited by Andrea Resmini, Sarah Rice, and Bern Irizarry (2021). This chapter builds on some of the work around systems and ethical design that I’ve posted here, my involvement in the Academics & Practitioners Roundtable, and many conversations with IA/UX colleagues and mentors—and it also achieves a long-standing goal of mine by taking a first step in applying Developmental Systems Theory as a lens for interpreting the social practice of design. I look forward to hearing your thoughts/responses/critiques and, hopefully, continuing a dialogue on this once it is published.

Here is a draft of the abstract for the chapter:

Today’s information architecture (IA) practitioners work in a morally and politically challenging climate where pervasive, systemic problems demand that we consider the consequences of our work for social justice and sustainability. Using “Information Architecture in the Anthropocene” as a framing device, and drawing from critical perspectives in design scholarship, this paper explores what these systemic problems mean for everyday information architecture practice, and it asks what methodological, theoretical, and paradigmatic qualities would enable information architecture to respond adequately to social and environmental challenges. Both design and information architecture practitioners are deeply involved in ongoing socio-political problems, which highlights the need for awareness of their limitations and their situatedness within the systems that are traditionally treated as objects for detached research and design. Reflexivity, informed by a systemic epistemology, is identified as a critical attribute for information architecture in the Anthropocene. Three proposals are offered as ways to achieve this: information architecture as a developmental process, information architecture as ethical practice, and information architecture as a network. These approaches apply processual and relational interpretations, along with biological theory, to the practice of information architecture, challenging our field to include ourselves in the systems we study and to rethink information architecture as a responsible practice.

Presentation: How Do I Know If I’m Doing Good? Practicing Ethical Design in a World of Systemic Complexity

I spoke about ethical design last week at the The Information Architecture Conference 2019. In this talk, I approached the topic of ethics in design using a systemic lens.

Download the presentation slides with complete speaker notes, references, and additional comments (PDF).

Want to talk more? I will be presenting again in Boston on May 10, 2019 at the UXPA Boston Conference. You can also join the Ethical Technology online community in Slack.

This is the original abstract—although the talk, as it stands, focuses more on concepts and principles that practices.

The urgency of ethics in design is now understood. In so many ways, design creates the world we depend on; (information) architecture creates the environments we live in. We’ve seen how technology is implicated in challenges to equality, human rights, dignity, justice, government, sustainability, and health. In IA, the concepts and language we choose are embedded in code, bringing our biases and assumptions with them.

But what do I do about ethics at work? Do these issues apply? Where would I begin? How can I talk about it? What if I don’t have the power to change anything? What if the organization is stacked against it?

And as a professional community, what should we be doing about ethics? How can we equip our members to address ethical issues in their work?

This session combines a personal perspective with lessons learned from an online community for Ethical Technology founded two years ago at the 2017 IA Summit.

We’ll look at design ethics through a systems thinking/theory lens. Design ethics means asking whether or not I’m doing the right thing as a designer. Systems thinking means recognizing that I’m working within a complex system where I don’t have full control over the consequences of my work—the ethical problems are too complex to analyze; my organization, as a whole, operates in ways that I can’t change. Ethical practice means uniting the personal with the global, knowing yourself while also recognizing your limitations.

We’ll discuss:

  • A systemic analysis of the ethical challenges designers face.
  • Guiding principles for ethical practice in complex environments.
  • Techniques for incorporating ethics into your work—whether by adding new methods, or by deepening the methods you already use.
  • Recommendations on how our professional community can move forward with ethics as a core part of our field.

Make Non()sense

“Make sense” is a mantra of the information architecture community. What if we don’t make sense? What if we make nonsense?

This poster is an inquiry into what we mean by “nonsense”, what it is to make or not to make sense, and the many ways in which meaning can fail or be failed. There is a long history of the intentional use of nonsense in art, literature, music, and politics as a means of expression, exertion of power, or resistance to power. Sense and nonsense lie in the interpreter and the interpreter’s relationship to the idea or material. Nonsense, even most earnest attempt at the production of nonsense, implies the possibility or loss of meaning. Nonsense betrays meaning.

The poster imitates a Dadaist poster and assemblage. It was created by Dan Zollman and Phoebe Meskill.

This poster was presented at the 2018 Information Architecture Summit in Chicago on March 23, 2018.

Photo of Nonsense poster including a timeline of the history of nonsense in art, literature, music, and politics

Photo of Dan in front of the Nonsense poster

Designing, building, architecting, growing

Earlier this year, I promised a number of people that I’d be sharing updates on my summer research. As you can see, I haven’t posted much, but I’ve been hard at work nevertheless. One of the outcomes of this work was a proposal for a session at next year’s IA Summit. Now that the blind review phase has ended, I think I can share this publicly. Crossing my fingers as I wait to hear whether or not I’ve been accepted.

Here is the short description from my proposal. Continue below for some elaboration on the concept.

Designing, building, architecting, growing: Rethinking IA through the lens of developmental systems.

Problem/solution, form/function, user/object, designer/client: Our traditional models of design are showing signs of strain. We face increasing complexity and volatility in our work. We struggle to reconcile timelines and budgets with reality. We try to effect change, but it doesn’t stick. And as Thomas Wendt has shared in his critique of human-centered design, we end up with unsustainable solutions that repackage and perpetuate systemic problems. But what would it mean to “decenter” design?

In the quest for alternatives, this session will explore the concept of developmental systems, in which contemporary IA and UX practices converge with systems theory. We’ll take a tour through several kinds of developmental systems in biology, psychology, and social theory. Developmental systems give us another way to see the world. Instead of objects and categories, we find processes, relationships, scaffolds, and networks. The paradoxes of problem/solution and form/function disappear. Instead, we designers and architects grow our products, much like farmers grow crops.

Through this lens, we will de- and re-construct our model of design and architecture, treating users, organizations, and technologies as developmental systems. We will see how designers do not merely specify solutions, but participate in the growth of these systems. We will also see how information architecture—the coordination of meaningful relationships—is fundamental to these processes of change. We will discuss how IA/UX practices can coordinate the relationships needed for healthy growth, promoting ethical, just, and sustainable structures.

This talk responds to Wendt, Peter Morville, and other previous speakers who have encouraged us to think systemically, ecologically, and politically. A focus on individual users and problems tends to limit the potential for change. Instead, a relational and systemic approach opens up new possibilities for designers and architects to improve the world around us.

I’ll say a little more about the thinking behind this work, although the actual presentation will be a bit more focused and concrete:

At the conceptual level (bear with me, all you “practical takeaways” people) this talk is an attempt to reexamine the ontology of “design” and “architecture” in light of systems theory and philosophy. This stems from the recognition that larger systems are always implicated in the practice of design: design always has social, political, and ethical dimensions that extend beyond the product being designed. Furthermore, professional designers must take responsibility for their role in the creation of technologies that either serve to mitigate or exacerbate social and ecological injustices. Much work has been done in areas like systemic design—the application of design methods and systems thinking to large-scale social systems—but what does this mean for user experience design, information architecture, and product design? More pointedly, what does it mean to use “systemic design” if you are designing an object or a product?

The current sketch for this talk begins by discussing two ontologies or lenses for design. (It would be a cliche to invoke Kuhn here, but what I’m discussing are paradigms in the truest sense.) The first lens is that of mainstream design. Meanstream design is predominantly rationalistic design within the paradigm of the scientific revolution. This is the paradigm of subjectivity and objectivity, causes and effects, measurement, quantification, and the Cartesian dualisms of mind/body, human/environment, man/nature. The lens I’d like to introduce is a systemic, relational, and processual lens. In this paradigm, humans and their environments, designers and users, problems and solutions are interrelated. Rather than dualisms, where one thing causes an effect on another, they are all part of a continuously developing system that cannot be “solved” by a designer. Users, organizations, technologies, and societies are always developing and they continue to develop long after your work as a designer is gone. Now, in many ways, mainstream design has adopted elements of this, e.g. in design thinking, in “lean”, in discussions of service design, organizational design, and design governance—but practitioners have mostly appropriated these elements while remaining in the rationalistic paradigm. Why does this matter? I will argue that mainstream design, with all its ROI, its KPIs, its leanness and agility, is incapable of resolving the ecological, ethical, and organizational challenges faced by designers, while systemic and relational thinking may help us with these challenges.

The theoretical component of this project—of which the 45-minute session will be just a subset—is an assemblage of perspectives in systems theory, theoretical biology, anthropology, ecological psychology, social and political theory, design and technology studies, management research, and even metaphysics. Once you start looking, it’s exciting and overwhelming to discover that every one of these fields has so much to say about the topic. We can talk about: How human beings and other organisms develop and grow through participation in a network of relationships within their physical and social environments. How objects and technologies also grow within a network of relationships, and how humans experience that network. How social “structures” can be understood as relationships that are consistently reproduced by people and objects over time. How all of these things can be understood as processes. It’s process, not form, Process, not product. This challenges designers to rethink our attempts to “solve problems” and to be “change agents”. Only in very limited ways are we solvers of problems or agents of change. Instead, we must commit more deeply to understanding the world and its ongoing processes of change if we want to play a positive, meaningful role in that change. People (“users”) grow. Technologies grow. Organizations grow. Events and appearances are temporary: a product launch, a redesign. The question is whether our work has contributed to the development of a healthy system. As designers, our great opportunity is to pursue and advocate for the health of the world around us, to scaffold its development, to coordinate the network of relationships in which human lives and good technologies grow. And I’d also like to suggest that information architecture is a very special part of this relational practice.

As for practice, my goal is not to provide tactical exercises and how-tos for your next design meeting, but I do want to show how relational thinking translates to very real, practical, and viable ways of working. To appropriate Tim Ingold, it’s not theory versus practice, but “practical knowledge and knowledgeable practice”. I’m mainly looking at this from two angles: The first is that this philosophy is well-aligned to a design practice that prioritizes the wellbeing of “users” and their communities. This means treating them as long-living people and communities who are continually growing, learning, developing skills, constructing their identities, and providing for their economic and political health. Physical artifacts, communications, and technologies are always enmeshed in these processes, and we can aim to design artifacts that play an enabling role in the right processes. Second, as professional designers, we are encouraged to examine the growth and health of the organizations in which we work, or of our client. Because objects and technologies are grown and reproduced over time in a network of relationships, the way the organization collectively grows, learns, develops skills has a much greater impact on the nature and the quality of products in the long run than the impact that a designer has on any single product. Looking to both systemic design and to management studies, such as Peter Senge’s and others’ work on learning organizations, we can find some fascinating principles and techniques that will resonate with contemporary designers and offer powerful tools.

The ideas discussed here will be new to some designers, while much of this may come across as obvious if you’re well-read in any one of these topics. However, I am suggesting more than this—a relational approach brings a very different meaning to our work. We need to go deeper than methods. It’s not enough to adopt new techniques and to be more human-centered. We need to revisit what we think design is and what role it plays in the world—its ontology, and our mental models. Our mental models shape how we practice, lead, and sell it to the business. As long as designers are problem-solvers and returns-on-investment, we pit ourselves against a system that cannot be changed from the outside. We need to rethink our relationships.

From Charles Hampden-Turner, Charting the Corporate Mind

The politics of design: Why design is political. Why designers, developers, and engineers should care.

This summer, I’ve set aside time to investigate a topic that has long interested me: the politics of design.

What do I mean by ‘the politics of design’?

If you are a designer, developer, or engineer who has worked in an organization of any size, you’ve experienced “politics”. First, there are workplace politics: the dynamics of power, relationships, goals, incentives, alliances, trust, knowledge, emotions, and personalities that affect everyday work. Second, the design process itself is uniquely political. Design and engineering involve many stakeholders with different interests and different forms of influence, sometimes agreeing with each other and sometimes conflicting, sometimes engaging in productive debate and sometimes pulling rank or exercising stubbornness.

You’ve also likely discovered that unless you have a competent and savvy manager who is insulating you from these politics, you are forced to engage in politics in some way. Depending on your personality, you might enjoy it. Or perhaps you avoid it; your ideal job is the one where you don’t have to do politics at all. But no matter who you are, it is helpful to learn a little about working the politics of your organization. You’ll get your way more often, and you’ll be (or at least, be perceived as being) more successful in your job.

One of my initial research question was: Do traditional politics—that is, government, and the political process—offer lessons and techniques that we can apply in the practice of design?

Stepping back to a broader context, though, this is part of a broader set of themes in which “design” and “political” come together:

  • Do the products and systems we create have political implications?
  • Do politics within the design process affect the products we develop?
  • Does our political system (government, laws, regulation, etc.) affect design and technology?
  • Can we apply design to our politics and political systems?

Each of these questions are substantive topics in their own right, but they are also interrelated. As it turns out, the politics of the world we live in have fundamental implications for how we work as design and technology professionals.

I will unpack this claim in future articles, but for now, I’ll keep moving.

Why should we care?

Because we, as design and technology professionals, are so much more involved in this world than we tend to realize. We live and work in a time characterized by incomprehensible degrees of inequality and unsustainability, reinforced by entrenched political and economic structures. It is a world where the poor and disadvantaged have less access to the information, tools, and institutions that would otherwise give them a say in the issues that affect their lives. The products and systems we create—the ones you create—are the ones that establish this environment, from city plans to smartphone apps. We create the world that we, and others, live in.

This too must be unpacked, but for now, let me assert that the small things matter as well as the big ones. Even if you think the work you do now is so small or neutral that it is inconsequential, you as an individual professional are more important than you realize. Your work does affects people, and it plays a role in a larger system. And even if you think it’s the business who owns the product and makes decisions that you only implement, it is worth considering how your work serves the economic and political interests of that business and how you might safeguard the interests of the populations who might be affected, directly or indirectly.

Even if your main concern is that you simply need to make a living, and you don’t have energy for much else, it behooves you to understand the politics of design as it relates to your work and the people you work with. You’ll be more successful in your office, and you’ll be that much closer to the salary, rate, or position you want.

But if you practice user-centered design, or if you believe that the purpose of your work in technology is to solve problems, or if you care about designing solutions that improve people’s lives, it is imperative to consider politics at three levels:

  • How do the products and systems we design exert power in people’s lives, often in spite of our best intentions?
  • How do the politics in a business or organization shape the way we practice design and, in turn, shape the products?
  • How do the structural conditions of our work (economic, political, cultural, and institutional) shape the organizations we work in, in turn shaping the way we practice design?

Of course, the ultimate question at each level is: How can we influence these circumstances in order to achieve better outcomes? The proposition is that by understanding these questions, you (and I) will be better able to:

  • Work effectively and successfully in your organization.
  • Practice ethical and socially responsible design.
  • Effect change to improve your organization and, more importantly, the world.

Making it actionable

These topics are broad and daunting. However, they can be broken down, explained, and made actionable for practitioners like you and me.

These are not new questions, either. The social sciences have been studying these issues for a long time, while the design and technology professions have already developed strategies we can use in many areas. This is enough to give us traction. From these areas, we can draw concepts and tools that we, as designers, developers, and engineers, can use to shape our everyday politics of design.

I see an opportunity to pull this knowledge together and organize it for a practitioner audience. I think that many people in the design and technology are ready for these conversations—alongside the ethics of technology and design—but we need channels for productive conversation and action towards the political challenges in our work. This is one motivation for my research.

In future articles, I’ll go deeper into the statements made above. Meanwhile, I invite all those who are interested in this topic to join me in discussion and experimentation. If you have ideas, feedback, suggestions, or additional resources to share, please comment on this article or email me at dan [at]

Oblique Strategies + The Fifteen Fundamental Properties of Wholeness

At World IA Day 2017 in Boston, Dan Klyn handed out these great little card decks representing Christopher Alexander’s Fifteen Fundamental Properties of Wholeness. Recommended use: Carry these cards around with you to help you notice the properties of wholeness wherever you go.

Yesterday, looking through my box of Oblique Strategies made me wonder: Are the Oblique Strategies related to the Fifteen Fundamental Properties?

Photo of Fifteen Properties and Oblique Strategies card decks

So I gave it a try. I found that over half of the Oblique Strategies could be read as metaphors for physical structure or space. Some can be read as statements about the properties of wholeness. Others can be read as operations to achieve one or more of the properties. For example:

  • “Define an area as ‘safe’ and use it as an anchor” achieves a strong center.
  • “Emphasize differences” achieves contrast.
  • “Disciplined self-indulgence” might achieve good shape.
  • “Be dirty” achieves roughness.
  • “Simple subtraction” achieves positive space (or good shape).
  • “Repetition is a form of change” describes echoes.
  • “Make a blank valuable by putting it in an exquisite frame” is the void.

The remaining half of the Strategies, which I left in the box, were those that described ways of working rather than properties of the solution:

  • “Don’t be afraid of things because they’re easy to do”.
  • “Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them.”
  • “Use an old idea.”
  • “Use ‘unqualified’ people.” (Which, incidentally, is also pertinent to Dan Klyn’s IA Day talk, where he suggested “how wonderful it is to be dumb”.)

And finally, there were two Strategies that did not map to a specific Property, but seemed appropriate to place in the middle:

  • “Trust in the you of now.”
  • “Gardening, not architecture.”

I don’t think I necessarily grouped them “correctly” or well. I’m still learning about the Fifteen Properties, and I understand some better than others. One thing I found interesting is that many of the Oblique Strategies are expressed as negations—which is appropriate, because they are meant to break assumptions and force change—but it also made it more difficult to associate them with positive properties (e.g. good shape).

If nothing else, the fact that I affinitized them instead of using them for their intended purpose is proof that I’m an information architect.

A selection of Oblique Strategies cards grouped according to the Fifteen Properties.

On reading and taking time off

“Read books are far less valuable than unread ones.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, channeling Umberto Eco, in The Black Swan


I subscribe to this statement completely. Those piles of unread books remind me how much I don’t know. It’s good not to read! Yes, that’s what I tell myself.

But in choosing not to read books, there is a bounded gain in intellectual humility and an unbounded loss in potential learning. In other words, I couldn’t be more painfully aware of the mountains of books I wish I’d read. Reading a few of them would teach me a lot but do nothing for the anxiety.

I still have books I purchased as an undergrad that I’ve been saying I “have to read” for the last seven years. I still haven’t read all of them. I’ve finally realized that the pile will never be empty: Books accumulate as I hear about them, as I inquire about new subjects, as I enter a used bookstore (big mistake), as I find them on the sidewalk (which, by the way, is one of the things I love about Cambridge, MA). There’s only one outflow from the stock of books I want to read, which is reading.

Stock and flow diagram describing the flow of books from the world to my unread pile, then to my read pile.

But I’ve also realized that the pile will never stop growing, either. The more I read, the more I discover, and the more I want to know. It’s a runaway loop. The implication is important: Even if I spent every waking hour reading for the rest of my life, I will never read all the things I want to read.

Stock and flow diagram with additional factors: The more I read, the larger my unread pile gets because I discover more. My rate of reading is dependent on time spent reading inside and outside of work.

There are only two things I can do about this situation: Be selective about what I choose to read, and increase my amount of reading.

  1. Be selective about what I choose to read.

I already do this, of course, but it’s important to make it deliberate. In the long run, I can’t read all the books I want, and I can’t even read all the books that will be “good for me”.

I learn more by reading books outside my own disciplines; books that challenge my beliefs; books that stretch my abilities. There is marginal value in reading books that reiterate my existing knowledge and/or confirm my beliefs.

So, I’m sorry, but I won’t be reading the next UX book out on O’Reilly. (I mean, depending on what it is.)

  1. Spend more of my free time reading.

One lever to increase reading is to find more time in my personal life.

There are many competing priorities, but my habits also have a role.

I could also make more free time by sleeping less, dropping commitments, or working less. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

  1. Spend less time on client work in order to spend more time reading.

The other lever is to find a way make a sufficient living in fewer work hours. This is an instance of the more general problem of how can I make enough money to support the passion that doesn’t make money, be it comic-writing or mountain climbing.

For those working in freelance, agency, and consulting contexts, the answer is partly in pricing strategy—namely, the shift from hourly pricing to some form of value pricing.

This line of thought led me to a long brainstorm on weird strategies for value pricing, which I’ll post in a separate article at some future date.

Summer sabbatical

Starting June 1, I’ll be taking some time off from working (ideally, one to three months) to do some full-time reading, research, and possibly some writing as a result.

I have a topic I’ve been wanting to research in depth, but I’d also be happy if I could simply catch up on some of those “have to read” books. A summer isn’t quite enough time for a thesis, so I’ve decided it’s okay if I don’t come out of it with a complete product. But where I can, I’ll write about the research I’m doing.

As a byproduct, I’m also hoping that this will help me establish a more consistent reading and writing habit that will continue after I go back to work.

We’ll see what happens.

Reading list

I’ll be working on some sort of “statement of purpose” for my main topic, which I will discuss in a follow-up.

Meanwhile, here are just a few of the items in my long-standing reading pile:

  • Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life
  • Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
  • Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline
  • Christopher Alexander…
  • Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial
  • Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social and We Have Never Been Modern
  • Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City
  • Donald Schön, The Reflective Practitioner or something else
  • Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw, Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes
  • Lucy Suchman, Human-Machine Configurations: Plans and Situated Actions
  • Tony Fry…
  • Erik Stolterman…
  • George Lakoff…
  • Russell Ackoff…
  • Old issues of Design Issues and Design Studies
  • Edit: I almost forgot to mention Adam Greenfield’s Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday LifeAlthough it’s coming out next month, I’ve been eagerly waiting since ~2010!
  • Edit 2: And maybe some Eco.