Harold Nelson

Dr Harold Nelson is an architect and visiting scholar in the School of Computer Science at the University of Montana. He was the 2009-2010 Nierenberg Distinguished Professor of Design in the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2001, he served as president of the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS). He is known as the co-author of The Design Way, a book considered by some to be the Rosetta Stone of Design. He is a licensed architect in the State of California and worked as the assistant regional architect for the US Forest Service in San Francisco, California. He is a past-president and a trustee of the International Society for Systems Science. He is the co-founding Director and President of the Advanced Design Institute and owner of Harold G Nelson LLC. He has worked with a variety of organizations, including: non-profits and corporations, state and federal agencies, international governments, and the United Nations. Dr Nelson received his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley graduating with ‘Distinction’ where he designed his own doctoral program in the Design of Social Systems. He received his Master of Architecture degree from UC Berkeley, and a Bachelor of Architecture from Montana State University.

Understanding design’s position

Dr Harold Nelson’s keynote presentation at the Symposium, Taking a Design Stance delved into the definition and meaning of design and pulled apart how we understand design.

Nelson is an architect and scholar and was the 2009-10 Nierenberg Distinguished Professor of Design at Carnegie Melon University. He has worked as an advisor to Professor Don Campbell at Monash Community.

Nelson used the analogy of design being a mystery, like water, in his keynote. Science knows very little about water even though it is in common use and essential to life. He also used the metaphor of an ‘archipelago of design islands’ where different traditions of design have evolved as distinct ecosystems of practice. He referred to the recent emergence of ‘systemic design’ as being like a newly formed island expanding the diverse territory of the design archipelago.

Health Collab spoke to him about design.

If we don’t know what design is, how can we talk about design for health?

We talk about design related to health practices all the time despite not having any common agreement on what we think design is, or even what health is.

Metaphorically speaking, design is like water in several essential ways. We’ve have just enough understanding of what it is to get along practically.  But, we haven’t, at least in my educational experience, spent enough time exploring what design is in any deeper way: thinking about what it has been, what it is nowadays and what we would like it to become in the future.

What should we be doing to advance our understanding? We need to seek out and use common vocabulary when working with people on projects that are design related. When I’m talking to people about design I wind up confusing them because we just don’t have a shared background in design and design practice, even though with just a little reflection and effort, forming common understandings is no big thing. Designing  is a stance and approach that is understandable, especially with more formal education and experience. But, currently there is little background provided in the general or core curriculum of schools - neither theoretically nor experientially. At least not in the same way that we are provided foundational backgrounds in science, or the arts and humanities.

A part of understanding design begins with finding out what knowledge and skills we have lost over the past centuries, insights that we used to possess in relationship to making stuff for our own benefit. Next, we need to begin to think more about what we want design to do for us now and in the future. What do we want design to become?

Because design is a competency that is always evolving and thus never static, it cannot be defined once and for all for what it is. I use the archipelago metaphor of islands of design, to show that people have a pretty good idea of what they think design is - an understanding which is based on the design culture of their island. It can be as varied as a form of creative problem solving, a planning strategy, a type of applied research, or a process of creating novel forms of products and services to sell. It’s something that is given by the traditions tied to the unique cultures of the individual islands.

What do we want design to do for us and what do we have to understand in order that it can be made to do that? How do we create stuff that’s good for us and not bad for others, or the environment? A good understanding of systemics helps us to better understand the possible impacts.

I am not talking only about educating younger generations about design. We need to focus on it as professionals as well. As designers, we’ve not been very good about explaining what we are doing by sharing our insights. We don’t know what design is so much because it is such a mystery. When you think about how we imagine something that doesn’t exist, but is desired, and then bring it into existence, that’s a pretty big deal.

How does this relate to design for health?

One of the things I’ve noticed is that everything we design is either an element in a system or a system itself. Whether we are aware of that or even understand it, design does not happen in a vacuum. It’s all connected including with health.

We need to get more into the habit of looking in-between things instead of only looking at individual things, so we see the connections, links, and relationships in place. For example, I heard a lot of categories being referenced today at the Symposium. Categories such as ‘old people’ (category) and ‘children’ (category), but I didn’t hear a lot about the bonds formed between a grandfather and a granddaughter. Bonds which create an emergent social system through the links, relationships and connections between them.

I am convinced that healthy systems are living systems where the right relationships, links and connections are in place and strong. Currently in the US there’s a big concern about the younger generations who have become isolated from one another as a result of technology and social media. They are very lonely despite the expanded opportunity for social connections which the new technologies have created. There’s a lot of lonely kids because we’ve failed to design the vital in-betweens for them. Technology does not create essential, healthy in-betweens on its own, although it’s advertised that way.

You mentioned in your keynote that an important part of collaboration is communication, and talked about communicating design. Why is collaboration and communication important in design for health?

Essentially collaboration is a social process. To support this process we need to communicate effectively. In my experience, a good design team and cohort are very diverse. Good communication is essential.  A collaborative team includes members who are not all the same but are equal participants. They are different in that they have different strengths and different tasks to do and they have different ideas that they are expected to contribute. There is even more demand for greater diversity and collaboration in a design team than there is in other types of teams. Transforming a group into a design team requires high levels of communication skills. Good communication skills are essential to facilitating the ongoing work of a design team. Almost by definition collaboration is communication.

We can talk about design in relationship to health because amongst design team members and design cohort members we can form shared understandings of what that relationship should look like and can start the design process from common ground.


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