Leave your Sharpies at home

By Diamond James

As social impact designers, we often play the role of the facilitator during design research. We’re expected to learn from people by working with stakeholders, users and community coalitions to gain insight into their experiences. Armed with Sharpies and Post-its, we look forward to a robust, honest community engagement. Honestly? Are our office supplies and earnest attitude enough? They’re a great start to any designer’s toolkit, but we can bring more to the table. This is not an indictment against permanent markers and sticky notes, but here are some ways to go beyond the trope.

Put down the pen.

From countless community engagements, designers can attest that group dialogue isn’t always comfortable for everyone in attendance. Perhaps people are shy, an outspoken few may intimidate others, or there might be language barriers to overcome. Facilitators often lean towards the written word on colorful squares to ensure everyone has an opportunity to discreetly share their perspectives.

Rapid writing elicits a wide range of pithy responses. The method beckons fluidity — a constant stream of ideas that might point to a central theme or poignant observations. It is generally a low-barrier invitation to participation.

However, there are other equally valid ways of communication that might nudge people to tell a more comprehensive story. Consider allowing stories to emerge through oral tradition, signing, the arts, music or body language. Decide which medium is most relevant or familiar, least intrusive and benevolent when designing your research event.

Take a back seat.

Designers may find community engagement efforts go a long way when someone else takes the lead. Of course, not just anybody will do. But selecting a member of the group with which you’re designing to fill the role may yield more insightful conversation than if you were in the driver’s seat at the workshop.

This approach takes humility, trust and coaching to make a smooth and effective transition. A facilitator’s job is literally to make things easier. If stepping out of the way to make the design process more accessible for a community of which you are not a member, then humble yourself and slide over. This is not a step down, but a lateral move as you are sharing the work and on your way to an authentic co-design.

In order to choose wisely, identify community gatekeepers, people that have the trust of the group as a whole, or someone who has a good rapport with other attendees. In order to find a good candidate, you may need to do some social detective work beforehand, or pay close attention to group dynamics in session. Once you’ve found someone, be transparent about why you want to work with them. Share workshop objectives, your role and goals, and how you might work together.

Set the scene.

Earlier I used the word “workshop” to describe one kind of community engagement. The word needs clarification because it brings to mind a very narrow connotation. Designing a gathering for people to engage with specific topic should bring a wide range of settings to mind. However, the term generally connotes a more formal, office or academic setting with chairs and tables with someone clearly defined as the “leader” of the session. There is often a physical separation between the facilitator and the participants. This format is very typical, but acknowledge its possible barriers.

If you discover a typical setup isn’t going to be comfortable for participants, consider a different type of environment to reduce any spatial obstacles to participation. Think of informal spaces where participants already meet, share feelings and freely exchange ideas. Ask to be invited. If you can’t change the workshop location, consider rearranging furniture, adding food, sitting among community members and participating, or at the minimum, name the event something inviting and relevant to the group.

Case Study: Saved by the selfie

One summer, I worked on a project about public housing and neighborhood development. I decided to begin by gathering opinions about how the nearby public school supported residents. I was determined to find voices starting with parents and administrators. My community partner allowed me to attend parent meetings, but it was clear no one was comfortable talking to me as I asked to conduct interviews. One parent was furious, denying my request. I understood her anger with me — a stranger who had appeared without warning, wanting her time and her personal thoughts on a beleaguered topic. As an outsider, I was getting nowhere, and I already knew that a survey would be much worse.

I needed to start over and build rapport with the school community. It happened that a school celebration was scheduled for later that month. Looking for a way to warmly engage students and parents, faculty, as well as alumni who still lived in the neighborhood, I asked my partner to let me sponsor a photo booth. Not only did the photo booth fit into the festive mood of the day, but it gave me an opportunity to collect candid perspectives. I asked one open-ended question and provided fun props to collect a visual record of what the school symbolizes. I gave participants their halves of the strips and I regarded the other halves as valid data points. The photo booth was a hit because it met people where they were.

Everyone loves a selfie! Over time, portraiture has taken many forms, but our desire to document ourselves hasn’t changed. Combining my very simple research question with portraits was a relatable concept. The photo booth experience is symbolic of fun times as it is a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon appearing at weddings, proms and parties. After the event, I was able to see the responses as more telling than an interview asking the same question.


The Center for Social Design at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) is committed to demonstrating the value of design in addressing complex social problems, and preparing the next generation of creative changemakers. We place a high value on critical reflection and on learning from everything we do. This is a platform where our students, fellows, alumni, staff, faculty and partners can openly reflect, critique and share their experiences.

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Center for Social Design or of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).

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