Ezio Manzini, December 2013

Against post-it design: to make things happen

How creativity, design knowledge and dialogic collaboration should shape participatory design and design for social innovation.

1. By its very nature, design for social innovation is a form of participatory design. But what do we mean by “participatory design”?
Today, this expression is often reduced to a narrow, administrative activity, where creative ideas and design culture tend to disappear: an activity where design experts (i.e. professional designers and design researchers) take a step backward and consider their role simply as that of “process facilitators”. That is, the one of who asks other actors’ opinions and wishes, writes them on small pieces of paper, sticks them on the wall, and tries to synthesize them, following a more or less formalized process. We could call this way of doing post-it design: a way of seeing the design process that emerges from two very positive ideas, but that unfortunately tends to turn them towards very banal outcomes.

The first positive idea (more than that: the first revolutionary idea) is: consider “people- as-assets”. That is, to consider all the actors, ordinary citizens included, as potential resources for the solution of a given problem, as people with something significant to bring to the design process. The problem is that, in the post-it design perspective this idea is reduced to a polite conversation around the tables of some co-design exercises. Where participatory design, in my view, is much more than that (on this point I will come back later).

The second positive idea is: overtake “big-ego design”. Big-ego design is left over from the last century’s demiurgic vision, in which design is the act of particularly gifted individuals capable of imprinting their personal stamp on artefacts and environments. Even though this may still mean something in some very specific design field, this way of thinking and doing becomes highly dangerous when applied to complex social problems. Therefore, it is important to react against the idea that design in general may be reduced to big-ego design. For sure, the post-it design approach is motivated by the same intention. As we have already seen, the problem is that to counter big-ego design, post-it design tends to transform design experts into administrative actors, with no specific contributions to bring other than aiding the process with their post-its (and, at the end, maybe, with their nice visualizations).

Having long ago indicated the convergence between design for the diffusion of social innovation and participatory designi, and now recognizing the risk of reducing both to post-it design practice, I would like to start a conversation on this risk and sustain the idea that design should bring to social innovation much more than a few co-design methodologies. Design, in fact, is a specific culture. And design experts should be selected for their creativity and trained to use creativity to transform their design culture in visions and proposals.
In my view, this design culture and this creativity are what design experts should bring to social innovation and to the participatory design processes that support it. The problem is, of course, how to do so without falling back into the old big-ego approach. The answer, in my view, is to promote a blend of creativity, design culture and dialogic collaboration. What this mixture means and how it can be realized calls for discussion. The following notes seek to take a few first steps in this direction.

2. Several years of experience tell us that social innovation is a participatory process in which different actors play a role in different moments, in different ways and in a sequence of diverse, and sometimes even contrasting, events.
The design model that emerges is a totally non-systematic one in which the involved actors, (ordinary citizens included) conceive and develop a variety of initiatives, the overall outcome of which is an original solution. That is, all of them act as designers bringing their specific contribution to the different nodes of open and dynamic designing networks.

Given that, the participatory practices emerging from these experiences can be described in this wayii:

  1. Highly dynamic processes: they include linear co-design processes and consensus building methodologies (i.e. the most traditional view on participatory design). However, they can go far beyond these becoming complex, interconnected, but often contradictory processes.
    Creative and proactive activities, where the design experts’ role includes the role of mediator (between different interests) and facilitator (of other participants’ ideas and initiatives), but it includes also the design experts’ creativity and culture (i.e. their ability to conceive large scenarios and/or original design proposals).
    Complex co-design activities that, call for prototypes, mock-ups, design games, models, sketches and other materials in order to be promoted, sustained and oriented: a set of dedicated and designed artefacts that it is the design experts’ responsibility to conceive and create.
  2. It follows that the participatory processes on which design for social innovation is based call for a broad range of design activities (and therefore of skills and capabilities). They call also for different attitudes, corresponding to the design experts different positioning in the process. In fact, for design experts, playing the role of facilitators (supporting on-going initiatives) or acting as triggers (starting new social conversations) are very different activities. Similarly, operating as members of co-design teams (collaborating with groups of well-defined final users in the framework of well-ordered design processes) is quite different from being design activists (proactively launching design initiatives aimed at generating other actors’ reactions and initiatives) iii.
  3. Of course, the role that the design community as a whole should play calls for the broad spectrum of skills, capabilities and personal attitudes that should characterize the design experts’ contribution to social innovation. . In this general framework, each design expert (and each design agency) can operate in his/her own way at different nodes of the designing network, using at best his/her characterizing competences and cultural and organizational profile.

3. In conclusion: design for social innovation is a complex (and often contradictory) participatory design process where a constellation of actors collaborates in developing social conversations aiming at tangible outputs.
In these processes everybody is allowed to bring ideas, even though these ideas could, at times, generate problems and tensions. In the end, what makes this complex mesh of initiatives a participatory design process is the fact that the involved actors are willing and able to listen to each other, to change their mind and converge towards a common view on the outcomes to be obtained. In short, this means that they are willing and able to establish dialogic cooperation, i.e. in Richard Sennet’s words: a social conversation that “entails a special kind of openness, one which enlists empathy rather than sympathy in its service” iv. A conversation in which listening is as important as speaking (because it enables interlocutors to understand and empathise with a different point of view and, on this basis, search for solutions).

In this framework, the specific role of the design experts is to conceive and promote a variety of design initiatives geared to triggering and supporting the social conversation in the variety of forms it may appear, and to do so in the spirit of a dialogic collaboration.

It follows then that, to avoid both the post-it and big-ego risks, design experts should cultivate their specific creativity and culture and their dialogic capability at the same time. We must stress that dialogic capability in the sense Sennet intends is not the application of a method, but is a very special knowledge: a kind of craft to be learned through practical exercises and experiences. The result is that they, the design experts, should consider their creativity and culture as tools to support the other actors’ capability to design in a dialogic way,. In other words, they should agree to be part of a broad design process that they can trigger and support but not control.

Accepting this portrayal of themselves, and assuming this blend of creativity, design knowledge and dialogic capability as their specific cultural and operational profile, design experts will be in the position to become effective agents of change. They will spark off new initiatives, feed social conversations and help the process of convergence towards commonly recognized visions and outcomes. In short, they will make things happen.

In my view, “to make things happen” is the most concise (and precise) way of describing the design experts’ role in the participatory design process that we normally refer to when talking about design for social innovation.