Designing Change in Emergency Management: What is design? Part 1.

The first post in this series brought to the fore behavioral change in the field of emergency management and framed its creation as an act of design. Attention is now turned toward exploring what design is and uncovering its presence in emergency management.

Designing Change in Emergency Management: What is design? Part 1.


The first post in this series highlighted behavioral change in the field of emergency management and framed its creation as an act of design. Although it may appear in the previous post and elsewhere as if design is something "new" being integrated into emergency management, design has always been practiced by the community. The following post illuminates design’s pervasiveness in emergency management before exploring definitions of design.

Uncovering Design

Design has always been central to the field of emergency management as it is fundamental to human activity. This declaration follows from the work of several design scholars who stand in agreement that design is an innate capacity exercised throughout day to day life. As Papanek (1984) explains:

“All that we do, almost all the time is design, for design is basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act towards a desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process” (p.3).

As expected, Papanek (1984) refers to painting a mural, writing a piece of music or a poem as design, but also includes less expected daily activities such as organizing a drawer, baking a pie, and selecting a team to play on in a baseball game. To Papanek, as long as there is action moving toward materializing an already decided upon end there is design. Individuals who design as part of everyday life have been called diffuse or novice designers, whereas those who have engaged with this innate capacity, developed it, practiced it, and are able to materialize it through one or more mediums have been labeled "expert" designers. It is important to Papanek and many others, including the author, that novice, innate designers are recognized along with those who have the word "design" in their job title (Dorst, 2015; Manzini, 2015).

Exploring Design

There is no single, universally agreed upon definition of design. One of the many available definitions of design found in the work of Victor Papanek (1984) was presented earlier in this post:

“All that we do, almost all the time is design, for design is basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act towards a desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process” (p.3).

Papanek’s definition of design, in particular its defining of and movement toward a foreseeable end, is similar to others:

“Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” (Simon, 1988, p. 66).
“Design is the process of deciding on and then realizing preferred futures.” (Tonkinwise, 2015, p. 88).
"Anthropologically, designing is able to be recognized as omnipresent and integral to every intentional act we take.  It is therefore elemental to our being, as such is one of the defining qualities of what we are. In this respect we are all designers. We live in and by Design – our choices, be they homes, lifestyle, dress, actions, perceptions, employment practices or environments are directed by the employment and consequence of Design. Its non-discreteness makes it seem an impossible object of study, and so legitimizes its oversight" (Fry, 1999, pp. 6-7).
"Design is a culture and a practice concerning how things ought to be in order to attain desired functions and meanings. It takes place within open-ended co-design processes in which all the involved actors participate in different ways. It is based on a human capability that everyone can cultivate and which for some – the design experts – becomes a profession. The role of design experts is to trigger and support these open-ended co-design processes, using their design knowledge to conceive and enhance clear-cut focused design initiatives” (Manzini, 2015, pp. 53-54)

The above definitions further highlight design as an innate human capacity that can be further developed while also framing design as a process of deciding how things “ought to be” and taking some action to produce the desired state at a time later than now:

"The first step of design is that it is trying to change something in the future" (Bloom, 2016).

In a book filled with possible descriptions of design, Nelson and Stolterman (2012) express the idea that design is about bringing something new into existence. This “something new” can be imagined as the means by which a “preferred situation” or “preferred future” is brought into being.

"Design will always be about creating something that does not yet exist" (Nelson & Stolterman, 2012, p. 29).

Consider the above in the context of emergency management. Given the broad definitions of design presented here, design is already present throughout emergency management. For example, design is present in the creation of emergency response plans intended to produce the foreseeable end of a coordinated response that meets key objectives, in the creation of risk communications aimed at fostering resilient communities, and the conducting of exercises held to strengthen relationships, hone skills, and prepare for hazard events. Of course, each of the prior examples involves bringing something new into the world that did not already exist (Nelson & Stolterman, 2012).  From this perspective, design is a capacity emergency management has long been exercising and is now in the process of discovering and strengthening.

Moving on

Offered here is one understanding of what design is. Perhaps the most commonly held, in this series it is part of a larger understanding of design. The next post in the series will expand upon this understanding and pass through the usual boundary of design as what designers do and focus on what a design does once it is released into the world. Moving beyond design as the process leading up to making something new is integral to beginning to understand how design interacts with everyday life. also found in the first post, the following words from Cameron Tonkinwise regarding Tony Fry capture the idea of "what design does" that rests at the foundation of this series and begins to be unfolded in the next post:  

“If you don’t want to just read about the history of being but you want to make the next stage of the history of being what you use is materializes these things” (Tonkinwise, 2018).


Bloom, J. (2016). Jabe Bloom and design thinking for  organizations. (S. Honkonen, Interviewer).

Dorst, K. (2015). Frame innovation: Create new thinking by design. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Fry, T. (1999). A new design philosophy: An introduction to defuturing. Sydney, AU: University of New South Wales Press LTD.

Manzini, E. (2015). Design, when everybody designs: An introduction to design for social innovation. (R. Coad, Trans.) Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Nelson, H. G., & Stolterman, E. (2012). The Design Way: Intentional change in an unpredictable world (Second ed.). Cambridge , Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Papanek, V. (1984). Design for the real world: Human ecology and social change (2nd ed.). Chicago, Illinois: Academy Chicago Publishers.

Simon, H. (1988). The science of design: Creating the artificial. Design Issues, 4(1/2), 67-82. Retrieved from

Tonkinwise, C. (2018, June 27). 81. Cameron Tonkinwise. Scratching the surface. (J. Fuller, Interviewer) Retrieved from

Tonkinwise, C. (2015). Design for transitions - from and to what. Design Philosophy Papers, 13(1), 85-92. doi:10.1080/14487136.2015.1085686