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Design Situation

A design situation is a model of the context to which a design intervention will be applied to bring about beneficial change.

What is a design situation?

A situation is a description of real-world circumstances pertinent to some question or goal.

The goal of designing is to improve the way things are, so design situations are descriptions of real-world circumstances that include all the necessary information to specify not only the “as-is” state of things, but also the information needed to specify the nature and extent of imbalances.

Another way of thinking about this is: to be meaningful, designing must be grounded in some real-life conditions. The less concrete the conditions for which one designs, the less likely that the design intervention will improve things. So the best design interventions will be those that are firmly rooted in real-life conditions.

Why do we need to know about design situations?

Say you're designing a stapler. If you want to design a beneficial stapler, you would need to know quite a bit about the circumstances in which the stapler will be manufactured, sold, used, and disposed of.

  • How many sheets do prospective users want to staple at once?
  • How often do users typically need to use it?
  • What are prospective users willing to pay for a stapler?
  • How long do prospective users expect the stapler to last?
  • What (dis)abilities will its users have (that will influence their use of the stapler)?
  • What regulations and laws govern staplers in the regions in which you expect them to be sold?1)
  • How many staplers do you need to make & sell? (This will influence manufacturing, supply chain, and other life cycle aspects of the stapler's existence.)

The answers to these questions are just some of the situational characteristics that typically apply to products like staplers. A beneficial stapler is one that addresses all the pertinent characteristics non-negatively. So you cannot design a beneficial stapler - and therefore discharge your primary responsibility as a designer - without understanding the situation into which your stapler will be introduced.

To answer these questions, you need to study the environment in which your stapler will be used - before you start designing it. If you answer them well, then it is more likely that your stapler design will be balanced for that environment - which means it will provide the desired benefits.

How do we model situations?

Situations involve many objects, agents, people, phenomena, and non-linear interactions between all them all. The best modelling techniques for situations are therefore those of systems science: flow diagrams, causal loop diagrams, etc.

It is often very difficult to build these diagrams without investing very significant resources into the task. If doing so is beyond the scope of the design task that has been set for you, more informal, narrative techniques may be sufficient. In these techniques, you just describe in natural language the nature of the environmental elements that constitute a situation.

Whether using the tools of systems science or not, the most significant task in modelling situations is gathering the information needed to create that model. No matter how good your modelling skills are, the resulting model is no better than the information you used to build it.

So the question reduces to: How do we gather good-quality, robust, reliable information about a situation?

Answering this question will require doing research, because it's virtually impossible that you'll have the necessary information at hand.

Typically, doing the research for situation modelling will happen in five stages:

  1. Preliminary Research. Guided only by the primary question - What is the current situation? - all team members conduct their own research.
  2. Preliminary Review. The team meets to share what they've discovered. All information is put into a single reference document that everyone on the team can access, and that captures in as rigorous a form as possible all the results of the preliminary research.
  3. Developing Targeted Research Goals & Questions. As a result of the preliminary review, new, more specific questions about the situation will arise. Document these questions. Divide responsibility for researching further among all team members.
  4. Deep Research. Guided by the more detailed questions from Step 3, team members individually (or in sub-teams) conduct the research necessary to find appropriate answers.
  5. Synthesize all Research. Finally, the team meets to share what they've learned from the deep research work. All new information is synthesized into the reference document.

Now, your team can build a model of the situation. This can be just the reference document described above, but it is almost always useful((where “useful” in this case means very likely to lead to a better final design.) to build a few diagrammatic elements - as mentioned at the beginning of this section - because diagrams rule.


Model Imperfections
Every model is, by definition, imperfect. Your model of a design situation may not be sufficiently accurate. Remain open and flexible to discovering and correcting model imperfections at any time during your project.
Model Incompleteness
Every model is, by definition, incomplete. Your model of a design situation may exclude features, elements, and aspects that will lead you to a design intervention that does not achieve the expected benefits or, even worse, makes the actual situation worse. Remain open and flexible to discovering and accounting for theretofore unknown features of a situation.
Situation Drift
You model the design situation at the very beginning of a design project. It takes time to design and implement/manufacture a design intervention. This means that the situation may change between when you model it and when your intervention is ready. This will lead to an unbalanced design because the intervention will no longer align with the situation.
To avoid this, review your situation model at the end of each design stage. If you do find that the situation has changed, you will have to update your situation model, and then perform a design iteration to ensure your intervention is still balanced.

See Also

  • Situated design is grounded in various scientific ideas and theories, primary of which is situated cognition, a theory of how knowledge and action are related. This makes sense from a design point of view, because designing is an action driven by knowledge.
  • Gero and Kannengiesser [GK06] have embedded situated cognition into their model of designing.


GK06. a J.S. Gero and U. Kannengiesser. 2006. The situated function-behaviour-structure framework. Design Studies, 25:373-391.
While there are no known regulations regarding the sale and use of staplers, there are regulations in some regions of the world governing the manufacture and disposal of objects like staplers, especially with respect to environmental concerns.
design/situation.txt · Last modified: 2020.08.01 20:21 by Fil Salustri