I was having a Slack chat with Punya Mishra yesterday and we began discussing different phrases that include “design”. Both of us like to go a bit against the grain, thinking critically about common terms and phrases. For example, we once gave a conference presentation entitled “Why Design Thinking Sucks (in Education),” where we listed several problems with common “design thinking” approaches in education.

The conversation started with questioning of the term “design listening” (the title of my last post). I chose design listening because I was trying to figure out how to explain a designerly way of being responsive and centered on the needs of others (“human-centered,” if you will). It was an attempt to use “design” as an adjective, designating a certain type of listening. But it isn’t my favorite phrase.

As we explored this phrase, a few variations came up which made me think deeper about what I mean by “design.”

“Listening By Design”

The phrase “by design” emphasizes the intentionality in how something is created. It describes that something is how it is because we made it like that. It also allows a double meaning (planning something + doing it). But there are a few things I don’t like so much about this phrase:

  1. It discounts the more tacit design we are always engaged in. Perhaps that is the point–that something is happening with more intention. However, I think recognizing that we are designing even when we aren’t specifically focused on design is important. It’s a core argument of our Five Spaces for Design in Education framework–that educational artifacts, processes, systems, etc. are “designed.” This doesn’t mean that the people who created them thought “I’m going to build a school system by design.” But that was what they were doing.
  2. It seems to imply that a design is completed–we creatED it “by design.” However, I see design as a more active and continual process, one that is part planning but also significantly improvised. I think my position comes from reading Lucy Kimbell (in particular her “Rethinking Design Thinking” articles). She differentiates design-as-practice and designs-in-practice. Design as practice emphasizes the distributed and discursive activities of designers, while designs-in-practice is used to draw attention to the nature of “enacted designs.” According to Kimbell, there is never a singular or final design as participants–including users–bring their own meaning and adopt the design in various ways.

“Designing Listening”

This also emphasizes the intentionality of listening in design (including that we might “design the listening”). However, it suffers from similar issues as the phrase “by design.” In particular, to me it seems to suggest something complete instead of something that is in process.

“Listening Through Design”

This phrase allows design to be the core practice through which listening occurs. It emphasizes the ongoing and practice-based nature of design. Clearly I prefer this!

However, I think the heart of this problem is not as much how “design” is used as the term “listening.” Listening can be seen as active, but it perhaps goes too far in de-centering the designer/facilitator. I believe it’s important to be cognizant of the designer role in any context, recognizing that even when you want to focus on others’ interests, your interpretations and actions will still influence what is created. As a designer, you are part of the “conversation with the situation,” and what you do impacts what is produced.

In the end, I chose the phrase “design listening” because I wished to emphasize the type of activity that designers use to center others’ needs and understand a situation. Researchers often discuss “collecting data” as a objective activity, sanitized from the biases of the researchers. The power of design, though, is that it’s not just about understanding, it’s about creating meaning together, perhaps a type of “Data Construction.” Which, BTW, is a class I took at Arizona State University. But I’ll stop there.


Kimbell, L. (2011). Rethinking design thinking: Part I. Design and Culture, 3(3), 285–306. https://doi.org/10.2752/175470811X13071166525216

Kimbell, L. (2012). Rethinking design thinking: Part II. Design and Culture, 4(2), 129–148. https://doi.org/10.2752/175470812X13281948975413