Julia Lindpaintner

MFA Thesis

A blog documenting my journey creating a Master's thesis towards an MFA from the School of Visual Arts' Products of Design program.

Research & Methodology, Part I

The most impactful piece of research happened before I even started my thesis work: Serving on a grand jury in Manhattan in the summer of 2016 was my entry point into this whole world of judicial systems, civic engagement, and participatory justice. This first-person glimpse of the system gave me a relationship to a previously anonymous entity and impressed upon me the role and responsibility of citizens in participating in the judicial process. 

My research has focused solely on the United States judicial system. While I have read about the systems in place in other countries for comparison, I realized quickly that I would have to focus my discussion in order to achieve any kind of overview. The day-to-day procedures and rules, while generally the same, vary greatly from county to county, from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. I have restricted my research by geography to the New York court system. 


My work is based on academic and qualitative research from interviews, secondary sources, and live participation: 


Over the course of the past six months, I have conducted over forty formal interviews and had countless conversations. I began by interviewing a broad swath of people about their work bringing together people of different backgrounds or facilitating trust and psychological safety in their workplaces or communities. As my focus narrowed to the court system, I interviewed legal professionals, people who had served on juries, and individuals who worked for organizations trying to transform elements of the judicial system. Finally, I interviewed activists, advocates, and community organizers to get a sense of their definition of civic engagement as well as strategies and opportunities for participation in affirming justice in society. 

I want to be explicit in acknowledging that I did not interview anyone who has been incarcerated or mistreated by the judicial system. While ultimately not the primary audience for my thesis work, I acknowledge the absence of this perspective as a shortcoming of this work. As my thesis has moved further away from criminal justice per se and towards civic engagement, I am especially cognizant of the difficulty of being inclusive and reaching those beyond my socio-economic and cultural circle.

Secondary research 

During my early research, I immersed myself in the literature of behavioral science, interested in learning about the subtle factors that influence our thinking and decision-making every day. This served as a foundation for my thinking about how visible or invisible I wanted my design interventions to be, how important details like copy are, and how to design a path of least resistance that leads to your intended outcomes.

From there, the bulk of my research was done online. From understanding the history of juries to keeping up with the implications of Jeff Session's confirmation as Attorney General under the Trump administration, Internet searches were some of the greatest sources of information and inspiration. Influential sources I revisited repeatedly, sometimes daily, include The Marshall Project's excellent daily round-ups of criminal justice-related news and analysis and the vast database of publications of the Center for Court Innovation. I read academic papers ranging from theories of procedural justice (by Tom Tyler) and psychological safety (by Amy Edmondson) to studies of post-jury survey responses and adoption of algorithmic software by courthouse staff.

A few books furthered my thinking around civic engagement and judicial system, including: Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, Law in America by Lawrence Friedman, Arbitrary Justice: The Power of the American Prosecutor by Angela Davis, Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court by Amy Bach, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Prosecution Complex by Daniel S. Medwed, and Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado.


My final research method was active participation in events and projects. Going back to the inspiration for this thesis work in the visceral experience of sitting in a courtroom and participating in the jury process, I found great value in finding ways to learn by doing. My first experiment with this was in late September, when I attended the first presidential debate at a Meetup of the New York Young Republicans. Surrounding myself with people I assumed I disagreed with gave me an appreciation of the need for psychological safety in public spaces.

Starting in November, I began working with the design firm Zago and the Center for Court Innovation on a project to enhance procedural justice through design at 100 Centre Street, Manhattan Criminal Court. I am very grateful to have been included in some of the research, ideation, and prototyping for this project, as it grounded my work in reality and gave me a sense of the true barriers to change in the system: bureaucracy, politics, and inertia. It has also served of affirmation of my sense that change is possible and that many of the problems in the system are just that: in the system. Individuals participating in the judicial process at any level by and large take their work seriously, are committed to doing a good job, and want to be fair, but incentives in the system do not always support those goals.

Finally, after the election of Donald Trump in November of 2016, I began looking, as many did, for ways to become more politically engaged and to understand our new political reality. I co-organized a lecture series called "Connecting for Action" to bring experts to speak on the tactics of effective social movements, changes in political parties, and how to protect civil liberties locally. I co-founded my department's Strategic Action Committee, a group dedicated to promoting understanding between different factions, building solidarity within the design community, and participating in political actions such as attending the Women's March and sending postcards to our Congresspeople.

These activities, while not initially motivated by my thesis, have been some of the most impactful experiences of my research. 


My research has focused on a few distinct areas: psychological safety, the judicial system as it exists today, movements and principles of alternative judicial processes, and civic engagement, both in the judicial system and more broadly. 

Collaborating across differences, psychological safety, and building trust through transparency

I first read about psychological safety in a New York Times Magazine article about the findings of Project Aristotle, Google People Operation's research initiative to understand what made teams successful. Only one measure seemed to matter. It wasn't time spent together, personality, age, demographics, or any other factor, it was a team's reported level of 'psychological safety.' This measure describes the extent to which team members reported feeling comfortable admitting they had made a mistake or didn't know the answer, as well as their ability to bring "their whole self" to work and not have to suppress any aspect of their personality or identity.

The concept has been codified by Harvard Business School professor of Leadership and Management Amy Edmondson. In her research, Edmondson has found that teams who are able to take high interpersonal risks without fear of negative outcomes—the condition for psychological safety—are much more productive and have better results. Rather than spending energy saving face or tiptoeing around issues, she argues, these teams are able to direct their energy towards the problem at hand, identify issues early, and iterate, leading to more successful products and happier employees. 

The need for psychological safety resonated deeply with me. How often does communication get in the way of real progress being made? Given the divisive political climate of the election, it seemed to me that there should be a way to foster psychological safety in public discourse and public spaces. This was further underscored when I attended the first presidential debate at a Midtown bar with the NY Young Republicans. Speaking to a man in his early thirties who told me he was only voting because it was Trump, I was struck by his reason for coming to this Meetup for the first time: "I wanted to watch the debate someplace I'd feel safe." I was fairly sure he wasn't concerned about his physical safety, but was instead referring to the safety of being in a space where he wouldn't be spurned or verbally attacked for his ideas and beliefs. He need a psychologically safe space. 

My early interviews were all devoted to getting a better understanding of what psychological safety looks like in practice. How do you build trust quickly between groups with differing opinions? How could we apply this concept to public discourse? What makes this kind of trust break down? I spoke with a broad range of people to begin to answer these questions. From high school teachers to life coaches, from psychologists to improv actors, my interviewees shed light on this concept and allowed three central ideas to emerge: 

1—The intention-action gap is unsafe.
I am borrowing the term intention-action gap from behavioral science—it is often how applied behavioral science can make sure it is facilitating wanted behavior—but I am using “action” broadly. The idea is that there is a gap in much of what we do between our stated intention (e.g. wanting to save for retirement) and our actions (e.g. cutting down discretionary spending). Applied behavioral science looks to use what we know about human decision-making and motivation to close that gap (e.g. by setting up automatic paycheck deductions directed to a retirement account).

With psychological safety within organizations, a similar gap seems to exist: Your boss may tell you she welcomes your feedback anytime, but if there is a negative personal reaction to feedback, that stated intent loses value and power. There is an observable disconnect between what you’ve been told and what you’ve experienced, and that creates a lack of trust and thereby a lack of safety. Furthermore, your boss can tell you verbally that she welcomes feedback, or she could implement procedures or give cues in the environment that communicates that openness implicitly. There could be a suggestion box that is routinely responded to, feedback surveys, happy hours, or regular reviews. Certain things may need to be cued explicitly, especially if they represent a break from an assumed norm.

I am interested in digging deeper into the kinds of conditions that require explicit mention versus the ways we can create psychological safety by modeling behavior or allowing our environment to inform our conversations. As long as the intention is clear, and everyone involved has the choice to buy in, it would seem that implicit cues are more effective, because there is less chance of the aforementioned gap showing up. My sense is that it is not enough to 'declare' safe spaces, they have to be inherent and embodied in the system.

2—Psychological safety not only condones risk, it demands it.
A clear dichotomy emerged in my conversations about safety. One type of safe space is about creating an isolated, protected, trigger-free environment in which to have certain kinds of sensitive conversations. It eliminates risk, and fosters a sort of static place apart from reality.

The kind of safe space I’m interested in is defined by Amy Edmonson as “climates in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves.” In fact, when this environment is achieved, individuals perceive that the risk associated with admitting a mistake, asking a question, or revealing lack of knowledge, will not be met with a negative response. It is the ability to take these interpersonal risks and be vulnerable that contributes to the health of the group and it’s ability to collaborate, innovate, and succeed.

This safe space is dynamic, edgy, and creative. It seems to me that this sort of environment can only arise by redirecting the focus of interactions from the people to the process. It’s not about who is saying what, it’s about trusting a certain process of asking questions, experimenting, and making mistakes. As long as there is a shared purpose (and perhaps this is one of the things that has to be explicit), the process provides psychological safety and guarantees an optimal product.

3—Co-creation is fundamental to building trust. 
What I heard most clearly from my interviewees was that building trust demands on a participatory process. I cannot truly feel trust or safety if I have no agency or voice. In the work environment, innovation and productive collaboration are based on a co-creation of mutual norms, clear processes, and regular check-ins. In self-help spaces, the most successful therapies are those which equip the individual with tools, giving them the power to change their behavior rather than coming to rely on a guide. 

To be continued...

Julia LindpaintnerComment