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Unpacking Activity Theory

By Rachael Paine

When initially presented with activity theory as a conceptual framework within which I could situate design, I was curious. Research revealed a plethora of existing visual diagrams.

Figure A: The Structure of a Human Activity System (adapted from Engeström, 2005)

Figure B: Activity System (adapted from Activity Theory: Mapping the Terrain)

Figure C: Activity Theory Diagram (adapted Davis, 2012)

Figure D: Hierarchical Structure of Activity (adapted from Nardi, 2006)

After investigating each visual, I was unsatisfied with my understanding of activity theory. As a designer, I desire to fully comprehend concepts I am working with. I used research to increase my fluency of this framework and discover its implications on design and the world at large.

Activity theory serves as a framework for analyzing activity. A desire to interact with and influence our environment through activity is fundamental to human nature (Davis 2012). Activity is defined as a goal-oriented interaction between a person and their environment. People use physical and psychological tools to mediate the world. Activity theory is a conceptual framework to bridge the gap between motivation and action (Davis 2012).

To increase my understanding of activity theory, I sectioned off each node into bite size chunks. I began with the user’s past experiences, perceptions, motives, emotions, and ways of reasoning. To reduce the level of speculation within each category, I defined each node using existing research and theories.

Several theories on emotion have evolved from psychiatric and neuroscience research. I redesigned activity theory’s emotion node into a high-level hub of various moods using James Russell’s Two Dimensional Arousal-Valence Mood Model (Figure E) (Russell 1980). Russell’s graphic shows a basic scaling of emotional states. The X-axis denotes the spectrum of positive to negative and the y-axis represents the level of alertness.

Figure E: Two-Dimensional Arousal-Variance Mood Model (adapted from Russell, 1980)

When defining motivation, I used Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory (Ryan 2000), creating a visual array of both intrinsic and extrinsic actions, desires, and needs (Figure F). Self-Determination Theory is a theory of motivation that addresses three innate psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness (Dec et all).

Figure F: Incentive Theory: Intrinsic + Extrinsic Motivation (adapted from Ryan + Deci, 2000)

For ways of reasoning, I referenced Alina Bradford’s descriptions of deductive, inductive, and abductive reasoning (Bradford 2015). I created a visual representation of how people solve problems and make decisions (Figure G). The psychology of reasoning is used across many disciplines, including philosophy, linguistics, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence (Wikipedia 2017).

Figure G: Types of Logical Reasoning (adapted from Bradford, 2015)

My process continued with the understanding that each activity theory diagram node had a definition, a list of attributes, and existing research. Rather than move forward through the activity theory diagram by making speculative inferences about one user, I allowed the research to drive a more thorough understanding.

As a designer, I could hypothesize what a user might be feeling or what their motivation might be. Yet, what relevance does my work have if I just create a magical set of circumstances to inform my design? How can speculative inferences not succumb to the biases of my own experience, perception, motive, emotion, and reasoning? Breaking activity theory down into smaller, more digestible parts provided an increased affordance to eliminating my own narrow thinking.

The continual expansion of the nodes within activity theory serves as a metaphor for activity systems. An activity is not one large system we live in or a single momentary process. It is a million tiny things, a million micro understandings, actions, operations, processes that make up the whole. Gaining this understanding allows us to design outside of the confines of our ideas, biases, and schemas while at the same time being aware that our audience possesses their own ideas, biases, and schemas. To be effective visual communicators, we must be aware of our assumptions and the knowledge of our audience. Assuming users understand the world the same way we do is limiting.

The resulting designed diagram (Figure H) serves as a visual tool for considering a situated progression through a full cycle of activity. As a designer, I can imagine a shift in people (one person’s) experience, perception, motive, emotion, or reasoning. How might that shift influence the use of a designed object?

Figure H: Visual Exhaustive Processing

How often are we tempted to “jump” a persona to a future cycle more quickly than would be possible within a true cycle of activity? The moves we make, being changed by the world and changing the world, are small – seemingly invisible nuances. Each miniature shift builds upon itself to reshape our external and internal worlds.

The process of unpacking activity theory has opened up many questions and opportunities for future investigation. An activity system is “a virtual disturbance-and-innovation-producing machine” (Engestrom 2008). Each round of activity will slightly reshape all future rounds. Things impact people, and people impact things. For designers, this discovery holds significance. The user will never experience an artifact, an interface, a process the same way more than once. We reshape the world and are simultaneously reshaped by the world through everything we do. Activity tweaks our mental constructs. We learn. We evolve. And we influence the world around us.

We are not designing fixed things for a fixed world. The artifacts we produce will be experienced in a multitude of ways, many of which will remain unpredictable and perhaps unknown. How might an understanding of this ever-shifting progression of activity open up opportunities to redesign artifacts and objects? How can I use this concept of acquired knowledge and understanding to shift people in new directions through contradictions, creativity, and disturbances?

Rachael Paine is a first year student in the Masters of Graphic Design program at NC State. Rachael returned to NC State, her alma mater, with 13 years of professional experience. After graduating, Rachael plans to pursue a career as a design educator where she can unleash the creative talents of her students. 


“Activity Theory: Mapping the Terrain.” PhD Blog (dot) Net,, 2011.

Davis, Meredith. Graphic Design Theory (Graphic Design in Context). Thames & Hudson, Inc., 2012. Page 229-230.

Bradford, Alina. “The Psychology of Reasoning.” Live Science, 2015,

Engeström, Yrjö. Developmental Work Research: Expanding Activity Theory in Practice. Lehmanns Media, 2005.

Engeström, Yrjö. From Teams to Knots: Activity-theoretical Studies of Collaboration and Learning at Work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Page 205.

Kaptelinin, Victor; Nardi, Bonnie A. Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design. The MIT Press, 2006. Page 64.

Russell, James. “A Circumplex Model of Affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1980.

Ryan, R. M.; Deci, E. L. “Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 2000. Page 72.

“Self-determination Theory (Deci and Ryan).” Learning Theories,

“Psychology of Reasoning.” Wikipedia,, 2017.

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