Designing Change in Emergency Management: What is design? Part 2.

In part 1 design was presented a process of bringing something new into the world for the purpose of changing “existing situations into preferred ones." Here in part 2, this understanding will be expanded to include a concern for what the designer designs; the outcome of a design process.

Designing Change in Emergency Management: What is design? Part 2.


In part one, design was presented as an innate human capacity already being exercised by the emergency management community and framed as a process of bringing something new into the world  to transform “existing situations into preferred ones” (Simon, 1988, p. 66; Nelson & Stolterman, 2012). Here in part two this understanding will be expanded to include a concern for what the designer designs; the outcome of a design process.

What the Designer Designs

The first part of this post explored design as it is usually understood as a something someone does – an intentional act of deciding upon and creating a preferred future. Understanding design as an innate human capacity where current situations are transformed into preferred ones through the creation of “something” is a key first step in grasping design as a means for changing everyday life. A possible next step is to consider what it is that the designer designs (e.g., process, product, event, service) does once it is put into use.

"A different approach to the question of “what is design, essentially?” is to shift focus from the designer to the designed.....Rather than designing as an intentional process that ends in a finished product, the process never stops – the designed thing doesn’t just sit there in the world as a completed, finished thing – it prompts process – as people engage with it. And as Albert Borgman argues, the quality of that engagement is enhanced or diminished according to what the designed thing allows or doesn’t allow those engaging with it to do” (Willis, 2019, p. 13).

Bringing into question what something designed does is not a question of what something looks like, how it feels, or how easy it is to use. Any number of books on design discuss these elements – aesthetics, usability, patterns, color, typography, graphics, purpose and so on. The interest of this post, and a far fewer books written from a design studies perspective, is what influence these elements have on the humans who interact with the designed thing. Namely, the way the designed thing ultimately encourages them to be. This additional perspective has been labeled “architectural” and the more normative one found in the last post “engineering.”

"From the engineering perspective, the outcome of the design process is a device that provides users easy access to some functions....From the architectural perspective, the outcome of the design process is a thing that modifies the space where people live" (Binder, et al., 2011, p. 51).

There are a number of different materials with the potential to expand perceptions of design in this way. However, a paper from Peter-Paul Verbeek provides an excellent, accessible starting point. Verbeek (2006), drawing from the philosopher Martin Heidegger as many thinkers in this space do, discusses technological mediation:

"Technological mediation then concerns the role of technology in human action (conceived as the ways in which human beings are present in their world) and human experience (conceived as the ways in which their world is present to them)" (p.363).

While Verbeek (2006) is specifically writing about technology, his definition of technological mediation can be read as if it were about all design (for present purposes). Using the work of Don Ihde, Verbeek first writes about how what the designer designs changes how the world “shows up” to users:

"A thermometer, for instance, establishes a relationship between humans and reality in terms of temperature. Reading off a thermometer does not result in a direct sensation of heat or cold but gives a value that requires interpretation to tell something about reality"(p.365).

Connected to how design influences the way the world is present for human beings is how design influences how human beings are present in the world around them - the latter being a case of action.

"Actions are the result not only of individual intentions and the social structures in which human beings find themselves (the classical agency-structure dichotomy) but also of people's material environment” (p.366).

Drawing from others including the philosopher Bruno Latour, Verbeek (2006) moves on to how things (artifacts) influence how humans are present in the world around them through scripts:

"Like the script of a movie or a theater play, artifacts prescribe their users how to act when they use them. A speed bump, for instance, has the script "slow down when you approach me" and a plastic coffee cup "throw me away after use” (p.366).
"Some aspects of reality are amplified and others are reduced, in the mediation of action, one could say that specific actions are invited while others are inhibited. The scripts of artifacts suggest specific actions and discourage others" (emphasis added, p.367).

Verbeek’s (2006) mediation of perception and action provide two different, yet interrelated perspectives for considering what a designed thing does. A speed bump invites people to slow down and discourages them from speeding. A data set changes how a problem, event, or process is perceived and by consequence what decisions are made. The concept of scripts could be pulled into the previous example by selecting what data is available and how it is presented. A designer may choose to emphasize some data and minimize or entirely leave out others to encourage some actions and discourage others.

It is hopefully now apparent that design can change how people live even if for only as long as the design object, place, project, is interacted with. Consider at the same time how many designed things mediate everyday life in similar ways: Once-innovative Internet-based platforms invites us to live an overly connected life online, while the planned obsolescence of things encourages the creation of waste and maintenance of status through consumerism. The use of Verbeek’s (2006) work here serves the important purpose of beginning to unpack how designed things can shape how others exist in the world around them. In the words of design theorist Tony Fry (2009), “Everything designed goes on designing” (p.46).

What the Designer Designs Designs

The often quoted words of Tony Fry (2009) “everything designed goes on designing” (p.46) evoke a circular understanding of design this post in only three quarters of the way around. An excerpt from the enormously influential book by Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design begins to bring the circle back where it started.

"We address the broader question of how a society engenders invention whose existence in turns alters that society” (Winograd & Flores, 1986, pp. 4-5).

In other words, the way designed things encourage a society to be shapes what that society designs. A quote from Anne-Marie Willis (2006) adds further clarity:

"This adds up to a double movement — we design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us" (p. 80).

The relevancy of this understanding widens considerably when it is remembered that everyone designs.  What has been said about the circularity of designers and what they design is then true for all people.

Design from this perspective changes how people imagine and bring into being foreseeable outcomes. “Who we are” and “what we do” are entangled in an inescapable circle where one continues to arrive as a product of the other. For example, consider the follow excerpt from Fry (2009) on how the initial invention of the automobile has gone on designing:

“Every type of car from limousine to beach buggy, all sizes of trucks, motorcycles, tractors, all types of military fighting vehicles, special vehicles from mobile cranes to road rollers - have the one Benz antecedent.... While roads were already in existence prior to the arrival of automobiles, they, and all subsequent road-using vehicles, totally transformed road design, construction, and the complexity of road networks. Equally, the development of road infrastructure transformed and created cities; divided communities; enabled an enormously large and economically powerful goods transport industry; and led to traffic congestion that has dramatically reduced the operability of city life and, by degree, affected public health…. Motor vehicle road usage has, in turn, led to the proliferation of fixed and electronic road signage; various forms of taxation and insurance; financial products and services; road regulations and laws; specialist policing; accident investigation, surveillance and traffic law enforcement…"
"The internal combustion engine was responsible for the creation of a massive petroleum industry and its diverse products. This industry itself, via the geopolitics of oil exploration and supply, has had a major impact on international relations. Wars have been fought over oil and won or lost on the basis of its availability/non-availability. Likewise, a century or more of carbon dioxide emissions from petroleum-based engines has significantly contributed to anthropogenic global warming” (p.37-38).

Design as unfinished seeks to connect designers with what they create once it leaves their hands, desk, or office and unintentionally and intentionally creates ways of perceiving and acting in the world. Consider Fry's (2009) discussion of how the invention of the automobile has led to the arrival of a society that has scorched the surface of its only earth several times over to sustain the way of life the vehicle makes possible. Surely, Karl Benz could not have imagined all of the ways that what he brought into the world would change it (Fry, 2009). For Fry and many others, this is all the more reason for designers to think critically about what they create:

"The fact that the future can never be viewed or fully predicted does not negate our responsibility to identify possibilities that beg precautionary action, not least by considering those probabilities that result from what we, through our own actions, bring into being" (Fry, 2009, p. 147).

Moving On

The quote from Tonkinwise (2018) found in the last two posts should now have a clearer meaning:

“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).

From this perspective, the risk adapted, or at the very least risk conscious, way of life emergency managers seek to cultivate in the communities they serve may be created by designing things that go on designing in a particular way. This understanding might at the very least provoke questions about how you as a designer might create something that goes on designing in a particular way that reveals the risk facing the user in a manner demanding of action (this will be the subject of several later posts). At the same time, this view of design may also draw attention to how the current designed environment encourages others to be present in their world in a manner indifferent to risk.

Lastly, consider  what "way of being" your design (e.g., community engagement, campaign, risk communication) hopes to encourage and how? How does this way of living compare to those being promoted by other, more prominent designed things? As the series moves forward, design's unfinishedness will be further unfolded in the context of creating sustained, risk-driven change in everyday life.


Binder, T., De Michelis, G., Ehn, P., Guilio, J.,  Linde, P., & Wagner, I. (2011). Design things. Cambridge,  Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Fry, T. (2009). Design futuring: Sustainability,  ethics and new practice. London: Bloomsbury.

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

Verbeek, P.-P. (2006). Materializing morality: Design  ethics and technological mediation. Science, Technology, & Human  Values, 31(3), 361-380. doi:10.1177/0162243905285847

Willis, A.-m. (2006). Ontological designing - Laying  the ground. Design Philosophy Papers, 3(1), 80-98.

Willis, A.-M. (2019). Introduction. In A.-M. Willis  (Ed.), The design philosophy reader (pp. 11-13). London, United  Kingdom: Bloomsbury.

Winograd, T., & Flores, F. (1986). Understanding  computers and cognition: A new foundation for design. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.