Stephen P. Anderson

Oct 12, 2020

36 min read

Hopeful and Powerless? Design in a Crisis

A transcript of my Euro IA 2020 keynote.

I used this image from the game ‘Journey’ as my cover slide. It’s… very fitting!
  • Where do we spend our time — on what is known, or unknown?
  • In what ways do we ‘map out’ uncharted territory?
  • For us, what are the places yet to be explored?
  • What insights have we gleaned?
“Things to Think With”
  • How do we talk about checking our beliefs and perceptions of reality, without legitimizing cases of ‘gaslighting’ and other toxic situations?
  • How do I support BLM without also perpetuating the kind of colonialism that got us into this mess?
  • How do I focus on the positives, without crossing over into a ‘Pollyanna’ positivity that ignores reality?
  • How do I be the positive change that is needed, and also be authentic, when my authentic self is really struggling?
  • How do I inspire confidence as leader when I don’t feel confident myself?
  • Should I stick it out and fight for change, or is this a lost cause, where I should cut my losses and move on? How do I tell the difference?
  • How do I know which actions will make a difference, and which ones are waste of time?
  • How do I reconcile what is being asked of me against what is (or seems to be) actually needed?
  • How do I be a kind, supportive person (supporting individuals, regardless of where they’re at), but also speak up about the outrage I feel about injustices, intolerance, and idiocracy?
  • How do we go about business as usual, with so many bigger issues going unaddressed?

1. Crisis

  • Just a few years ago, I went through an existential work crisis. After 20 years as a designer, I was done. It just didn’t feel authentic anymore—I struggled to find purpose in what I was doing. But I wasn’t sure what I did want to do next. (I’ll come back to this one.)
  • A crisis can be personal, such the death of someone dear—or distant. We can talk about this loss on its own, but even harder to talk about is the grief that hangs around after…
  • At a smaller scale, we can even think of that conflict with a co-worker or boss as a crisis; maybe taking that job that didn’t turn out like you had hoped…
  1. The Climate Crisis
  2. Data Privacy (& Human Rights)
  3. Critical Thinking (and Education, more broadly)
  1. Critical Thinking (and Education, more broadly)
  2. Data Privacy (& Human Rights)
  3. The Climate Crisis

Agency, or the Lack Thereof

Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.

—Rebecca Solnit

2. Hope

[ Hope ≠ Optimism ]
[ Hope = Uncertainty = Possibility]
[ Hope Requires Action]
It’s all too easy to relate to Elliot’s frustration with Evil Corp
  • Appeal to our senses
  • Clarify specific details
  • Focus on actions

Fighting For (vs Against)

Fighting for something beats
fighting against something.

3. Check In with Yourself

  1. The world of external, outward problems. Service design challenges. Organizational complexity. Systems problems. The need for better decision and thinking tools.
  2. The world of inward struggles. Things like psychological safety, vulnerability, self-awareness, team coordination, and the like.

How can we hope deal with outer complexity until we learn how to deal with inner complexity?

Facts, Beliefs, Narratives, and Prior associations.

Systemic Problems

Check your Reserves

Check In, with Others

Your turn:

4. Know Yourself



Mission & Purpose:

To make learning the hard stuff fun, by making ‘things to think with’ and ‘spaces’ for generative play.


  • There are those whose role is to provoke, through polarizing and extreme statements. These people bang a drum and call attention to critical topics. They’re not necessarily wrong, but they can be controversial figures.
  • There are others whose role it is to translate and explain, in a less divisive way. These are the teachers, who will explain why yes, this is a concern, they’ll unpack the inflammatory statements.
  • There are others who spread the message, passing on and sometimes amplifying
  • There are others who are are there to support or encourage, as needed.

5. Action

Just a few of MANY possible actions!

Coherent Actions

Letting Go

“Let it go, let it go…”

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference


Do nothing


Speaker, educator, and design leader. On a mission to make learning the hard stuff fun, by creating ‘things to think with’ and ‘spaces’ for generative play.

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