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Exploring the Adjacent Possible

frog recently participated in the annual IIT Institute of Design’s Design Research Conference (DRC) that was held in Chicago. Our challenge was twofold: to facilitate an interactive engagement with the entire conference audience and to provoke thought and reflection on the conference content and theme — the adjacent possible.

Each year a group of students at the Institute of Design works to create a conference that explores emerging themes and practices in design research. This year’s focus on concepts from lateral fields and disciplines was inspired by author Steven Johnson’s description of the adjacent possible. Johnson draws upon this idea, originally from scientist Stuart Kauffman, to argue that good ideas are often generated by the recombination of other existing ideas:

“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.  The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.”

In the context of the conference, this essentially boils down to a few simple questions: What can designers learn from other fields? Which ideas can help us create better solutions?

These are not new questions. We continually borrow from other fields to inform and strengthen our design process. Historically, and perhaps most notably, we borrow from ethnography and anthropology in design research practice. But as the world evolves, so does design. Advances in science and technology along with design’s increasing involvement in solving complex problems provide good reason for us to continuously evaluate how we work and think.


The DRC co-chairs gave us a head start and organized the conference into four blocks: Understanding Data, Story Making, Human Behavior, and The Adjacent Possible. Each of these blocks featured speakers who are experts in the topic areas, as well as design practitioners who are applying ideas from these areas in their own work.

For example, during the Understanding Data block, we heard from Elliott Hedman, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab, who combines psychophysiological measurements (like heart rate and skin conductance) with observational methods to provide another lens to our understanding of emotional experiences. Professor and fellow at Harvard Business School Michael Norton shared anecdotes during Human Behavior related to the psychology of investment. He explained how our own investment of time, money, and labor (actually creating things with our own hands) leads us to value them more.

frog sought to expand on these ideas and created a set of activities that pushed conference goers to both reflect on the conference and think beyond it. At registration each attendee was given a set of cards with questions, such as: “What TOOLS from adjacent experts and disciplines can enhance design research?” and “What SUPERPOWER do you wish you had when conducting research and why?”

At the end of the first day, we gave everyone time to discuss answers to the questions in small groups. Each group was given a SUPER TEAM! worksheet to complete. The goal was to get the groups to define a problem in the world that their design research team would solve and to sketch out their super team with its new sources of knowledge and expertise, new tools, and, of course, amazing superpowers. 

The frog team collected the worksheets and went back to the hotel to pour over the outcomes. It was a quick exercise in analysis and synthesis to pull out emerging themes and some interesting thoughts from the teams. Thankfully we even managed to do a little immersion in Chicago culture by drinking local beer and sharing a deep dish pizza while we looked over the cards and worksheets. Our main goal was to put together a presentation to share back out to the audience the next day.

frog’s session was scheduled near the end of the second day, so we knew we would need to get the audience energized. We started with the theme song from the TV game show “Family Feud” and two teams from the audience running up on stage to participate in our own version of the game show, “froggy feud.” During the first day we had actually surveyed 100 attendees to get answers to questions like: “Name a research tool you never leave home without.” And “Name a location for a candid interview.” The audience and game show participants really seemed to get a kick out of the exercise.

The game show questions and answers reflected perceptions of the current state. We then moved on to how attendees envision design research super teams of the future. Almost every team included the ability to read minds and really understand what people are thinking. Other superpowers included having amazing empathy and listening skills as well as the ability to persuade and influence people. You can view the full presentation here.

Overall, it was an interesting exercise to think about where we are going in the future as design researchers (while encouraging attendees to sketch and have some fun.) As always, we are left with more thoughts and questions to explore than answers. So, let’s continue pushing the boundaries and exploring the adjacent possible. 

Amber Lindholm is a senior interaction designer at frog's Austin studio.