Skip to content

Archive for


Beyond the Buzzwords

– Allison Wong

design jargon

The unrecoverable situation we’ve all faced

Being thrown into a new environment (the law) has forced me to think a lot about communication, specifically – how to talk about design.  As one of my mentors from the NuLawLab, Dan Jackson, was telling me today, it’s probably an extreme environment in which to practice talking about design, because for lawyers, words are really, really important.

As you can probably imagine, I am frequently faced with situation inside and outside of my internship:

what are you doing this summer

Me (right), at my Fourth of July potluck.

Other variants of this question: What are you doing at a law firm?  So what are you actually doing?  You’re studying design – so what do you want to do with that?

Although I consider myself to be pretty knowledgeable about design and practiced in bringing design to different contexts, this question and the subsequent conversation still tend to make me stumble.  It’s been especially hard since a lot of my work so far has been trying to define a set of parameters for what I can actually accomplish.  And I still have a lot of questions about the role of design in law.  If I was more quantitatively-minded, this internship would be a great opportunity to collect some hard experimental data about successful communication.  What words work?  What explanations leave people confused?  How frequently are certain questions asked?  Nonetheless, it has been a great testing ground for me to hone how I talk about design: what am I doing, what is the role of a designer, why should anyone care.

Why should we care so much about language?  Isn’t the product of our work – its physical existence in the world – the only thing that matters?  While words are superficial, I’ve learned the superficial can be very important.  Striving for clarity is important in itself, but language can easily turn people off.  As a first entry point into deeper discussion, surface explanations can either make people excited and invested in hearing more – or confuse and alienate.

Especially since design has become so visible in popular culture, the risk of using design buzzwords is substantial.  It’s great that a wide range of people have heard about “design thinking.”  I love when people ask me, “Do you know about IDEO?”  However – while I think designers should capitalize on this excitement for new approaches, I’ve learned firsthand – through Design for America – that it can be really hard to earn someone’s trust and respect if you aren’t communicating on the same wavelength.  Buzzwords get in the way more often than not, but they can be very hard to avoid.


So, what AM I doing this summer?  Here’s a version of the words I’m currently testing out (it’s a work in progress):

I’m bringing my point of view as a designer to the formation of a new public interest law center in RI.  As I see it, designers are skilled at understanding how people interact with the man-made world around them: services, products, systems, and institutions.  We discover what’s not working, look at what’s working well, and think creatively about how things could be improved to better work for people.  To do so, we try to deeply understand people’s needs, desires, and experiences.  

In the context of the new law center, I’m hoping to do research that builds a greater understanding of housing related needs (the law center will be focused on housing in the first year).  To do that, I am observing community work and legal proceedings already taking place, and I will be having conversations with individuals about their experiences.  My work can inform the future work of the center and show a process for how similar work can occur in the future.  I believe this kind of design approach can create a legal system that is more responsive and accessible.    

Here are some of the key things I’ve been learning so far about communication:

1. Tailor to different audiences.

If at all possible, relate what you’re doing to the experience of the person you’re talking to and gauge how much they already understand.  For some people, I have to start by explaining what industrial design is.  For others who already somewhat get design – but might be confused about the legal context – I like to throw out something like: “So it’s become a popular thing to put designers in hospitals to come up with creative solutions to making the hospital a more patient-centered place that works better for humans.  What do patients see when they arrive?  Where do they wait?  How do they take home information?  Instead of designing for health care, I’m looking at how the legal system can be a more responsive environment.”

2. Use concrete examples whenever possible.

Most people will not understand when I say “observational design research methods.”  They will understand if I say, “I’ve been sitting in on utility clinics held at the George Wiley Center.  Individuals who are falling behind on utility payments come in to meet with a woman from National Grid.  I’m watching and listening to learn more about people’s experiences with utility issues – how they arrived at the Center, what other issues they’re dealing with, and where they’re directed to go after.  Are there similar opportunities for me to observe the work of your organization to better understand the needs of the people you work with?”

3. Design is not new.

Some people get confused because what you’re describing has been happening for a long time – but just hasn’t been called design.  Perhaps it is a new application of tried methods, or a new bridging of people who didn’t used to work together.  But people have been engaged in creative problem solving for forever, and it’s important to respect that when communicating.  It might look more like policy, or ethnography, or public health – but we need to consider where our practice fits into a history of people who understand, challenge existing structures, and critically make.  In being passionate, optimistic innovators, we risk sounding like we think we can use design to solve everything fast, or that design is always the right answer (it’s not).

Though I’ve been thinking a lot on this matter, I think social design as an emerging field still has a lot to work out about language and framing.  I certainly, am no expert.  When I worked on A Better World by Design last year, I helped plan a panel titled “Beyond the Buzzwords: Examining the Limits of Social Design.”  Clearly, you can see a lot of people were as excited about engaging in this topic as I still am –

Buzzwords panel

Awesome panelists included Briony Hynson, Kyla Fullenwider, Joe Zinter, and Gilad Meron

If you’ve conquered the design jargon pitfalls, mastered the way of communicating elegantly about design within other sectors, have other thoughts on this topic, or just want to ask me what I’m doing this summer, drop me a line!  I’m always down to talk about talking about design.


Resiliency, Redundancy, and Reshaping the Landscape

It isn’t enough to design spaces that operate efficiently under ordinary conditions—we have to consider their ability to weather extraordinary conditions as well. The keys to resilient design include seemingly contradictory concepts: both diversity and redundancy. A resilient system should include a variety of spaces or structures, but it also needs enough of them that they don’t fail all at once during a disaster.

The first, and perhaps most obvious solution, is to elevate anything built near a shoreline. Raise existing buildings, put everything on stilts, and be sure that new construction includes a first story parking garage or an open public space. This makes sense: we should be designing spaces that are meant to flood, rather than fruitlessly hoping we’ll be able to keep water out during a storm.

But designing to ensure the resilience of a single structure doesn’t solve the problem. What about the houses next door? The rest of the town? The state? One answer lies in working with the landscape. Designers and city planners are widening beaches, restoring marshes, and constructing wetlands: they’re letting the landscape act as a buffer zone. These constructions offer active public spaces during nice weather, and wetlands are incredibly diverse ecosystems that can also filter runoff from urban areas.

I took a stab at designing such a space during an advanced architecture studio this past semester, and it was this project that led me to the Maharam S.T.E.A.M. Fellowship and my proposal at Massport. The studio was focused on developing proposals for the Greenway Connector, which is a series of public parks and paths in East Boston managed by Massport and the Boston Redevelopment Authority. My proposal was sited in the Wood Island Marsh, directly across from Massport’s Logan Airport runways. The idea was to create a space that celebrates the marsh’s existing conditions while protecting it from future erosion. During nice weather, the space acts as a public park and is designed to partially flood at high tide. During poor weather, the marsh acts as a buffer zone and absorbs storm surges before water can reach the MBTA tracks that run along the site’s periphery.

Site Analysis

A sectional site analysis of existing plant and animal life in the Wood Island Marsh.


A plan of the proposal.

A plan of the proposal, at median tide.

An exploded axonometric that shows the design’s three main layers.

An exploded axonometric at high tide.  The design includes contoured steps and seating, a constructed path, a graded bank, and a series of canals.

A site model of the proposal.

To see the full project, click here.



A Visit to Projeto Âncora

slide-18  slide-16

I arrived at Porvir through my uncle’s work with a school on the outskirts of São Paulo that encourages learning by doing. Projeto Âncora (which means “anchor”) is an experiment where students meet learning benchmarks by putting their questions to the test. Their educational model is focused on creating a stronger connection between what is taught in the classroom and real-world applications. As a part of my internship at Porvir, I am visiting schools around São Paulo that propose alternative education models. I want to learn about pedagogical styles that engage students in different ways than the traditional classroom model. My first visit was to Projeto Âncora. 

My visit to Âncora last week was refreshing and enlightening. I was able to experience an education model that is unlike traditional schooling, yet students seem even more engaged in what they are doing. In a project-based curriculum, students define their own learning goals and develop separate projects in order to accomplish them. This is very similar to RISD’s approach, as skills are taught through individual projects, and students must manage their activities according to priorities. This method also encourages collaboration, as students realize that many endeavors might require assistance—and also that other students might also be interested in learning the same skills. 

Âncora’s next step in its education model is to integrate more computer-based skills into the curriculum. In the world of education innovation, this is called “blended learning,” where students mix online resources with physical interactions and experiments. They are currently developing a website where students, educators and parents will have access to track the progress of each project. 

Something remarkable about Âncora is that even during their vacation, students wish to come to the school’s campus to continue doing research for their projects. Âncora has no tuition fee, and they offer invaluable resources to students who may otherwise not have access to schools. With this experience in hand, I am able to imagine the application of alternative education models in various situations. With schools like Âncora popping up all around the world, it is important to document experiences and learning outcomes in order to take each initiative to its full potential. For those opening new schools, documentation of existing projects such as this one is key to creating “unique but reproducible” experiences. 

Projeto Âncora is definitely a candidate for the 100+ list, which is in the works here at Porvir! 


Check out Projeto Âncora’s website HERE! 


Tracing the Fallout: Interviewing Locals

Gabriela Epstein

These past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to research and interview a number of locals about their personal experiences with Three Mile Island, the accident in 1979 and how that inspired them to speak up about nuclear power in the Middletown/Harrisburg community. What makes these individuals so interesting is their, for lack of a better word, utter ordinary-ness. Their lives were emblematic of classic americana culture: small town, blue collar townspeople who kept their heads down and worked hard to provide for their families. Middletown was, and is, still a quiet, heavily conservative town in which ‘normalcy’ is aspired to and activism is not. So, one can only imagine the magnitude of confusion, panic and utter disillusionment that must have ensued from the day of the accident that managed to galvanize a loose collection of concerned neighbors into a movement of organized activists.

It was so interesting to learn about these people: mothers, daycare workers, farmers, whose lives were turned upside down by the accident, and how they tried to make sense of it all. Many had had little to no education on nuclear energy, but with determination and hard work, they began to do their own research and became bonafide experts in their own right. Despite inner turmoil in the affected areas, these concerned townspeople gathered the confidence needed to question the actions of Metropolitan Edison, the NRC and the government– even taking the NRC to the Supreme Court in the mid ’80’s. Again, these were working-class folk– not lawyers or well-connected white collars– but they stood their ground against a collection of agencies. And sometimes even their own neighbors. Questioning the incident earned many of these folks the title of ‘radical;’ a term that engendered a bit of tension and fear in the affected areas surrounding TMI. To understand the evolution of thought brought upon by a single accident that could lead an individual to go from your average ‘Joe the Plumber’ to a radical (on both a micro and macro scale) has been an extremely engaging experience.

Below are a few photos from my travels through Middletown and Central PA. As you can see, it’s a rural setting. Included (from left to right) are: Doris Robb, an activist now based in Lancaster– she helped conduct health surveys & radiation monitoring around TMI, Mary Stamos– a woman who became an activist after evacuating and noticing her children’s hair fall out; she’s spent years conducting research and collecting mutated specimens of local fauna (where radiation is the prime suspect), the stacks of boxes pictured below contain her collections which might be evaluated for inclusion in the Smithsonian, and finally Jim Hurst, a member of the activist group PANE (people against nuclear energy) that took the NRC to the Supreme Court; he and his wife are proud of their garden, though, much to their chagrin, you can see the plant’s cooling towers through the bushes.