Designing for Dialogue

On the morning after the election, post-its appeared in a Jacobs Hall studio. With Americans across the political spectrum awakening to a new reality, the post-its were full of questions that spanned a wide range of topics, from policy to broader questions around tolerance, safety, and community. Each question, however, began with the same phrase: “How might we.” These post-its were the products of an impromptu brainstorming session in Design Methodology, a course that introduces students to the tools and processes behind design — including exercises like framing problems as “how might we” statements, pointing out opportunities for innovation in the process.

Design Methodology is part of a diverse mix of courses at Jacobs Hall, helping compose an interdisciplinary ecosystem rooted in designing with and for real people and communities. Perhaps not surprisingly in a local environment that interweaves the Bay Area’s technological currents with Berkeley’s long history of public discourse and activism, in recent days some students and instructors have found themselves contemplating the relationships between technology, design, and community dialogue. How does design shape public dialogue, for better or for worse — and how might design provide a toolkit for building new approaches and spaces for conversation?

For students in Design Methodology, the “how might we” exercise, guided by instructors Sara Beckman and Dennis Lieu, provided a framework for building on their questions about public discourse amid a clear sense of national division. “We all came in…wanting to design for this,” explains Kate Bennett, a conservation and resource studies student enrolled in the class. Her classmate Arielle Spencer, a cognitive science student, noted that the exercise provided a unique opportunity to “bring what we’ve been learning to a really relevant problem.”

As students generated questions on post-its, shared themes began to emerge, from voter participation to sociocultural divides. These shared themes helped shape the next step in the process, which the class took on in their next meeting, splitting into teams and brainstorming around a given theme. Using pen and paper, the teams collaboratively developed lo-fi prototypes of their ideas, which ranged from coding a browser extension to diversify the viewpoints people see online to creating a new system for encouraging Berkeley students to register to vote.

Elsewhere in the Jacobs Hall ecosystem, students in a course titled Critical Practices have brought their own perspectives to these issues. Positioned at the intersection of technological innovation and socially engaged art, Critical Practices focuses on cultural critique, using “new making strategies [to] reframe our notions of people, places, and participation.” Following the election, this focus felt particularly relevant. “This class has a lot of experience thinking about what it means to be a community — how we design communities, how we engage in communities,” says the course’s instructor, Jill Miller. As the class discussed concepts like design for civic engagement and the meaning of solidarity in class on the morning after the election, the conversation turned to the protests taking place in Berkeley, led by Berkeley High School students. The class decided to walk to Sproul Plaza, where the protesting students had congregated, to join the rally.

For graduate student Molly Nicholas, who focuses on human-computer interaction, one seemingly small aspect of the protest got her thinking about the ways in which logistics and systems shape — and sometimes limit — the kinds of conversations we have: problems with the rally leaders’ microphone limited what she could hear, despite the students’ intentions. “That little snapshot kind of seems like a microcosm of a lot of challenges,” she observes. “The small logistics can be really hard to implement — and they really make a huge difference.” Pointing to existing systems that don’t necessarily function as well as they might, from often poorly attended town hall meetings to online petitions, she muses, “Maybe it’s worth rethinking how people are engaged.”

That’s where Critical Practices students come in. Working as hybrid practitioners, the students have spent the semester building a toolkit of vocabularies, methods, and technical skills, weaving together ideas from spaces as diverse as performance art, social design, and the maker movement. Through a series of assignments, labeled “provocations,” they have begun to apply these lessons to creating work meant to prompt new modes of engagement with issues from campus sexual assault to diversity in the media. Digital fabrication tools in Jacobs Hall and the CITRIS Invention Lab, such as laser-cutters and basic electronics, enable students to physically realize their ideas, creating “objects that become experiences for users, or, as we often call them, participants,” explains Miller.

For some students, this process has involved simultaneously creating new designs and reflecting on the roles that design and technological innovations have played in current public discourse. Student Carlo Liquido, for example, notes that during early brainstorming for a provocation centered on subverting the status quo, his team had an idea focused on the “filter bubble” effect of social media. A graduate student in Berkeley’s School of Information who focuses on areas like data visualization, Liquido emphasizes the role of design decisions in shaping our news feeds, saying, “You shouldn’t be viewing this algorithm as purely mechanical — in the end, an algorithm is created by a person with a specific purpose.”

Brainstorming around this concept, his team had the idea to create interactive installations blurring the physical and the digital, with physical “bubbles” housing immersive virtual reality experiences that would present different perspectives, mirroring the different feeds people see on social media. While the team ultimately decided to move forward on a different project idea, Liquido notes that the process of thinking through concepts like this has been a valuable part of the course experience. Miller also underlines the importance of this process, saying, “Design should provoke conversations — and sometimes ask questions rather than create a product or solve a problem.”

As they grapple with questions about community, dialogue, and the roles of design and technology, some students say they have found it useful to respond through making. “We’ve gotten quite far in terms of democratizing access to tools for making,” says Molly Nicholas. “Of course, we can always do better, but Berkeley does a great job of offering courses that let you build the fundamentals, so you can actually try all of your weird ideas.” This access to building blocks for making, whether technical tools or the language and methods of design, can be empowering, giving students a way to dive into issues that can seem overwhelming. Reflecting on the experience of rapidly brainstorming and prototyping ideas in Design Methodology, industrial engineering and operations research student Francesca Ledesma says, “It was good to address something so relevant…I was surprised by the creative solutions people came up with.”

Around Jacobs Hall, a number of informal conversations have sprung up, from students talking (as they walk into a meeting of their entry-level Discovering Design course) about how they might use design skills to reshape the voting experience to makerspace musings on what truly inclusive innovation looks like. Many of these conversations have cut across disciplinary boundaries, connecting perspectives that otherwise might not come into contact. Pointing to the learning environment created by his fellow students in Critical Practices, who collectively study topics ranging from biology and computer science to new media and English, Liquido says, “It’s been a really, really fruitful class — and I think that can be extended to the real world.” For Miller, this extension to the “real world” lies at the heart of her goals for the semester. “I hope,” she explains, “students come away from this knowing they can work in digital fabrication, in art, in design, to create projects that can impact, or at least connect with, a community.”

By Laura Mitchell