Participatory design: the process towards a democratic utopia

As the definition of design expands through the ages, the role and possibility of participatory design also becomes more and more complex. From Bauhaus modernism to design research, the practice of design has been incorporating broader and broader disciplines into its field. In a way design has become more and more participatory allowing and inviting users, workers, scientists, and anthropologists into its process. In Design Matters in Participatory Design, Liam Bannon and Pelle Ehn trace the evolution of participatory design in conjunction with different design movements and poses questions about their future. The article examines design in changing political, social, technological contexts in order to explore how design matter in society and how participatory design confronts new challenges. The term “design” in participatory design no longer refers to manipulation of material and forms; instead it is concerned with implementation of social relations and its political implications. Following this logic, the most important innovation in participatory design becomes how people organize themselves. Consequentially the designers’ responsibilities shift from creating products for passive consumers to providing access to appropriate tool and knowledge for active involvement of subjects.

Even though participatory design has reinvented itself throughout different environments, the participatory mindset has always been a way of thinking that tries to consider all possible stakeholders in order to achieve more sustainable and empowering solutions. Further study by Mahmoud Keshavarz and Ramia Maze examines the contestatory nature of participation in design research and questions the role of a designer in participatory projects. Their article Design and Dissensus: Framing and Staging Participation in Design Research raises an important point that unanimous decisions do not necessary mean the best solutions. In fact consensus is detrimental to the democratic system because, “Consensus means erasing the contestatory, conflictual nature of the very givens of common life. It reduces political difference to police-like homogeneity. Consensus knows only: real parts of the community, problems around the redistribution of powers and wealth among these parts, expert calculations over the possible forms of such redistribution, and negotiations between the representatives of these various parts”. A way to avoid consensus is to ensure diversity in the process and to allow people the opportunities to challenge the current state.

The 1970s Lucas project demonstrated an instance when people with wide range of backgrounds came together for the effort to convert weapon production into making socially useful goods. Conference on “Just transition”, which discussed the process of adapting production for different needs while taking the workers’ interests into account, showed workers’ readiness to act not only on behalf of their jobs but also for greater social and environmental cause. In December 2007 the International Trade Union Confederation created a principal policy statement as the result of extensive discussions with its 311 affiliates in 155 countries. The ITUC’s goal to “find the most ambitious position, even though one affiliate opposed it” is essential in any participatory project. The decision to “demonstrate leadership by adopting a position that showed where unions could be in the future, not necessary one where all unions agree already” allowed the huge collaboration to invite diverse conversations while not resorting to represent the “lowest common denominator”.

The participatory approach began from workers in the work place and has since been integrated into the fabric of everyday life. As Ezio Manzini writes in Design, When Everybody Designs, modernity and increasing individualization has allowed subjects to freely formulate their own life. At the same time, designing one’s life alone is a daunting task. Participatory design combines individual’s freedom of self-directed life into collaboration for greater benefit for all participants. Sharing skills and resources allows collective life projects to be more feasible and enjoyable way of conducting one’s life today. The Participatory City development in UK is an example of collective life project. Over 12 months Participatory City built a new participatory system in West Norwood, London and designed and tested 20 new practical projects for every-day benefits. People in the community think of themselves as participants of an active project rather than the regular users of a designed product. Participants are bonded through contributing to ‘common denominator’ activities such as cooking, learning, making, trading, sharing, growing. Over the next five years the community aims to become a “demonstration neighborhood that will become a model for wellbeing, sustainability and equality” with “140 opportunities every week to make, share, repair, learn, grow, cook together with neighbors, 10,000 people participating each week, 300 back garden greenhouses growing for open meal events” and more. One of Participatory City’s primary goals is to show the rest of the world that such open, collaborative and productive living is achievable in large scale. Their efforts to reach to the global community are evident in their “Community Lover’s Guide” that provides an open source of projects that have been developed and prototyped successfully. Yet, so far Participatory City seems to take place in relation to homogeneous conditions and contexts. Question remains: would this model work for the rest of the world? For one thing, in order for the Participatory City model to replace current systems, it would have to show how it would incorporate more diversity such as the homeless and formerly incarcerated population into their community.1457616415678.jpeg

Design and Dissensus also argues for an “indisciplinary
” way of conducting design research in order to “avoid the hierarchy or domination of one discipline”. Essentially, projects would operate in “a shared space of action/reaction, where no one imposes her or his voice, knowledge or discipline”. Instead of an interdisciplinary practice, which would identify, classify and measure disciplines in relation to one another, an indisciplinary approach would overlook those divisions and focuses on the problems at hand. This phenomenon is also observed in the Lucas project when workers submit ideas regardless of their profession. This method renders the presence of the designer almost invisible since an indisciplinary designer would not risk assuming the project management position. However, simply allowing a project to proceed does not add value to design or the stakeholders. The role of the designer should go beyond understanding her “sensitivities, relativities and limits in situ, in relation to other forms of experience, knowledge and practice” to creating things that align conflicting matters of concern.

Utopia is a process not a fixed state. In order to achieve better lives for the maximum population society must allowed any design, policy, or technology to be constantly challenged. Following the same logic, if citizens and workers lost their right to examine their current state of work and livelihood the world becomes a dystopia. Such a society would be nightmare not only for the most vulnerable members, but also for those in positions of power, for the most challenging problems facing humanity today require massive collective effort in order to achieve sustainable solutions. The Lucas project and the Participatory City development demonstrate that the challenges facing a participatory culture lies not with apathy of the people. Maintaining a participatory culture is an uphill battle because it implies that the established stabilization of power, the sensible order and value capturing system have the potential to be threatened. Even so, to achieve utopia in capitalist democracy people must actively pursue the conflicting variables in dissensus and collaboration.

From user surveys, marketing profiles, and multi-disciplinary teamwork of market motivated designs to collaborative community and workplace reestablishments of socially oriented efforts, design today always requires some level of participation. Well know design companies and design schools such as IDEO and the Stanford D-school advocates for the human-centered design thinking process, which begins with empathy with the user. The increasing attention to human-centered design thinking through programs like Design For America and social innovation hackathons seems to suggest that people in and out of the design community are moving toward a more participatory culture. Still, Participatory City demonstrates that the term “user” itself can be problematic. In order to have more productive discussions about the future of design and how it can impact lives, the design community will have to explore what would be the level and scale of participation required for people to have better lives. And what should be the role of the designer in interrupting and contributing to implementation of ideas in an ongoing agenda. In the long run, a participatory society would be a more fertile foundation for innovation rather than a fragmented one for revolutionary changes would not be achievable without collaboration.

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Manzini, Ezio. Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. Print.

Liam J.Bannon and Pelle Ehn “Design: Design Matters in Participatory Design” in Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design

Nora Räthzel, David Uzzell, Dave Elliott “Can trade unions become environmental innovators? Learning from the Lucas Aerospace workers”.

Mahmoud Keshavarz, and Mazé Ramia. “Design and Dissensus: Framing & staging participation in design research.” Design Philosophy Papers, Jan. 2013

“Participatory City.” N.p., n.d. Web. <;.

“Use Our Methods.” Dschool. Web. 02 May 2016.


3 thoughts on “Participatory design: the process towards a democratic utopia

  1. I agree with you that “design today always requires some level of participation.” Whether the designer is directly or indirectly involved with the recipients of their design, they take on the responsibility of being an equal player in the process and realization of their ideas, with the consideration that no good design can be validated without an audience. However, with such shared responsibility also comes the probability that some roles in the design process may not be fully valued for the specific skills they require. In other words, participatory design could easily result in a power struggle of expertise. I also wonder about the new models of participatory design in fields that are not solely focused on social impact, ecological growth, makers-spaces, etc…


  2. Participatory design introduces a lot of good questions about the role of designers today. I really like the idea that we are moving away from simply applying “materials and forms” and starting to think about the “implementation of social relations” and the broader scheme. I think that your last paragraph brought up some good questions about what scale of participation is most effective, and I would have liked to hear more. The participatory cities might vary based on their geographic location and with the values of the community it serves. It would be interesting to explore working across scales, both within a town or city and between participatory cities. Additionally, the idea of designing based on what we know (whether you’re an engineer, cook, pharmacist, etc) could lead to more sustainable and effective options instead of designers imposing their ideas into relatively unknown fields.


  3. Your last paragraph was a good summation of how many people feel about design, that perhaps the term “participatory” is redundant, because many design firms already incorporate the user in the design process. is IDEO’s community outreach channel, but yet it seems relatively ineffective. They argue that they are “Human-centered design” but I’m not really sure how much of that is true rather than just a marketing ploy. A quote on their website says that “Instead of a process where we sit in the U.S. or Europe or wherever we are and design solutions or programs for people in other countries, this is an approach which embraces them and makes them creative problem-solvers along with us,” says’s Jocelyn Wyatt. But yet, is clearly differentiated from IDEO as a design powerhouse, and perhaps just a front to the fact that IDEO is actually making more decisions and selections with the input of the user.


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