Design Thinking with metaLAB at the Berkman Center

In regard to the possibility of a new graphic identity, early last spring, metaLAB (at) Harvard was asked by the Berkman Center to create and perform some design thinking exercises at the Center.  

How might we animate the common values of a diverse community, expressing its unique identity and embracing its ever-changing nature? 
The process we devised for framing and testing that challenge took form as a sequence of exercises taken up by Center’s community of staff and fellows. We asked participants to frame and test their work and experience at the Center in semiotic, counterfactual, and sensory terms, activating their creativity and directing it towards an ethnographic account of the Center grounded in visual thinking.


Emoji Stories: Visual poetics for explaining the Center. 
Emoji—little pictograms built into many mobile OSs—are a playful lingua franca of text chat online. We asked participants to describe Berkman in up to nine emoji.  On the back of the card, we asked them to describe in words what their emojis meant.

 
 

metaLabyrinth: Exploring values, challenges, and dreams.

Participants answered a series of questions about the values, practice, ambitions, and fears attending their work at the Center. The questions were presented in the form of a "maze book": a physical pamphlet cut and folded to allow multiple, user-determined routes through the pages and the prompts printed on them.

 
 

Time Capsule: Telling the Center’s story for deep time.

In small groups, participants nominated items to place in a time capsule to be opened in one hundred years. They were prompted to consider communication in deep time, pondering such precedents as the Voyager Golden Record and designs for communicating the dangers of nuclear waste to visitors thousands of years in the future. Each group generated a long list, selected seven final objects, and drew them alongside short written descriptions. 

 
 

Scalar Metaphors: It’s never all one thing or all the other.

Just about everyone at Berkman agrees that the center contains multitudes. We asked groups of participants to formulate a set of dichotomies to complete the following sentence: "At its best, Berkman is most like a ______" (Carpenter/Alchemist; Lamp/Mirror; Curly Fries/House Salad). 

They then shared these with the larger group and everyone identified where they thought the Center should fall on a scale from one semiotic extreme to the other. Finally, individuals selected the dichotomy they found most evocative.

Six dichotomies accrued the most votes. In these dots, you can detect the lively debates that animate life at the Center. How to work with or against power, how to collaborate, and how to effect positive change. The responses offer us ways of thinking about symbolic summations of the Center’s spirit.