Archive for the ‘Participatory Design’ category

Dialogue as Participatory Design

November 3, 2007

(Insert standard excuses for blog slipping here).

Torch Partner Robin Uchida hosted the second year of Juice Dialogues at Ontario College of Art and Design, October 25-27. Wit the theme of Making the Invisible Visible, I kicked off the Friday night session, followed by Gary Gray, founder of Carder Gray agency. I was delighted to accept an invitation to present, as well as participate in the open dialogues with faculty, students, and design community professionals like myself. This is the kind of exploratory educational venue all universities should hold regularly, and the type of informal program design schools in particular need. Provocative presentations with Q&A, followed by a circle of dialogue for everyone who stayed on, hosted by insightful, caring facilitators that easily generated the space for listening and understanding to emerge. Each night’s dialogue lasted well over an hour, and afterward, I physically felt energized, inspired, and buzzed, like I had been at a great party.

My talk was on Dialogue as Participatory Design (see on Slideshare), which is my first attempt at integrating the concepts of structured dialogue as participatory design for social systems and public domain issues. While I”m sure we could use which have many stakeholders and where no single “answer” is possible. a way of facilitated design thinking with stakeholder groups holding a complex problem in common. While we at the Agoras Institute and at the Blogora wiki have written books and pages about SDD as a model of participatory design and decision making, we have not shared these ideas with designers who practice Participatory Design as a school of design. I have not seen similar tools employed in transformation design practices yet either, but perhaps unstructured dialogue is preferred for front end conceptualization of problems. I would like to know what the experiences are of other design teams that have employed facilitate dialogic methods in problematizing, conceptual design, scenario planning, or even in visual sensemaking and generative ideation.

Here’s a brief summary of the concepts from the talk:

A participatory design approach based on structured dialogic design is presented. Dialogic design represents a developing perspective toward design for complex or techno-social systems where stakeholders must own the design planning, solutions, and take responsibility for action. Where participatory design methods engage “users” in design play and process as a generative design approach for creating the right products, dialogic design requires participants’ deep contribution to the outcome of the designed solution or service itself. Think of the significant need to involve community stakeholders in transformative solutions for public policy, transportation, urban planning, or infrastructure. Consider the need to involve medical practitioners and even patients in healthcare delivery or service solutions. Consider dialogic design a means of radically democratic design, guided by principles such as requisite variety, requisite learning, and requisite authenticity.


On Seeing Design as Redesign

September 5, 2007

Peers in design practice understand the name “Redesign Research,” and get it. At least I think they do. Clients get it as well. And a slogan since 2001 that “All Design is Redesign.” I have found few other designers willing to join me on this – perhaps people think its a marketing slogan, but it really describes a de facto design philosophy. Simply put, design is a set of skills and perspective on problem-solving the wicked problems of ill-formed contexts with structures and materials. The target of design work/thinking is a problem space involving (usually) human activity in a context of work or everyday life. These contexts are pre-existing and carry with them people’s pre-understanding about what’s relevant and useful. Therefore, most design seeks to improve the interactions and materials in these pre-existing contexts. We aim to redesign FROM and TO a space of needs, uses, desires, and affordances. If the context is poorly-framed, you end up with services that fail, marketing with no connection to reality, and products with no markets. Designing to a useful or playful context is redesigning the activities in that context. Designing as redesign, in this sense, is powerful and intentional designing.

Design is not about original invention – most inventions are poorly designed and require incremental improvements to adapt an original vision to a context of use. Such products will fail adoption if the designers miss the opportunity to design for usability and effectiveness. Design is not about innovation either – innovation involves significant disruptive invention or targeted improvements in a meaningful context of activity – their form, materials, usability, and aesthetic values are designed aspects, but not the innovation itself. Innovation is not alway redesign – but design is.

Design Addict published an article earlier this year: On Seeing Design as Redesign: An Exploration of a Neglected Problem in Design Education by Jan Michl. Originally published in the Scandinavian Journal of Design History (2002). Here’s where Michl makes a compelling case for “all design is redesign:”

But although in one way it is correct to say that designers start from nothing, in another sense it is equally correct to maintain that in practice they can never start from scratch. On the contrary, it can be argued that designers always start off where other designers (or they themselves) have left off, that design is about improving earlier products, and that designers are thereby linked, as though by umbilical cord, to earlier objects, or more correctly to their own or their colleagues’ earlier solutions – and thus to yesterday. In other words, what the word design holds back is the entire co-operative and past-related dimension in designing that makes designers’ individual creative contributions possible. Nor does the word design satisfactorily capture the fact that design activity is never really complete with the final product because all products are by nature makeshift solutions, and as such can always be improved.

Then there’s ReDesign Design as well …


Dialogue as unmediated design

March 1, 2007

Or at least, less-mediated design. A goal and an inherent value of participatory design is that of engaging users directly in a design processes, to minimize the translation of features by designers. The goal of direct participation is not to reduce the cycle time incurred between cycles of user-centered design, prototyping, and user assessment, although that happens. The goal is to maximize user ownership of the design for their own work practices, and to minimize the influence designers have in articulating the significant features in the application space. Participatory design has a values orientation that respects the intelligence and autonomy of participants in their own work practices.

Dialogic design also aims to minimize designer mediation, even if through a facilitated process. By enabling participation of all stakeholders in a design dialogue – aspires to immediacy. The principle of requisite autonomy is honored in all SDD sessions, which requires the autonomy and authenticity of all individual stakeholders to be preserved. Nobody can alter a contribution made by a participants in structured dialogue.

Dialogue happens with a committed group of people, during a particular time only, with all the raw materials generated by the participants themselves. While the classic writers on dialogue include philosophers Habermas, Gadamer, (and the later interpreter Kogler), and thinkers such as Bohm and Krishnamurti. But why not also be inspired by un-mediation writers and artists such as:

  • Joseph Beuys, and his expression of direct democracy and non-mediated direct engagement of social sculpture.
  • Guy Debord, situationist and confronter of the phenomenon of spectacle
  • And a little more recently by Hakim Bey’s Immediatism (1994), also available in its anarchic entirety on the web. (You can see the revival of this meme in full sway in our household, in the recent blog by my partner (and wife) Patricia on Slow Learning)

So given that Structured Dialogic Design is mediated by facilitation, structure, and software – what does disintermediation mean and demand of our interaction? SDD is not Open Space – it is highly intentional, disciplined approach to dialogue, designed to generate results. But then, Beuys intended democracy, and Bey confronts the directness and meaning of media we employ to live lives of full participation and F2F intimacy. These same values are held sacred in SDD. To the degree our structure is transparent to participants, allowing them to focus on meaning in their committed contexts, then we have reduced the distance between people and their ownership of authentic dialogue.

To the extent our design is direct – or experienced as direct by participants, then we are eclipsing the role of “designer” with a process that achieves designed outcomes and true consensus for acting on the design.

IDEO Smart Space – A transformation of what?

February 25, 2007

IDEO’s Urban Pre-Planning

Can its “Smart Space” practice shake up the lumbering world of infrastructure, zoning, and public process?
IDEO gets so much press on their approach to architectural projects – perhaps because its a relatively new space for design, and few other firms are taking it on in the way they can. They have the size, the rep, and a diverse mix of design disciplines. They have balls, you have to give them credit – their developing practice in urban planning, land use, and housing planning is taking on a complex, hyper-sensitive, “sprawling” territory where results will be hard to measure, because cities and new initiatives in urban spaces take time and community commitment to happen. IDEO does not have to care if they design it, and nobody comes. So they can reach far with ideas and aim for excitement and inspiration.

But it is not innovation of urban planning, it seems to be a innovation of urban packaging. This has implications for design strategy, because IDEO gets to set the top bar for the profession. If conceptual design planning is the product and deliverable, how does this actually lead to better urban spaces? And who is the ultimate customer – the city planners and developers? Or the people living in the community?

“It’s not clear that works, mostly because it’s too early to tell—but also because the team at IDEO is messing with the DNA of the planning process. They’re changing it from a concrete process of infrastructure and building to an imagined one of narrative and identity; they’re exchanging the idea of a place for place itself. In an urban realm already threatened by privatization—not just by developers but by a broader trend toward place-making as marketing—IDEO’s approach could be seen to further erode the idea of city-building as a democratic process (if it ever was) because of the way it applies the shiny language of marketing to the gritty mixed-up world of the city. As IDEO emphasizes, its communication skills have been honed in the corporate world, and its “user centered” approach is often cast as a particularly empathetic version of market research.”

This is a case where process has implications for everybody involved. As a zoning board member in an Ohio township, I know the regulatory and planning processes are not sexy, and its hard to get real citizens engaged in designing their own future. It should be easier going getting people involved in a gritty, hip location in a large city. But who IS the user here, if this user-centered? This is the problem of transformation design – if a design process is not democratic or even participatory, who then has the rights to design, package, and market on behalf of the citizens? The “client” – the planners, or in many cases – the developers of Potemkin village greens that are becoming popular at the edges of failed urban centers such as my Ohio town?
My last post engaged Liz Sanders’ Design Research article, with her model differentiating between designer (expert)-led and participant (user) led generative design. It may be very cool to have IDEO design your urban area’s brand package based on “user” research, that may have included real people like you that live in the locale. But they seem to fall short of actual planning, and drop off before working with the political grind and zoning/use negotiations that establish the affordances for building, infrastructure, service delivery. At the end of the day, the trade-offs between officials, developers, and the public lead to livability and community. This is an interesting front-end approach, but it could lead to high expectations that do not become realized in transformation of community space.
So to what extent can people be empowered to direct the planning and design of their own communities? To what extent can they – community dwellers – mobilize the tools of design – with design facilitation by IDEO-like firms? And should innovation firms take on the slog through architecture, zoning, and planning to engage themselves as committed players in such projects? If they don’t “have a dog in the fight” now, how would the level of trust and possibility of real community-centered design be actualized if they did have such a commitment to results?
One of the most inspiring practices I’ve encountered in the world of conceptual arts is Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s total commitment to a project, often involving years of negotiation with planners, public official, and public hearings. To a great extent, this is where the art happens – its a multi-year, mixed-temporality performance, leading up to an event and land sculpture. Ands the real takehome lesson for me is that their process is participatory, in the very real sense that when they take on a wrapping or public space project, they engage fully in the public hearings and discussions as a type of community-sensitive collaboration. Its behind-the-scenes participatory art.  As designers considering public or transformative work, should we at least be working with local planners and educating people in public hearings, if not reflecting on the full range of stakeholders in our design processes? Who do we collaborate with to make this happen? What design research methods do we use?

Generative (participatory) design

February 22, 2007

Liz Sanders, now at, presents this mapping of Design Research approaches – in Design Research Quarterly (1:1). She distinguishes between Design-led and Research-led design, and Expert vs. Participatory. At MakeTools, Liz advocates Generative Design, led by participants as designers. Her article distinguishes generative design as:

Generative tools (Sanders, 2000; Sleeswijk Visser, Stappers, van der Lugt and Sanders, 2005) is a newer design-led bubble in the participatory design zone. It is characterized by the use of design thinking by all the stakeholders very early in the fuzzy front end of the design development process. The name ‘generative tools’ refers to the creation of a shared design language that designers/researchers and the stakeholders use to communicate visually and directly with each other. The design language is generative in the sense that with it, people can express an infinite number of ideas (e.g., dreams, insights, opportunities, etc.) through a limited set of stimulus items. Thus, the generative tools approach is a way to fill the fuzzy front end with the ideas, dreams and insights of the people who are to be served through design. The generative tools approach has been used across all the design domains, although the generative toolkits differ across the various domains. It should be noted that generative design research is not entirely design-led. Generative toolkits are created and developed based on a solid understanding of the context of use that has been ethnographically informed.

Structured Dialogic Design shares a similar “space” on her mapping of participatory, user-led design, but with very different methods and orientation to systems. Generative design is oriented toward products and services that people (users) might adopt in daily practice. SDD generates a space of design possibilities for complex systems and social projects, such as policy or democratic community projects, constructed from participants’ experience and ideas only. SDD adapts dialogue to generate and then qualify ideas, and progresses to organizing options fields and finally actionable plans.  A presentation is available online at