Participatory Design: Community Engagement

Within the changing environment of design as a field for creating and engaging with communities there has never been a time where the tools that allow designers to engage in collaborative practices have been so easily within their grasp. This blog post will highlight the arguments and opportunities that are presented in Liam J. Bannon and Pelle Ehn’s Design Matters In Participatory Design. Liam Bannon and Pelle Ehn introduce the birth and cycle of the design movement from the emergence of the Bauhaus, to the challenges that face participatory design within the social, economic, political, and technological fields of today. The implementation of a participatory process in the development of a tools for deriving a consensus in which you can interact and engage with  communities is continuing to rise. On top of the ever-advancing opportunities for engagement within digital environment a participatory design process focuses on the means by which people are able to become involved and participate process by which each individual is able to incorporate their expertise.

To be able to properly apply the tools of design into the field of participatory design you need to actually go out there and do some research. Action research which is laid out by Pelle Ehn from Lewin is described as: ‘a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action and research leading to social action’(Lewin 1946). As action research continued to develop in Scandinavian Participatory Design Projects ideas of local accountability became a topic of issues, which still brings to question designs place within communities today. How can we create collaborations within the environments in which we don’t know about all the detail? Where do artist’s opportunities begin to emerge with the development of participatory work? How do we reach a consensus that is not based off of a provisional temporary hierarchy which Mahmoud Keshavarz and Ramia Mazé bring to questions when exploring the application of design research and the role of the designer.

In looking at opportunities to engage with the community in a participatory approach we can drew research from artists and multidisciplinary makers approach to engagement within the community as transformative or transitional existences. In producing a series of monuments to great philosophical theory on subjects regarding aesthetic value, moral responsibility, political agency, and consumerism Thomas Hirschhorn developed a co-existent monument for Antonio Gramsci in New York.Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 10.04.17 AM.png

Thomas was born in 1957 in Bern, Switzerland and originally trained as a graphic designer through the shaping of political discourse the work that Thomas is doing can be used as an example for the possible means by which we engage in a community. “Gramsci Monument” which took place from May to September at Forest Houses in Bronx New York in 2013 was featured on Art 21 for its utilization of news ways to view how participation in art and the discussions surrounding social engagement can be perceived within the community. There is an interesting dynamic between the artist and the community at play within the Gramsci Monument which addresses the roles of those within it’s social dynamic. The community that is working to put in place the opportunities that are available within the monument such as, maker spaces, a library, smoothie bar, radio station, food vendors are all willing participants and not ‘observers’, or collaborators within the monuments limited parameters. The monument is a representation of the possibilities that are open to a community that is willing to be engaged in the necessary processes to try and answer the hard questions about how our society has been constructed.

If looking at participatory design as a process by which we use design science to solve problems how do we make space for reflection. Herbert Simon looks at how ‘satisfying’ vs. ‘optimizing’ or achieving a good enough solution can enable designers to enter into an iterative process of coming up with a solution. Is it easier to sit in a room and draw up plans for how you are going to act on change within you’re the community? Art and design science can mingle with one another to become a completely different force of their own. This constant balance between the right amount of design research and the making can become an open engagement within the community through the use of Fab Labs or Maker spaces.

Not only can we create our own structures for defining how we interact with our community we can also be producers within that community. In both a digital and physical sense, maker spaces have allowed the hacker community to develop tools for solving problems from social activism to products for children in need of affordable and practical prosthetics. The advantages that come with maker spaces are the flow of information from people that have expertise who can communicate with encourage the application of the tools within their disposal to solve problems. The access to information and tools is critical to any participatory design endeavor and with the use of space that enables and empowers individuals to pursue their passions. The future of participatory design calls for the allocation of the tools to bring about the new infrastructure that will enable communities to become producers. The need for programs to allow for students from elementary school all the way through college needs to be addressed in a very practical matter. The Exploratorium in San Fransisco CA offers programs ranging from early education to highschool development programs in which students, artists, and designers are focusing on the creating tools for educating the community. On top of the access to a job at the museum through becoming a volunteer there is the Tinkering Studio in which the museum is prototyping and examining the very exhibits that they will be installing throughout the museum. Where can we see collaboration with artists, designers, volunteers, scientists get involved within our hometowns or current places of residence? Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 10.02.41 AMAccess to these tools needs to be introduced as soon as possible to the coming generation, and this is why we see Fab Labs and Maker Spaces popping up in schools, libraries, museums,  and community centers all over the country. For the youth of a society to be able to participate to the best of their ability they will need the best possible tools to implement their new ideas. The possibilities for these maker spaces to become low cost alternatives to innovation within local communities can be astounding.

Within the realm of participatory design the opportunity for the amazing innovation is just outside of the reach of our next endeavors. The application of these principles of participatory design which focus around the possibilities of open source opportunities that can institute flexibility within a rigid system of implementation. Since this is suppose to be a participatory future we as designers need to re-evaluate our role with the design field, and question whether we wanted to be developing tools that encourage an open dialogue between all levels involved in the development of a potential solution. Where are the new forms for design solutions going to emerge? Will we as designers be able to react or more importantly reflect the communities in which we are apart of our representing. When we question our own ability to participate and engage in a topic of policy, design, healthcare, or education we need to examine our own potential to fully participate in the difficulties that come with solving hard issues.

“Design must be an innovative, highly creative, cross-disciplinary tool responsive to the needs of men. It must be more research-oriented, and we must stop defiling the earth itself with poorly-designed objects and structures.” – Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change

Work Citied:

“Creating Makerspaces in Schools.” Edutopia. N.p., 06 Nov. 2012. Web. 10 May 2016.

“Thomas Hirschhorn | ART21.” Thomas Hirschhorn | ART21. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 May 2016.

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

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



One thought on “Participatory Design: Community Engagement

  1. Imagining a society where and understanding of making and the problem solving process therein is included in the public curriculum early on is incredibly exciting. After coming through a fabrication based education the way I approach constructing my immediate surroundings has been fundamentally transformed. If from a young age everyone learned the knowledge necessary to make rather than replace I completely agree that communities at the ground level would become a fantastic network of infinitely unique examples of ideation and implementation on an unprecedented level. The printer represents and abandonment of a molding oriented making philosophy. By that I mean that the potential of unique variations being exactly as efficient to produce as exact copies (at least in machine operation) opens up the potential of an education/one-off oriented manufacturing environment on an even larger than academic scale.


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