Book Notes: “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses”

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary
By Dan Hill
Strelka Press, 2012

Podcaster Tim Ferriss asks the people he interviews a useful (and revealing) question: What book have you gifted most often? My answer to this question is Dan Hill’s Dark Matter and Trojan Horses, an essay about strategic design. I’ve probably cited, recommended, and gifted this short book more than any other, mostly to other designers.

The main point of the essay is that design is useful for more than just creating great products and services. (Essentially, solutions to pre-defined — and often ill-defined — problems.) Instead, design can help us tackle a wide range of wicked problems at the social and organizational levels:

[…] strategic design […] is focused on the systemic redesign of cultures of decision — making at the individual and institutional levels, and particularly as applied to what we can think of as the primary problems of the 21st century — healthcare, education, social services, the broader notion of the welfare state, climate change, sustainability and resilience, steady state economic development, fiscal policy, income inequality and poverty, social mobility and equality, immigration and diversity, democratic representation and so on.

These are complex issues, and “traditional” design approaches are missing concepts essential for effective interventions. This is where the “strategic vocabulary” of the subtitle comes in: The book offers a taxonomy of strategic concepts such as McGuffin (“the artefact that will motivate the various actors to create a richly rewarding experience for the audience, and enable strategic outcomes by also addressing the context”), matter vs. meta (the designers forms of a project vs. the context they exist in), trojan horse (“an artefact that carries ‘hidden’ strategic elements”), platform (the thing to be designed not as a one-off but as a platform for future such plays), and layer (after Stewart Brand et al).

Perhaps the most important of these terms is dark matter, the “organisational culture, policy environments, market mechanisms, legislation, finance models and other incentives, governance structures, tradition and habits, local culture and national identity, the habitats, situations and events that decisions are produced within.” For wicked problems, these forces — which are “sometimes buried deep within the organisational cult or the policy environment” — are more powerful than the more obvious (superficial) forces that designers normally think of as their remit. Strategic interventions can be more effective instigators of change than broader (often abstract) policy change initiatives, and design is well-suited to creating interventions that move things in the right direction. The book presents several case studies of such interventions.

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses offers an approach to solving complex problems by nudging designers towards defining the “architecture of the problem” (“questioning the question, reframing if necessary”). Moving towards systemic resilience requires a broader understanding of what design is in service to; it requires that designers grapple with the realpolitik of complex challenges. This book expands our perspective of design and offers conceptual tools to work within this unfamiliar landscape. It’s a call-to-action for designers to engage with the urgent issues our world faces today at levels in which we can effect meaningful change.

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