As conversations of ethics, justice, and visibility become more prominent within the design community, design is proving itself as a collectivist response to issues no longer seen as simply political.
In sectors such as design for social good and design justice , the implementation of design as a collaborative practice has begun to shift towards a utilitarian effort towards innovation, addressing the collective needs of indigenous, LGBTQ, ethnic minority, and even resource-constrained communities.
“Considering collaborative design spaces as equity demands understanding design’s role in perpetuating or dismantling barriers,”
Participatory design is defined as a practice in which designers collaborate with non-designers (medical patients, industrial workers, relevant stakeholders) in the process of innovation and decision-making. From its origin, participatory design has emphasized democracy in design, establishing a lens which incorporates views and insights of those who directly work with systems and are living day-to-day with the artifacts of design .
Participation and collaboration in design have become an approach to address systemic issues of power and oppression among marginalized groups. Design practitioners and researchers alike have begun to:
- Envision solutions to homelessness and poverty as forms of marginalization (such as the Doorway Project at the University of Washington)
- Address equity in healthcare (such as Greater Good Studio’s work on equitable healthcare )
- Frame practices of community wellbeing (such as Design for the Wellbeing of Black Women ) alongside the communities impacted by these social issues.
Studying the theoretical underpinnings of participatory design and efforts to establish a more just society has long been a part of my engagement as a design researcher. Understanding design as not only a form of expression, but as a tool for sociological innovation has long been on the minds of many of us who theorize design as a praxis and look to progress the field forward to center equity and equality.
“From its origin, participatory design has emphasized democracy in design, establishing a lens which incorporates views and insights of those who…are living day-to-day with the artifacts of design.”
To use design as a tool for social change, designers must consider imbalances in power and access by examining the ways we position technology and understanding how, in a way, digital interventions and the methods to conceptualize these interventions have contributed to inequities and gaps in inclusivity.
Curating physical homes for design
Discussions of collaborative approaches to design have to include intentionality in design spaces. This consideration is as important as the intentionality put into curating spaces to house social action and community building.
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The concept and execution of participatory or collaborative design spaces, often seen as design workshops, field sites, living labs or other spaces for social innovation, has undergone much speculation and critique since the establishment of this practice.
“Centers for collaborative design provide an opportunity for designers to consider the impact of design…as a mechanism for social impact.”
Practitioners and academic scholars have found value in creating participatory design spaces within communities structured by geographical proximity or commonalities in lived experience to better elicit needs and personal narratives that impact individuals.
This may look like maker fairs, hackathons, and community- or studio-housed design workshops—all of which center community members in the focus and construction of the design effort.
It is important to consider the many purposes of design spaces when creating a home for participatory work and to place a critical lens on how we both create and nurture these spaces to benefit the surrounding community.
With intentionality and consideration, these spaces can become:
- Creators of equity
- Sponsors of critical discourse
- Centers for community-building
- A means of citizen empowerment
Collaborative design spaces as equity
Considering collaborative design spaces as equity demands understanding design’s role in perpetuating or dismantling barriers, and developing intentionality about how and who with we share decision-making power.
User-centered design, for example, is often thought of as the go-to for addressing issues of usability and accessibility in terms of how we can experience design artifacts cognitively, physically, or through our sensory capabilities. But this approach falls short in not considering other constructs impacting the ways we engage with the world.
Design and collaborative design spaces as equity go beyond UCD and structure the way we think about barriers stemming from lack of economic access, knowledge and proficiency, and sustainability in resources.
“To use design as a tool for social change, designers must consider imbalances in power and access by examining the ways we position technology”
Demanding equity means addressing social equity with products, technology, and information. but also the ways design itself is done equitably.
- What does it mean to democratize design tools and materials?
- How can we create collaborative design spaces where non-designers can participate in using their means of expression?
- What does it mean to facilitate healthy power dynamics within the community? How might this shift the outcome of design?
Collaborative design spaces for critical discourse
Collaborative design emerged as a way to democratically develop computer-based technologies in the workplace and is most often seen applied to Agile software development and helping students learn software building.
“Centers for collaborative design provide an opportunity for designers to consider the impact of design beyond the product we are developing”
Using collaborative design spaces as critical discourse means nurturing spaces where discussion is its social practice and doing so with a lens to problem-solving and innovation.
Using collaborative design spaces for critical discourse suggests that design is not just a tool to create, but is also to understand the human experience and how it’s impacted by the environment and elements we engage with. Nurturing spaces that support critical discourse means:
- Expanding how we empathize with each other
- Improving our positioning of design as a useful social action response
- Facilitating conversations across communities and between designers and nondesigners that are critical to us
- Including non-designers in discussions of practice
All of this will help us create larger shifts in the ways we think about and engage with societal issues.
Collaborative design spaces as centers for community building
In approaching physical spaces as constructs for connecting people and communities, we are tasked with acknowledging how collaborative design spaces can become community-building spaces.
Supporting community building means:
- Demonstrating existing methods of community collectivism
- Exemplifying current norms of interaction
- Honoring the community engagement that existed before your space was created
- Focusing on design interventions in a way that the community would consider successful
- Leveraging existing community assets as resources, and community leaders as citizen experts
Collaborative design spaces as a tool for citizen empowerment
The foundation of collaboration in design calls for amplifying marginalized voices. Therefore, cultivating collaborative design spaces as a tool for citizen empowerment means:
- Considering how marginalized people and voices are amplified by the space and its participants
- Intentionality in integrating structures of engagement which are led by those who are typically neglected
Centers for collaborative design provide an opportunity for designers to consider the impact of design beyond the product we are developing, and more as a mechanism for social impact by addressing policy, public engagement, and supporting on-the-ground innovation.
Integrating participatory design with critical discourse for example while elitist may help to engage in a certain democracy of both process and sense-making. In using design spaces to nurture collective creativity and amplify views from marginalized communities, we as designers reframe the role of the profession from leading creative efforts to providing a platform for and centering the experiences and views of those whose voice may otherwise not be heard.
Designers are thus seen not so much as just innovators in the sense of aesthetic or creating tangible products, but as bridge-builders, lobbyists, and allies curating of intentional spaces that can serve a purpose for positive impact.
This pursuit can’t happen through any single moment of design. It provides value only when used as an ongoing, iterative process.
To benefit, we need to rely upon public participation and critical discourse, sensitivity to social conflict, shared trust, mutual learning, and security and fairness.
-  Bjerknes, G., & Bratteteig, T. (1995). User participation and democracy: A discussion of Scandinavian research on system development. Scandinavian Journal of information systems, 7(1), 1.
Christina is a designer, researcher, and academic whose work focuses on using codesign as a way to empower marginalized communities. She currently resides in Chicago and travels for food, sports and culture.