Building a Design Perspective on Community Engagement

Our discussion in class last evening centered around the opportunity and challenges of embedded, contextual research. We started with an article from Emily Pilloton, in which she describes some of her work at Project H, formerly located in Bertie County, North Carolina. As Emily describes, lasting involvement through design research requires three qualities:

  • Proximity – simply being there, in the place you seek to design with and for
  • Empathetic investment – a personal and emotional stake in collective prosperity
  • Pervasiveness – the opposite of scattershot, involvement that has impact at multiple scales

In Emily’s model, co-creation requires embedded work that’s aware of emotional (and often unspoken) community boundaries and that integrates those who use, enjoy, or experience a given design into the context of building that design. “To take it one step further, you can’t design effective solutions for people unless you make your clients or end users part of the design process—cocreating systems that will work for and be owned by them. To do either of these things, you simply have to be there, present in a place, and part of the community.” Our discussion focused on the nature of community, and on the relationship – and distinction – between doing design work and doing volunteer work.

Our second author, Victor Margolin, wrote – in 1996 – of two competing forces, or frames, through which design is considered (pdf link). In the first model, called the Expansion Model, “the world consists of markets rather than nations, societies, or cultures. Products function in these markets as tokens of economic exchange. They attract capital which is either recycled back into more production or becomes part of the accumulation of private or corporate wealth.” This positions design as a fundamental and strategic economic lever: a force in business that contributes directly to long-term financial viability and profit.

In the second model, “The premise of this model is that the world is a system of ecological checks and balances which consists of finite resources. If the elements of this system are damaged or thrown out of balance or if essential resources are depleted, the system will suffer severe damage and possibly collapse.” Margolin calls this the equilibrium model, although it could just as easily be viewed as the ecology model. Design’s role here is separate than and extracted from the context of business.

The idea that design can be extracted from business is surprising only if you haven’t considered design as a discipline on its own, a discipline that can be applied “over” or “through” other aspects of culture. In fact, design can be just as easily (and artificially) embedded in government, family, or anywhere else that we find technological advancement encroaching on human life.

Our final readings investigated Jane Fulton Suri’s views of design synthesis (pdf link), a process of making meaning out of data. For Fulton Suri, design research (and the empathy that is such an integral part of it) is only a means to an end. “We would like to emphasize that the deeper, more meaningful, and more enduring value comes not from the observations themselves. This value comes from the quality of interpretation and synthesis applied to the observations, the freshness of insights surfaced, and the effectiveness in influencing how companies respond.” Research prompts interpretative analysis, and this form of synthesizing data is often driven by reframing a problem in a new context.

All three readings question and challenge the quality of designing with, and for, people in social contexts. It is impossible to explore wicked problems without touching on the ethic of design. I encourage my students to build a level of skepticism around design in social contexts, one that understands and trusts the design process but realizes the artificial and often temporary relationship forged through design research. If you aren’t intending to embed yourself in a community of use for the long haul (and often, even if you are), it’s simply irresponsible to drop a design into context without truly marinating on the potential consequences. For students, this considering is the act of forming a critical design perspective.