3 Questions

3 Questions with Harold Nelson


Architect and systems scientist Harold Nelson on valuing informal learning and on moving from the classroom to the real world.

3 QUESTIONS is series of brief, three-question interviews with PNCA’s visiting artists and lecturers. Each year, PNCA attracts innovative, thoughtful, and creative makers and thinkers who share our belief in the transformative power of creativity. In three short answers to three short questions, these artists offer perspectives on career, motivation, and transformation. When available, we include links to audio recordings, transcripts, slideshows, or video.

The MFA in Collaborative Design welcomes Harold Nelson as part of the 2012-2013 Graduate Visiting Artist Lecture Series.

“In design, each project is about
learning something new”


Photo via Carnegie Mellon University.

What advice would you offer current students about to embark on a career in the arts?

I believe that art is a calling that influences and becomes a part of a career—in my case design. For me, design is not an art form, but it shares a substantial amount of territory with applied art as well as fine art. A career can be made up of a ‘composition’ of disciplines or professions as drawn from formal education’s palette. Opportunities in real life do not often present themselves in clear academic demarcations or categories—which is what makes real life exciting and challenging.

How do you maintain your creative practice? What keeps you motivated and engaged?

I have never grown tired of learning. In design, each project is about learning something new—i.e. gaining creative insights. The process of designing is a learning process rather than a process of merely applying routine knowledge that is already in hand. ‘Routine’ expertise is the product of most of our formal education. However, ‘adaptive’ and ‘design’ expertise—the products of informal learning as much as formal learning—are what are most essential in dealing creatively with our complex and rapidly changing world.

Could you describe a moment or experience that profoundly changed the nature of your work?

After practicing architecture for a couple of years, I went to UC Berkeley for graduate work in architecture and design. While there, I met a Professor of Design—Horst Rittel—who made the case for an appreciation of design that went well beyond the normal boundaries of material or visual design. Rittel had come to Berkeley because of C. West Churchman, a Professor in Systems Design in the School of Business. Both Rittel and Churchman redefined the scope of design and agency (acting on the behalf of others) in the real world so compellingly that they redirected my scholarship and career goals from that point on.

Co-author of The Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World, Harold Nelson is an architect, consultant, and systems scientist, and is president of the Advanced Design Institute. Nelson’s research interests are in the fields of complex systems design, advanced design education, deep design/critique, and advanced design postulation and axiom development. Nelson received his Ph.D., graduating with distinction, from the University of California at Berkeley. Nelson is a visiting scholar in the School of Computer Science at the University of Montana. He was the 2009-2010 Nierenberg Distinguished Professor of Design in the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University. He is a Senior Lecturer in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. For over twelve years Nelson was the head of the Graduate Programs in Whole Systems Design (WSD) at Antioch University.

— Posted on 01/28 at 11:18 AM

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