Design as Conversation: Rhetoric, Cybernetics, and other Odd Words

By Jeff Grabill, Associate Provost for Teaching, Learning, and Technology

I have two scenes of action in mind as I write this. One scene is the Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology and our efforts to articulate a theory and practice of learning design. The other scene is the larger MSU community, which needs conversation in order to understand how we might design a future that is more caring, attentive, open, and just. “Conversation,” in this sense, is much more than talk. It is a mode of action.

Conversations are challenging. They require trust, some things in common, reciprocity, and a commitment to keep talking. They require relationships.


The psychologist Kurt Lewin famously wrote that there is nothing more practical than a good theory. As we build our learning design practice at MSU, we find ourselves in need of theory. We need to share a set of coherent conceptual statements, grounded in a history of thought, that informs our identity, helps us think, and guides our decision making. The practical value of a good theory, in other words, resides in its ability to guide and help us act in the world.

We inherit a notion of design as an exclusively expert activity. But the emergence of “design thinking,” including those critical and contrary takes on design thinking, indicates the fact that “design” is now a widely distributed and participatory activity.  Design is not limited to a small group of experts. Rather, design is a fundamental human capacity and is open to all. It is true that for some, design becomes a profession because of specific forms of expertise. These two stances are not and cannot be incompatible. The idea that design is a fundamental human capacity does not erase expertise or its importance. Indeed, design outcomes are often more valuable when more people engage in their articulation.

At the Hub, we’ve been searching for a design language that is conceptually rich and that enables practice, for a language that has clear space for expertise but that is also accessible to everyone. It might be that “conversation” provides us with that language. It is a language that comes to us from a number of places (rhetoric, educational practice), but in this context, it comes primarily from the conversations we have been having with Paul Pangaro.


What is a Conversation?

This is an obvious place to start. But it also happens to be the title of an essay by Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro that serves as one of my touchstones. Pangaro is a designer grounded in the discipline of cybernetics. I am grounded in the discipline of rhetoric. In both places, discursive practices like “conversation” have specific and not entirely distinct meanings.

Pangaro’s design theory is grounded in “second order” cybernetics, or what Pangaro calls the science of effective action: “an ethical, clear-eyed argument for transparent, value-driven design processes” (“Cybernetics as Phoenix: Why Ashes, What New Life?” p. 16, accessible here). In this spirit, I might characterize rhetoric as the art of effective action. And while it is true that not every approach to rhetoric or every approach to cybernetics has this orientation in common, it is certainly true that we have ancient artistic and modern systems science positions that have a very important purpose in common: to help humans (and non humans) act well in the world. Both approaches are grounded in language practices, both in conversation (“dialogue” in rhetorical theory), both have well-established analytical stances and practices, and both are necessarily concerned with ethics and politics.


I’ve indulged my impulse to contextualize quite enough, I imagine. So what does “conversation” mean in this design-oriented discourse of Pangaro and his colleagues? Pangaro writes that conversation is the key concept

because design is grounded in argumentation, and therefore requires conversation, so that participants may understand, agree, and collaborate, all toward effective action. Not so that we can say, ‘Wow, we know what’s going on!’ but rather so that we might say, ‘Wow, we’re getting somewhere, we’re improving things!’ We are seeing more and acting better. (p. 23)


Conversation has something to do with argumentation, with understanding, with the goal of some agreements (action is quite difficult without agreement—ethical action likely impossible), and collaboration. Conversations like this also have rules and norms. Philosophers have spilled lots of ink on things like norms (useful ink, too). But I’m not interested in solving philosophical problems. I’m interested in solving problems of design theory that will enable us to make things.  

Dubberly and Pangaro write that a conversation is “a progression of exchanges among participants. Each participant is a ‘learning system,’ that is, a system that changes internally as a consequence of experience. This highly complex type of interaction is also quite powerful, for conversation is the means by which existing knowledge is conveyed and new knowledge is generated.”

We might consider the fact that our learning design practice at the Hub comes down to designing conversations.

What (Learning) Designers Do

So what does it mean to design a conversation? Dubberly and Pangaro provide us with a deceptively simple list:

  1. View every user (persona) as a participant in a conversation, and every scenario as a conversation to define or achieve one or more goals. Use models of conversation to make design decisions
  2. Invest in a better understanding of conversation
  3. Investigate trends, tools, and technologies that will change online conversations in the next five years
  4. Invest in design of conversations via prototyping

The list is a useful starting place. I want to complicate that list and add to it, which Dubberly and Pangaro themselves can help with. They write that

Given a specific group of participants, conversations may go nowhere—they have no value; they create no lasting change in the participants. Other conversations create their own energy and go places—they are generative, have momentum, and lead to new and unexpected knowledge. We prize the individuals with whom we achieve this. “When assembling a design team we ought to ask, What expertise and what collaborative style(s) do we need? What variety is required to succeed?”


So we need to think about the forms of expertise needed and the diversity and variety that will make us smarter. Pangero writes that, in addition to the right people, we need structure and rhythm: “we have to have the right people in the conversation, and we can create a cadence of conversations over time such that the unfolding conversations encompass the necessary (requisite) variety and the scope of potential action is more powerful” (p. 26). As my colleague Bill Hart-Davidson reminds me, a claim about the “right people” focuses us on the question of the value of participation and how that case is made vis-a-vis outcomes. He notes that what makes for the “right people” isn’t a matter of expertise (primarily) and so asks what is it a matter of? For critical theorist Andrew Feenberg (via Marcuse & Ellul) it’s a matter of downstream involvement, a product of those who must bear the consequences, good or bad, of design choices.

"Conversations require, at a minimum, a willingness to trust, an aspiration to relationship, an openness to change." - Jeff Grabill

If we are designing conversations/for conversation, then we are designing for these opportunities for action and expecting them as outcomes. That is, our outcome set is something like “we hope participants will learn, will coordinate their efforts toward future outcomes, and if the relationships develop sufficiently, to collaborate on meeting their shared outcome.” That future state or shared outcome is essential, of course. That state or outcome is what gives a design process (a conversation) shape and direction. That shape and direction is visible in a sentence like “we hope to conceptualize a new major that provides students with learning experiences that have these characteristics … .”

And so if we were building a new list about what learning designers do, we might come up with something like this:

  1. View every person and every thing as a participant in a conversation
  2. Invest in a better understanding of conversation
  3. Create design patterns that use models of conversation to make design decisions
  4. Create design patterns that build trust and relationships
  5. Create design patterns that grow understanding and facilitate learning
  6. Invest in practices that promote coordination and inspire collaboration
  7. Investigate trends, tools, and technologies that will change conversations in the near future
  8. Invest in prototyping (make small bets and repeat)
  9. Commit to rhythm, shape, and focus

Designing Organizations are Learning Organizations, But Only if They Can Have Conversations. And Only if They are Patient.

Let’s close with an example from our colleagues at the University of Texas. It is an example that illustrates just how truly difficult it is to design conversations and how vexed design conversations can be. In other words, the list above might be too easy. The reality is that sometimes participatory approaches are often actively resisted by those for whom existing approaches have produced explicit benefits.

Nine out of 10 start-ups fail, but when they do, founders and private investors — not the state — typically foot the bill.

That is among the reasons why this month’s closure of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning is drawing significant attention in Texas and elsewhere. It is quite rare for state leaders — even in places like the Lone Star State, where going big is in the DNA — to go all in on new technologies and emergent approaches as start-ups typically do.

Starting in 2011, the Texas system invested nearly $100 million in the institute ($23 million remains unspent) to try to drive digital technologies into the approaches its campuses use to reach, educate and graduate students. Over five years, the institute helped several UT campuses launch distinctive new academic programs and developed three core pieces of technology that, among other things, deliver online learning and students’ transcript information via the blockchain … But its total revenue over the five years: $1 million, The Texas Tribune reported.

Critics have derided that output as paltry given the investment and questioned whether the money could have been better spent. Advocates for the institute say it was the sort of necessary and worthwhile experiment that higher education institutions undertake all too rarely, even as they acknowledge a set of miscalculations that — along with political and cultural circumstances in part beyond its control — contributed to its undoing.

Among those missteps, according to numerous people who worked closely with the institute, were a tendency to approach campus faculty members with arrogance rather than as partners, and a lack of clarity from the start about the endeavor’s goals and business plan. Those were compounded by a problem that afflicts many educational technology efforts, whether funded by Silicon Valley investors or campus leaders: too little patience for what is almost always a long, drawn-out process of adoption and proof. (Lederman, 2018)

Like many, I watched what Texas was up to. It was ambitious, creative, forward-looking, and smart. They had good people and plenty of resources. If the post-mortem and the critics are to be believed, the effort struggled to engage people in the sorts of conversations that might have created value and sustained the effort.

Might have.

Conversations require, at a minimum, a willingness to trust, an aspiration to relationship, an openness to change. The Institute for Transformational Learning may have been “arrogant.” But it is also just as likely that faculty across the system weren’t interested in the conversation. They may not have had the capacity. They may have been focused on their research. There are many good reasons why conversations weren’t designed or didn’t happen. And this is why design is so truly difficult.

Trust. Care. Courage. Humility. Relationships. All these things must be present in some modest but meaningful way for someone like me to be able to design a conversation, and then I need to provide participants with a pattern that adds value to where we started. Those practices build relationships. Those practices help us talk and understand. Those practices may also inspire collaboration.

Dubberly and Pangaro write that “The ‘conversations’ that designers have help them learn—whether that means solving problems or facilitating agreement on goals—and then designers embody what they’ve learned in things they make. They connect ideas and things. That is, they add information to things.”   

I think this is exactly right. Both learning and design are practices of adding information (value) to things. Information about mission, values, purpose and goals, status, and history. Not abstractions but concrete value (and values) for educational practice.

In this way, designing organizations are also necessarily learning organizations. But only if they can have conversations. If we are patient enough with each other and with design processes to let them play out and to let relationships develop.


One of the many hard lessons I’ve learned in the last month is that this school that I have chosen (again and again) to be my home, and this place where I continue to learn and practice my art as an educator isn’t good enough at Conversation.  

I wrote this blog post as part of the conversation the Hub is having about learning design and about how we should practice our art as designers. But as with what I wrote about a pedagogy of care, I took this opportunity to offer some language that we might use to more fully live our values of access, inclusion, and excellence.

Practicing a pedagogy of care inside and outside of the classroom might very well help our community heal and flourish. It also might be important for us to come to grips with what it means to be in conversation with each other. We need to help each other act humanely, responsibly, and justly in the world. That future needs to be designed.



Werner, L., Bunschoten, R., Fantini van Ditmar, D., Espejo, R., Hohl, M., Jachna, T., Jain, A., Khan, O., Kloeckl, K., Pangaro, P. Cybernetics: State of the Art. Retrieved from