Reflections on the DO-ference: Clues for Design’s Frontier

By Marc Rettig


During the days of DO-ference work sessions, a few moments stand out for me as clues that something important was happening under the surface. Here are a few of those moments:

Moment: A Waters Avenue resident said to me, “I have an idea for a business, and last night I figured out how to start it. First a short test. If it works it can grow step-by-step until it becomes permanent. And if that doesn’t happen, the steps along the way will be fun and low risk. And you know, if I hadn’t been in the work session yesterday, I never would have thought to do it this way.”

Moment: During a conversation between a SCAD professor and a leading member of the Waters Avenue business community, the professor said this: “The people in this room are going home in a couple of days. But I am not leaving. I promise that I will continue to work with you, and we’ll carry this momentum forward. I’m not going anywhere.”

Moment: A question to one of the Waters Avenue residents: “Would you like to go to design school?” Her instant response, spoken with bright eyes: “I would love to.”

These tell us something about the difference between the design we’re used to – design of things, design of “solutions” – and the frontier we step into when we set out to help a neighborhood improve itself as a whole living system.

Seeing “what is” and “what could be”

After a preconception-busting guided walk down Waters Avenue, “Team Business” set to work. From the start we did what designers are trained to do: we started imagining new possibilities.

The people of Waters Avenue have plenty of ideas of their own; I didn’t hear them asking for more ideas. But designers see what is and what could be at almost the same time. We’re good at vision. We love to see glowing fantasies of realized possibility in our minds, and we believe in them. They are professional fantasies, but still they are outsider fantasies.

I’m going to use a plant metaphor to talk about this. Here’s a start: a few plants representing existing businesses, and a couple of glowing ideas for new ones:

Seeing this way is such an ingrained habit for designers, sometimes it seems we are uncomfortable with seeing what’s really there – simply sitting with the situation and absorbing it as it is, without the glow of our imagination.

The importance of the invisible

The once-thriving area around Waters Avenue has been troubled for decades. There’s a history of repeated disappointment, as offers of outside help first raised hopes, then disappeared. Confidence has been damaged by the difficulty of bootstrapping new growth on their own, and they feel disconnected from and ignored by the prosperity blossoming in other parts of town.

The residents came to us saying the neighborhood has deep-seated issues of trust, confidence, disconnection, and identity. The essential things to know about “what is” are mostly invisible.

The great challenge of the invisible

Waters Avenue residents talked less about the plants – the existing and potential new businesses – and more about the roots and soil. But most of the ideas on the wall in our work room were about specific businesses and how to help them succeed. We frequently returned to the root challenges – trust and confidence and so on – but it was difficult for us to think of ideas that dealt with them directly. Designers are used to working with the material of products and services, strategy and execution. We work with visible results. And for much of the workshop, we kept returning to our zone of comfort.

This is one of the great challenges of work that aims to improve situations that are mostly made of people and relationships: what are our tools for enriching the soil – the invisible but critical qualities of people’s inner lives and relationships? Without such tools, without attention to the soil, new initiatives are just as likely to wither as the previous ones. Without such tools, the burden of each initiative’s success rests solely on its own design.




Moments like those I described at the beginning provide a clue for working in the soil of social situations:

The ingredients for what needs to happen are already there, inside the situation.

The committed people are there, with enduring wells of energy and hard-shelled optimism. Many others are there whose interest, trust and engagement lies latent. Ideas and creativity are there, naturally connected to the realities of the neighborhood in ways outside designers could never achieve. People and ideas wait just under the surface, needing only the right conditions to help them sprout.

Another clue came from the ideas that most excited the Waters Avenue business owners. Many of them were surface actions aimed at soil results. One example came from a Waters Avenue businessman: Design a sign that reads, “Member of the Waters Avenue Business Association,” and put it in the windows of each business in the district. For the designers in the room, this sounded like small beans. It sounded like something any of us could have knocked out in an afternoon. But for the residents, it represented soil work:

- conversations with the business owners about joining together in an association. This would lead to new and stronger relationships between current members and the other businesses. It would add up to a collective sense of belonging among the business owners, and greater membership would add up to something with energy and momentum that new business owners could join and benefit from.

- a visible signal to everyone who lives around Waters Avenue that something is happening. That someone is giving attention and energy to business in the district. And that would spark conversations among residents, with both hope and cynicism coming out in the open where they can be addressed.

One small sign would be the visible evidence of a much bigger effort, consisting mostly of invisible conversations and relationships.

Tools for design’s frontier

For many of the Waters Avenue participants, the DO-ference experience was profound.

A profound experience touches people. It sheds light on their beliefs and presuppositions, opening them to change. It touches their identity. We saw shifts from “Someday I’ll do it” to “We’re doing it.” From “trust is broken on Waters Avenue” to “It is our work to foster trust.”

Sharing a profound experience changes the conversation. Relationships form that are based on something deeper than shared interest. Relationships form that are based on a sense that something bigger is happening, each person is part of it, and each was present at its birth.

I believe this is a frontier for design: soil work, root work – using the tools of shared experience and open dialog to nurture the conditions needed for the possibilities already present in the situation to grow.

The question is not, “What can we design to help the people of Waters Avenue?” The question is, “How can we help the people of Waters Avenue have experiences and conversations that lead to the growth of what’s already there?” This is the frontier where design meets social innovation.


Marc Rettig is principal of Fit Associates where he uses research, guided cultural immersion, facilitation, co-design, and communication design to build bridges between product organizations and the lives of the people they affect. Increasingly, Fit’s work also includes community-building efforts and nurturing local systems. Marc is a faculty member of the Masters in Design for Social Innovation program at the School of Visual Arts. Marc is working on a synthesis of literature and practices across the areas of design, immersive research, living systems theory, and social change facilitation, some of which can be found at

3 Responses to “Reflections on the DO-ference: Clues for Design’s Frontier”

    • Marc Rettig

      Thanks, Dan. On first skim I love both of those links, and agree they are related. The brickstarter idea is yummy. Will give more attention to these, and ping you if I have more to say or ask. Thank you!
      - Marc


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