Reading Response 3 / Astrid Otero

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary by Dan Hill is all about defining what strategic design is under the context of product and its frame of reference and how to oscillate between these two states in order to come up with better solutions. This seems fairly straight-forward, but it’s not quite the whole story of all strategic design can be. Hill writes about dark matter, all the intangible, messy politics that allow things to function the way they do – which, of course, usually exist right above a designer’s head. Still, to be an effective designer you must recognize these elusive things as a necessary part of the “design challenge” for they allow you to draw a wider net around a problem as well as give you as much insight into the question as the solution.

I found this all very interesting yet I was more personally captivated by ways to explore/think about strategic design which Dan Hill would later present.

“Design as a cultural act,” for example, are words that stuck out for me. This idea that design is most valuable when synthesizing disparate views and articulating alternative patterns of living, is the reason why I am in design and not some other product adjacent field like engineering or even merchandising. Beyond that, I have always been aware of the potential for change design has so I was further enthralled when Jonathan Ive’s perspective was unpacked.

“[…] it privileges the viewpoint of the designer, suggesting that the designer has perhaps the fundamental position in reorienting the world, that all things are design challenges.”

Ive’s way of viewing design doesn’t just create privilege, however, there is an enormous sense of accountability and responsibility that goes with it. You can see this in the examples of failure not being chalked up to the absence of attention but strong design decision-making, mostly when financial interests trump everything else.

There I was nodding my head as I read, when Hill decides to play devil’s advocate via “the characteristics of self-organizing systems!” He references David Korowicz, who argues things like that global economy are beyond our ability to understand, design and manage. Furthermore, he presents examples on algorithm-driven trades, which I have minimal knowledge on, but I do know that these are codes humans in fact wrote and can no longer read. Still, at this moment I cannot give up on Ive’s arguments for design, yet as I question to do so Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary asks what I’m thinking, “what are we supposed to do? Helplessness is not a happy place.”

Overall, I do not think all design lives in a middle-ground between the two arguments, it perhaps looks more like a spectrum, but it is likely most design has the potential to live in a space of impact under systems we don’t fully understand. As the text says, “with this more investigative view of design, there are no claims to having a clearly prescribed course of action with a straight line to the ideal solution. Yet we can still see the world as malleable.”

Transitioning off of that the article, Strategic Design vs. Tactical Design by Joe Johnston compliments the previous reading because in my mind it positions design right into the middle-ground emphasized by Hill. Johnston talks about two different approaches to design problem-solving. Where strategic design is focused on the “big picture” via systemic challenges that should inform product in order to have unabridged solutions; tactical design centers on iterative and adaptive solutions that through feedback loops are able to make way for more accurate questions as well as solutions. Similar to Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary the best outcome might just come through combining tactics as both are needed and important in their own right.

Reading Response 3 / Margot Harknett

I found this article to be very interesting as it explores the forces that make an idea reality or reality produce an idea. In the article they categorize this as “matter” and “meta,” Call the context ‘the meta’ and call the artifact ‘the matter’. Strategic design work swings from the meta to the matter and back again, oscillating between these two states in order to recalibrate each in response to the other.” (45) In an example of a car the article points out that all the work that goes on in the background i.e. everything from the company’s cultural habits to it’s networking is “all dark matter; the car is the matter it produces.” (83) “The dark matter of strategic designers is organizational 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. This may well be the core mass of the architecture of society, and if we want to shift the way society functions, a facility with dark matter must be part of the strategic designer’s toolkit.” (83) this explanation of what dark matter is and how it applies to design shows how much we need and take for granted what goes in to making society work. Some people just see design as something that just exists, when I talk about my major or the co-ops I have worked for I’ve had so many people tell me that they never thought that someone actually sat there and went though the long process of concept to final product. I worked for Frontgate designing doormats and while they aren’t matters of extreme importance a lot went into the making of one. Like the article says designers and clients alike are, “attracted to the shiny end of projects, rather than delving into the dark matter and settling in for the lengthy engagement with and organization.” (94) I feel like we all get caught up in this a lot of the time and we must remind ourselves that the relationship between artifact and the system must exist or a project will fail.

Another quote that I liked and I felt perfectly represented our class was, “to ‘get the measure of a job, to get close to it, (you) project its life to absurdity (in all directions: scale, function, material, etc.) and then pull back to some sense of boundary in what you propose to do’”. (91) This statement opened a whole new door for me, I always use to think ideas had to be realistic, that you could have some out of the box ones but that you had to keep yourself relatively in check. While that isn’t a bad thing to keep in mind it can cut down on creativity that has potential to spark other ideas. Using strategic design and the system of dark matter, “design cannot pursue some prescribed rational course of action towards a solution” (106) instead it explores all options to fully understand the situation. In an article I found called Strategic Design vs. Tactical Design, they describe strategic design (or dark matter) as being, “effective way to bridge innovation, research, management and design.”

Reading Response 3 / Adam Stafford

Initially, dark matter seemed like another concept that I would struggle to wrap my head around. Four words used in this week’s reading assignment that I feel suit the topic quite well are “intangible, bewildering and complex”. However, after spending a bit of time with the text, I found myself growing more comfortable with the topic, as well as its relation to the larger concepts at play in this class.

In chapter four of his book, Dan Hill does a phenomenal job of explaining something that is not only inherent in design, but in life in general really. He makes clear the details of this imperceivable mass that, in my mind, has at times begged for explanation, but due to its elusive nature, has never been seen clearly until now. Dark matter, as Hill calls it, is all the stuff that happens in between tangible stages of something we design. These are the intangible things that are present in any design solution like, “policy environments, market mechanisms, legislations, 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.”

An understanding of dark matter is key to making real change when it comes to the larger institutions and routines that we experience day to day, because dark matter is the thing that accepts or rejects progress. Take for example the Renew Newcastle campaign, in which a group of people were able to reinvigorate a city center by understanding what dark matter lay between empty buildings and the bustling crowds that once populated those city streets. Marcus Westbury and his team found an alternative to the typical legal formalities that usually come with occupying a space, leasing, and instead “used licenses not leases, we asked for access, not tenancy,” as he put it. As a result, all in a matter of two short years the area was transformed and new businesses, organizations and communities moved in- all this based on the simple premise of a license for use of the space instead of the binding legality of a lease. Nothing more than a minor tweak to the system that has yielded largely positive results for all parties.

Renew Newcastle is not only an excellent example of the potential for change there is if more people had a better understanding of dark matter, but it is also a great case study for what we’re learning in this class. I find the idea of dark matter and narrowing in on the “architecture of a problem” quite interesting, and I can imagine places where I could apply this to my design work outside of this class. This chapter of Dark Matter and Trojan Horses has really helped me to put the idea of developing, “new ways of being” in perspective, as well as start to imagine the potential for positive change with the skills and knowledge we’re learning here.

Reading Response #3 / Rachel Adkins

As described by Dan Hill in his book Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary, strategic design involves the necessary acknowledgement and understanding of “dark matter”, which surrounds and influences any form of designed material you can imagine. The concept of dark matter, in regards to design, refers to the organizational and cultural contexts in which matter is produced, and how it ultimate has a direct outcome on the material outcome, even if it is undetectable to the user’s eye. A successful strategic designer cannot simply design for the future if they are not prepared to reimagine or reinvent the system (the dark matter contexts) in which their design will take form.

The example used by Hill, of dark matter’s organizational impact on material design, is of conceptual motor vehicle prototype, which is all well and good, and can elicit grand visions of the future, but it is highly unlike to ever come to fruition without taking into consideration the meta that surrounds its production. Hill suggests that just some of those structural considerations include “…the supply chains that might enable their construction and maintenance, the various traffic and planning regulations that must absorb a new vehicle, the refueling infrastructure, and so on.”

A recent proposal put forth in my hometown of Westerville, Ohio provided a chance for me to think about strategic design, or lack thereof, on a personal level. The area of interest is a small, historic section of shops and studios referred to as the Uptown District, and is mainly situated on one road, for probably less than a two-mile stretch. The proposition hopes to revitalize the area, which suffers heavily from business quickly moving in and out of the area, by undertaking a large-scale construction project to widen sidewalks up to seven feet in width in hopes of increasing foot traffic, but as a result remove virtually all space for street parking and create even narrower traffic lanes. Unfortunately, the plan seems to be disconnected from its context within a higher system, and I for one can see it leading to failure. Just some of the structural, systematic dark matter that they have seemingly failed to recognize includes: decreased parking space for businesses in a suburban setting where cars are the main mode of transportation, taxpayers who have been subjected to major construction projects consistently for the past decade, rent increases for small organizations, etc.

I found that this method of deeper level design thinking relates back heavily to the core ideology of speculative design; the idea using design not just as a means of creating products and services for the future, but designing, or re-designing, the actual future itself. Towards the end of the excerpt, Hill discusses how strategic design is inherently exploratory, and rarely has a clear vision for where an idea may end up, as well as the experiences and learnings that ultimately determine how it is achieved (or fails). Strategic design and conceptual design both function under the notion of not necessarily producing the “right” answers, but creating open ended spaces in which we can explore, discuss, and experiment with all possible answers.

Reading Response 3 / Severin Hackspiel

The definition of a vacuum is that there is a void of matter. Imaging being there and designing the void. First, for designing something, something has to present and you as designer would be the only matter in this void space. So your presence as person would destroy the vacuum. Also the void can only be design by a void. But implying this logic to a space, which is not a vacuum, would mean that matter could manipulate other matter. Before manipulating matter with intention, there has to be an understanding of right or wrong first. That you as matter can differentiate between right and wrong is the combination of all impressions you ever had. You’ll design as you expect as the right form for the matter you want to design. So not you the matter is responsible for the final outcome for the design of the other matter, it is a meta level of events, which you had experienced in your lifetime.

This meta level is described by Dan Hill in his Book “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses”, as the name implies, as dark matter. He takes this further as seeing dark matter as the problem which should be designed. Taking the analogy from physics, we’re far away of controlling dark matter, but probably the designers are nearer to this feat than the physicists.

Controlling dark matter is probably one of the hardest steps to take in physics as it is in design. Because this would mean to design the fabric of living and to design any experience everybody can ever have. In other words: Dark-Matter-Concepts are ideas about how we should live together and how set our rules to have a life which is seen as the best for the creator of the concept. So a new DMC is also a product of an existing DMC in which was designed in. Imagining future DMCs, there has to be an understanding how the future will look like.

But as there is, after Heisenberg, no way to predict the exact future, we can only think of possible ways of how life will be in the future. But finding those is where the design begins. Designing dark matter is complicated, because the outcome is hard to predict and we only can try to prove those theories by trying them out.

There was a time in which those DMC were created by philosophes. They thought they would know best which concept of living we should follow. One of these concepts they tried was democracy. We can expierence that effect still today. Many new groups of people followed to create those DMC and by trying them out, we think we found which one works best. The remaining of the last one was described from many historians as the end of history.

But those test, compared to a scientific approach, are be problematic. Many DMC were tested in different conditions and had unequal variables, that the conclusion, that the last remaining one has no alternative and would be the best, is scientifically wrong. So if after the scientific approach says that it is mistaken to title the last remaining DMC as the best, there should be a search after a better one. So who should design new DMCs? Best would be those people who are trying to understand dark matter. Those who know how dark matter forms and flows in the fabric of living should be the best to craft better DMCs.

But not only designing the DMCs should be the challenge, but also designing a test ground for new DMCs. Should it look like battleground like the last one? Or could it exist in a vacuum? Besides that the quest to find new and better DMCs, it is also important to think about how to implement or inject new DMCs in our own dark matter we live in.

Reading Response 03 / Jack Thrun

In his book Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary, Dan Hill refers to the context surrounding a product as “the meta,” or dark matter. This is something I’ve felt has always been common sense in the design process I just didn’t know what the specific word was. What makes strategic design different from traditional design practices, however, is the level to which “this ‘dark matter’ is part of the design challenge” (Hill 81).

When describing dark matter, Hill mentioned that “the user is rarely aware of the organizational context that produced [a product], yet the outcome is directly affected by it” (82). This particular sentence got me thinking about Foxconn, the electronics contract manufacturing company that assembles the iPhone, among other products. As of March 2015, Apple has sold a total of 700 million iPhones and most of those people don’t know the unethical labor practices that went into making those phones. In 2010 alone, there were 18 attempted suicides by Foxconn employees, all of whom jumped from the building. This forced Foxconn to install safety nets at the bottom of their buildings (see Figure 01). This news obviously reached the media but with my feeling that still not many people know about the unethical practices within Foxconn, I wonder if everyone did know who is making the phones, if they would still buy them. The answer is, unfortunately, undoubtedly yes. I find it to be a weird contradiction knowing how connected to our phones we are yet we are so far detached from the processes that actually produce them. The production methods of the iPhone provide quite a literal meaning to the term “Dark Matter.”

When talking about the Renew Newcastle team, Hill focused a lot on the idea of immersion. “Renew Newcastle immersed itself in this world, in order to understand the affordance – the handles, the sockets, the switches – with which it could manipulate the city” (92). This particular passage made me think of Patricia Moore. Patricia Moore, in my mind, is not only the most influential female industrial design, but arguably the most influential industrial design (researcher) period. For three years, Moore disguised herself as an elder woman more than 80 years of age as a sociological experiment to study the lifestyle of elders in North America (see figure 02). This research led to Moore starting her own design firm that specializes in developing new products and services for the lifespan needs of consumers of all ages and abilities. It makes sense that she has been recognized by ID Magazine as one of the “40 Most Socially Conscious Designers” in the world.

At the bottom of page 100, Hill began using a sports analogy and that really roped me in. My life before DAAP was devoted to ice hockey. I played defense. And defensemen in hockey are very similar to quarterbacks in football as they initiate the rush up ice. As the play develops in front of you, you have to think quickly and read the play several moves in advance. Play options come and go in the blink of an eye so you have to be ready to act quick. Hill puts it a little more eloquently when he says “it’s almost instinctive, the sense of reaching into the very matter of an organization and rearranging it on the fly…it requires an understanding of the architecture of two systems – the problem, and the organization – and a sense of direction” (101). Designers have a new role to play and we have to adjust. Long are the days of simply designing “hot shit.” But you can’t disrupt the system without first knowing the structure.

Figure 01: Shot of suicide nets installed at dormitories at iPhone factory Foxconn.
Figure 02: Patricia Moore disguised as an elder woman as part of a 3 year long sociologic experiment to study the lifestyle of elders in North America.

Reading Response Three – Sarah Grunkemeyer

Reading Response 3:

 What is dark matter? Dark matter is approximately 83% of our universe and is virtually undetectable. It is essentially every problem in organizations, culture, and the structural relationships that the world will not unlock and fix for many years to come. In the book, “Dark Matter And Trojan Horses” By Dan Hill explores the opportunities designers could have with the inquiring the skills and knowledge of strategic design. Strategic design is about applying traditional design to the “big picture.” This idea redefines how problems are approached and aims to deliver a resilient solution to the dark matter that surrounds our “missing mass.”

This reading is significant into seeing the big picture in design because as an observer to flaws in the architecture of systems in the today’s society, we must generate wider change in our problem solving. We must think in a larger context like Eliel Saarinen speaks of. He says, “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, and environment in a city plan.” Does that thinking process Saarinen developed help you understand the purpose and significant of strategic design? What we design is just a start of a complex net of relationships and by considering it’s intent, can create a successful outcome of this move to overcome dark matter.

Instead of copying and pasting design work, which will only cause more “wicked problems,” we must be innovative. We need to train ourselves and others to see patterns, make connections, and understand relationships because everything is a decision and we must know how to choose the influential one. Figuring out how to make small moves in this complex system of life, we can cause a shift of change. Reflecting on Kevin Slavin, “These are things humans write, but no longer can read.” As designers, we have to know how to read before, during, and after frameworks so that our plans can minimize dark matter.

Personal Source:

The reason I find this source so relatable with this reading is because the issues society is dealing with; healthcare, education, public safety, economic development, Ext, is the cause of dark matter. Every city is facing failure with these problematic systems that are yet to be fully understood or corrected due to a large chunk of ignorance.

In “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses,” John Lanchester is quoted,” Failure wasn’t so much the absence of attention to individual details as it was an entire culture to do with the primacy of business, of money, of deregulation, of putting the interests of the financial sector first. This brought us to the point in which a belief in the free market became a kind of secular religion. The tends of that religion are familiar… all debatable contestable positions – but in Angelo-Saxon world we forget to contest them.”

I find this significant with this article because as designers, we sometimes forget that a good system can be better. Even if people seem content with this religious like practice for such ways in our society, we but challenge them to create a better and stronger way of living.

Reading Response #3 | Zack Sickman

I believe a question that may almost never be boiling up inside of every designer is what will happen if the actually blows up and becomes extremely popular. Along with that thinking, this question accomplices new design and products and lot more intuitively than previous designs. The central core to the reading is the idea of surveying dark matter surrounding products and reality in order to design with the mindset that design is nothing more than the products of their dark matter.

On a side note that kind of relays back into the reading*

It is a pet peeve of mine when designers stumble upon a separate science’s discoveries or procedures and morph them to fit their own philosophies. To be ethical, a designer should only use these discoveries in a truly collaborative method that benefits both parties equally. I bring this to attention because usually the designer seems to gravitate only to the end results of these constructs and not the rigor or actual science behind it diminishing the sciences themselves to nothing but the end results.


What I believe happens too often is designers begin doing other science’s work and return back to rebranding it as “design”. And I don’t necessarily believe that this macro scale approach and view is tailored specifically to “design” but rather to particular types of people that thrive off of consuming and understanding different types of knowledge with the intent to leverage this mass accumulation beyond what is initially foreseeable within a single field of thought. These types of people are born innovators and they exist not just under the title designer. What frightens me is that designers believe they have a right or sometimes an obligation to inject themselves in these sciences without knowing enough about them because they’re constantly being told that aesthetic/good design is the number one driver to selling products.


A lot of what designers do in terms of observing people is actually practices of anthropology yet little to no credit to the actual science gets mentioned. One line from the reading was “seeing patterns, making connections, and understanding relationships.” Along with that line is “genuine immersion will always achieve richer results in terms of understanding dark matter.” These two lines are literally the definition of anthropology and ethnographic research. It is true that these things make good design but they themselves are not “design”


Where design stands to reclaim these other sciences is in its ability to be actionable, something the author touches on in the mentioning of prototypes. Designers are the answers to the statements, “that might be true, but so what?” in that they can make that “so what” into something. However, the idea that they are inherently trained to find the “that might be true” on such a scale to steer the course of a generation should be mentioned as a collaborative approach encompassing a collection of sciences.

Reading Response 3 | Emily Schaefer

Strategic design is used to find important questions surrounding a design problem/topic in order to create insights that can help evolve the eventual solution. It also looks at the context of how the design will be used which helps determine what the design will be and vice versa.

I think that a lot of design companies are “strategic” in their approach of design concepts for their clients, but there is a difference between being strategic and practicing strategic design according to Dan Hill. He states that the companies who practice strategic design take into account that sometimes the solution isn’t the design itself, but the structure of the system the design will be in. In other words, if you wanted to re-design an apple, instead of looking at the apple itself, you would want to take into account the whole tree planting processes, and re-design the orchard. This is what it means to recognize “dark matter” as a part of the design process.

Hill talks about how dark matter itself can be traced back to a company’s beliefs, values, heritage, environment, culture and structure. Basically, every company is different, and therefore their products are different. Changing a company’s identity would then also change the end result of the products the company makes. So if people hated a certain product, they would either need to look for a different company that sells a better version of that product, or find a way to change the first company’s ways, which as a consumer isn’t really possible. From the text:

“…You can’t design a transformative service without redesigning the organization, and this could only realistically be done from within an organization.”

With that, the fact that designers can’t really help a product reach it’s maximum potential if it belongs to the wrong company to support it, is something that I find particularly frustrating. For me, it’s hard to watch a big company break into a new market, and then squash the ideas/progress of the new brand they bought. If the larger company and smaller company don’t mesh well with their values and structure, the brands begin to suffer, and designers are then brought in to “help” this imbalance by distracting the consumers with beautiful design. Sometimes I feel like we’re asked to put makeup on a pig. However sometimes it’s a good thing like how Amazon was able to lower the prices at Whole Foods. (Link).

One thing I noted from the reading was how the team that built iPlayer had to bring it’s developers up to be at the “same level” as it’s designers and engineers, so that all 3 of the teams would have the same level of respect for each other. I thought it was an interesting shift of internal culture, because it takes a lot of guts for a company to acknowledge that certain teams aren’t working together effectively in the first place. On my first Co-Op, I witnessed a situation like this take place, when certain design teams acted like they were “higher on the totem pole” than others, which stunted the growth of design ideas and to further the products the company was trying to make. However, if all of the teams would have felt like they were on the same playing field, I’m sure that a lot of great progress would have been made.

Another thing that I found interesting was the section that talked about how everything in the world has already been designed, and can therefore be re-designed. It’s kind of crazy to realize that everything in our lives, like numbers, letters, time, our governments, countries, cities… it’s all been designed. Even though that’s true, I’m not sure that at this point, if we wanted to change any of those things, we could. Our systems are too complex to change, and I’m not sure if that to me is satisfying or scary.

Reading Response 3 | Kat Fenton

The first thing that really sparked my interest in this article was on the excerpt on page 81 about re-engaging public planning and other things. It reminded me of a TED talk I watched a year or so ago about designing with the blind in mind. Chris talks about how when you design for people with disabilities, you make everything a little bit easier for people who don’t have disabilities. It’s really good and I highly recommend watching it. The talk about dark matter in this article also reminded me a lot about the butterfly effect. We’re all connected even though we don’t realize it and sometimes the smallest thing, can have a huge effect (like micro aggressions).

The way the book explains dark matter and how we as designers should use it can be seen throughout history. You must redesign not just the car, but the whole manufacturing and distributing system as well if you really want to get something new. Henry Ford would probably be the best example of this. He didn’t just make another carriage. He made an entirely new mode of transportation as well as a new form of manufacturing and distribution. The redesign of the BBC iPlayer is just another example of having to do more than just change the look of something. You have to change the feel of it, and sometimes, it’s better to create something entirely new.

“It seems a bit obvious but the way that public services are organised inevitably influences the outcomes they achieve. Policymakers and managers are taking design decisions all the time, too often without realising it. (Philip Colligan, 2011)”. A really good insight into our government if you ask me. We let our politicians lie to our face nearly every single election, and then when they don’t follow up on their false promises we turn our head the other way and say it must be because of the other party. I’m glad that this book touches on how design and dark matter fit into our societal structure and government. It’s not something you think about everyday. However, just like Dark Matter (my analogy being the butterfly effect) everything is connected and when you stop looking at what’s outside your bubble, you stop progressing.

Design “might instead use prototyping and feedback loops to flush out the right questions in the first place, before embarking on tentative processes that are iterative and adaptive in nature.” This quote gives me quite an optimistic view of what is to come in the next 20 years. It makes this whole read feel a bit more approachable, more human. We all make mistakes and as long as we learn from them, we’ll keep learning and growing.