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Thoughts on Participatory Design, Adversarial Design, and Consumerism

Sunday, May 20th, 2012 | Posted by Jon Kolko

Design, like any other topic, has movements and approaches, trends and styles. A student of design history can see muddy relationships between the socio-political temperament of citizens and countries, and the nature of designed artifacts and systems. It’s been relatively easy to understand aesthetic changes, because they are perceptual: they are visually obvious. Mies’ buildings and chairs were simple and emphasized the structural qualities of their materials. This, depending on your perspective, is boring, elegant, or institutional, and it serves to reflect a society embracing engineering and the power of production. Raymond Loewy’s streamlined bullet train, boat, Avanti, and pencil sharpener all characterize the development of American temperament: fast, and proud.

The development of Jonathan Ives’ form language for Apple has characterized a company shift from space-age to professional, while Apple’s UI has constantly wavered between cute and kitsch, saying more about consumers than about Apple.

But there are larger design movements afoot that are more subtle and more difficult to see, and therefore, more difficult to understand. The names overlap and conflict, but they generally speak to the role of the designer: while the aesthetic movements can be seen as a description of society, these new ways of thinking about design speak more to the increasing power of the designer in shaping that society.

I want to speak about two of these, which are simultaneously juxtaposed and interlinked.

Participatory
The first is the idea of collaborative design: designing with users, or empowering users to design for themselves. This has taken many names: Cooperative Design, Scandinavian Design, Co-Design, and Participatory Design, and it has roots in the rejection of authoritative, top-down decision making. In non-US countries, and particularly in Scandinavian countries, the roots of this come from union empowerment for workers to decide on and help shape the working environment in which they spend their time. When I visited Malmö University, Pelle Ehn gave me a copy of his book Work-Oriented Design of Computer Artifacts. It was published in 1988, and describes retrospectively many of the projects Ehn worked on to formalize a truly bottom-up approach to the design of systems.

As Ehn describes, a practice of design by and for the users is a form of “emancipatory practice”, which, “as epistemology is identification with oppressed groups and support of their transcendence in action and reflection.” It’s likely hard for a reader in the US to value and understand a statement like that because it’s so far afield of our political conversation. But taken in the context of a menial un-empowered worker, consider that the policies a worker must follow, the software she has to use, the “service design touchpoints” that have been created for her to have positive interaction with her customers are all indications of oppression, at least in the context of a job. If it sounds Marxist, it’s because it is: Marx calls for a resistance and rejection from workers against anonymous decision makers, and the modern-day equivalent might be an uprising of call-center employees against the Accenture PMO.

This is a dramatic rejection of the rationalistic approach towards design of Herb Simon, or the method-driving approach of Alexander that I spoke of a few days ago, and Ehn goes on to explain that “participative and creative approaches to design are championed as candidates to replace systematic or rationalistic design… How is it possible that in computer science the early rationalist systems engineering approach and the program of Herbert Simon is still alive?”

Adversarial Discursion
The other major theme that I want to describe is the push towards adversarial discursion: of simultaneous digression from a norm, and embracement of a controversial and purposefully provocative view. This has been called, in various forms, design as authorship, critical design, design for conflict, discursive design, and adversarial design. While most modern design is intended to blend into the background (“Good design is as little design as possible”), these forms of design purposefully elevate a strong and often controversial viewpoint to the forefront. They are intended to provoke – to provoke thought, discourse, reaction, and controversy.

Carl DiSalvo (Professor at Georgia Tech, and on our AC4D advisory board) describes Adversarial Design as a label for “works that express or enable a particular political perspective known as agonism… Agonism is a condition of disagreement and confrontation – a condition of contestation and dissensus.” He goes on to state that “Bias is required to do the work of agonism. A visualization that is agonistic cannot just present the facts. An artifact of information design is made agonistic by the extent to which it identifies and represents contestable positions or practices.” Adversarial Design is biased, and purposefully attempts to provoke. It walks the line of art, which is acknowledged by DiSalvo. It means that a product, system, or service takes on a role that’s larger than utility, aesthetics, and usability – “usable, useful, and desirable” is definitively not adversarial, at least not against a backdrop of consumerism. In many ways, the acceptance of Adversarial Design as a legitimate course of study and action helps separate the discipline of design from the artificial confines of business, identifying that it has a larger role to play in shaping the language and conversation of technology in society.

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I don’t mean to position Adversarial Design and Participatory Design as opposites. They aren’t, and in many ways, they compliment one another in their focus on empowerment. That they both exist, and are gaining significant traction in design spheres of influence, helps to describe the socio-political backdrop, in much the same way that Loewy’s streamlining acts as a prompt for understanding the Roaring 50s. A third idea, not described here, is design for impact: the entire purpose of our school. And when taken together, these three themes speak to the fundamental shift in design intent that is occurring. It might be premature to call consumerism dead, but these ideas in total certainly point in that direction.

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