Designing stuff: lame gods in the service of prosthetic gods

 Harold G. Nelson    hnelsonat
Professor of Design in the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University April 16, 2010
, 12:50pm, Gates B01

From the beginning of human history the ability to design was a competence that distinguished us as human beings. As humans we did not discover fire–we designed it. Nor did we invent the wheel–it too was designed. The real world is a composite of past designs, which we continue to re-create on a daily basis. The ability to design is a traditional, powerful and significant human competence. Yet, designing as an activity, designers as agents of change, and designs as markers of evolution, are not part of an ongoing public discourse to the extent that science and art are.

Matters of concern in today’s world are not merely subsets of matters of fact. Design is not an applied science or an applied art. It is its own tradition of inquiry and action. Description and explanation do not prescribe action–designing does. Prediction and control do not justify action–designing does. Many of the issues that seem most pressing to the general public–ranging from innovation to sustainability–can be best joined by design. It is important that we understand the nature of designing (agency), designers (lame gods), and designs (prosthetic gods). It is important to do this quickly before design thinking becomes just another passing "management by best seller" fad.


Dr. Harold Nelson is the 2009-2010 Nierenberg Distinguished Professor of Design in the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University. In addition he is a Senior Lecturer in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. Recently he served as an affiliated Associate Professor in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Washington and worked in research for the NSF funded center for Learning in Informal and Formal Environments at the University of Washington, Stanford University and SRI. For over twelve years Dr. Nelson was the head of the Graduate Programs in Whole Systems Design (WSD) at Antioch University.

As a consultant, Dr. Nelson has worked with a variety of organizations, including: non-profits and corporations, state and federal agencies, international governments, and the United Nations, and continues to work as an educator, consultant, and researcher in the field of organizational systems design where he brings both design thinking and systems science to his focus on leadership in innovation and sustainability in design.

He is a past-president and a trustee of the International Society for Systems Science. He is the co-founding Director and President of the Advanced Design Institute, a not-for-profit educational organization. A licensed architect in California, Dr. Nelson worked for several years as an assistant regional architect for Region Five of the U.S. Forest Service. Prior to that he worked in private practice.

In 2004, "The Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World; Foundations and Fundamentals of Design Competence", a book co-authored with Dr. Erik Stolterman, received the Outstanding Book of the Year award from the Division of Instructional Development of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology.

Dr. Nelson received his Ph.D. in Social Systems Design from the University of California at Berkeley. He also received his Master of Architecture degree from U.C. Berkeley, and a Bachelor of Architecture from Montana State University. Dr. Nelson studied architecture at the Technical University in Helsinki, Finland where in addition he studied ceramic design at the Athenaeum Fine Arts Academy.

The talks are open to the public. They are in the Gates Building, Room B01 in the basement. The nearest public parking is in the structure at Campus Drive and Roth Way.

View this talk on line at CS547 on Stanford OnLine.

Titles and abstracts for previous years are available by year and by speaker.