Participatory Design in the Nonprofit Sector

An informal, reflective blog written for an Independent Study on approaches to participatory design and policy, advised by professors Jonathan Chapman and Dan Lockton at Carnegie Mellon University School of Design

Independent Study Outline

In my first meeting with Jonathan, he asked that I outline what my goals and objectives were for this study, what outputs there will be, and a rough timeline of the study. I expect much of this will change as the semester progresses, but it does provide a clear direction to start with.


Innovation labs addressing global, wicked problems are becoming more prevalent. However, the innovative solutions often struggle to get implemented, due to them being “ad hoc, incremental, siloed and forgotten.” Can participatory design increase buy-in and help change how these innovations are derived and implemented, thus making them more impactful?


I have long been interested in international development projects that attempt to solve big, global problems, but also shrink back from this type of work, not wanting to play out the narrative of “white savior” parachuting solutions into unfamiliar places. This narrative can occur even in small-scale, local design interventions, so I wonder if participatory design is really what “human-centered design” in the public sector calls for. Is participatory design always appropriate? What methods do successful development projects use? What can design learn from them, and what does design have to offer the nonprofit sector? These are all questions I hope to poke at, if not fully interrogate over the course of the semester.

My education goals are to learn about participatory design, practice research and writing, and (ideally) do a practice-based project.


I intend to divide the semester into thirds. The first third of the semester, ending on March 1st, I will learn about participatory design theory and methods through readings.

The second part of the semester, ending on March 30th, I intend to research case studies of large-scale interventions and/or policies — both those which involved participatory design and those which did not. I’m particularly interested in learning if any governments have integrated participatory design into their policy-making process. This research may include interviews of people working in the field to learn which methods they have found to be most effective. From this, I hope to learn in what contexts participatory design is most effective and most appropriate.

Finally, the rest of the semester will be spent making. If I am able to come to an agreement with a local nonprofit, I hope to put these methods and theories I learned during the first parts of the semester to practice by applying them to a current, smaller-scale problem in the organization. If this is not possible, I will synthesize the research into a paper to be submitted at the end of the semester.

I intend to document my process through weekly reflections on the readings & the work.

Week 2

1.24.18 Meeting with Dan

This was an introductory meeting in which we briefly discussed things to consider in Participatory Design and Dan offered some initial resources to begin my research [many of which made it into the reading list below]. We talked about managing expectations in Participatory settings, and raised the question that maybe direct stakeholders aren’t always the right participants in PD. He referred me to a number of interesting case studies as well as books and papers written about participatory design and policy.

Reading List

My first assignment was to gather a reading list for the semester. As I looked through different sources, I found a number of tangentially related topics that would be interesting to look at. Given how quickly a semester goes by, I don’t expect to get deeply into all of these topics, but they are areas I would like to explore in the future if not this semester.

  • Participatory design (PD) methods
  • Designing for complexity (in general)
  • PD in policy-making
  • PD in international development
  • PD and organizational design

My preliminary reading list can be viewed at this link. Highlighted citations will be prioritized, though I expect this list will change as the semester progresses. Topics will be covered more or less in the order listed.

Week 3

Reflections on the readings:

Scandinavian Approaches to Participatory Design—Judith Gregory

I really enjoyed this reading and admire the principles-based approach to design that the Scandinavians take. In the introduction, author Judith Gregory summaries the “three principles that distinguish Scandinavian approaches to design:

  • deep commitments to democracy and democratisation;
  • discussions of values in design and imagined futures; and
  • how conflict and contradictions are regarded as resources in design.”

I appreciated the deeper meaning that participatory design brings to the discipline and that Gregory refers to throughout the paper. On page 63, she writes,

Scandinavian participatory design practices are not distinguished by particular methods but rather by political commitments to societal concerns and relationships with participating users and communities. … Scandinavian participatory design approaches emphasise change and development…of people, organisations, and practices, occurring in changing socio-historical contexts.

I believe the public sector can highly benefit from design, so the consideration of the socio-cultural-political aspects of the entire system resonates with me.

The distinction between American and Scandinavian approaches to politics and conflict in design was interesting to think about. On page 68–69, she writes,

In the mainstream discourse of systems design in the United States, there is a near obsession with ‘human error’ and its elimination. The longstanding principle to ‘eliminate human error’ has often meant to eliminate people—regarded as the sources of error—from work processes, i.e. ‘to automate.’ This deeply embedded design tradition in the US dedicated to eliminating human error and favouring the inscription of automated ‘quality control’ processes in systems design stands in sharp contrast to the DHIS design which deliberately allows people to make mistakes, in order to promote continuous learning and to achieve other purposes that are expressed in design principles.

Gregory refers to different methods of participatory design in this paper, but doesn’t go into detail, so that is something I would like to learn more about. Similarly, she mentions “imagining futures” as a part of the participatory design process, but doesn’t explain what that means. Perhaps other readings will articulate what that step entails.

A Framework for Organizing the Tools and Techniques of Participatory Design—Elizabeth Sanders, Eva Brandt, and Thomas Binder

This was a short but good overview of the fundamentals of participatory design methods, including definitions, factors to take into consideration, and a rough framework for different methods. The framework and methods will be more useful once I start actually practicing the methods, but for now they do provide a useful structure for organizing and thinking about the methods and the contexts in which they are used.

The authors mention that a more thorough version of this paper will be published in Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design. The initial readings on PD have been intriguing, so it will be worth my while to read some of the chapters in this book.

Challenges and Opportunities in Contemporary Participatory Design—Toni Robertson and Jesper Simonsen

This paper is an introduction to a series of papers on participatory design published in the same journal (the next reading comes from that same journal). Many of the papers they refer to sound very interesting, so I intend to find some of the others to add to my reading list. It provides an overview of the origins of participatory design, reiterates some of the key features of PD, and makes some distinctions between PD and traditional design methods. Of note:

Participatory Design is not the same as ‘user-centered design,’ though the two can have much in common and some design tools and techniques are used in both… Participatory Design projects are always driven by ongoing and systematic reflection on how to involve users as full partners in design and how this involvement can unfold throughout the design process. The basic motivation remains democratic and emancipatory: Active participation needs to define Participatory Design because if we are to design the futures we wish to live, then those whose futures are affected must actively participate in the design process. (p. 4–5)

The authors go on to describe how PD is of mutual benefit to the designers and the user-participants:

Mutual learning throughout the process provides all participants with increased knowledge and understandings: Potential users about what is being designed; designers about people and their practices; and all participants about the design process, its outcomes and how both can influence the ways we live and the choices we make. (p. 5)

They also emphasize the importance of understanding the practices around which we are designing, “[recognizing the role of everyday practical action in shaping the worlds in which we live” (5). Understanding practices provides the context and how people behave within that context, making “the process and its outcome are more likely to be accepted and sustained” (6). Perhaps I need to read up on social practice theory.

They reiterate Gregory’s point about complexity and conflict, noting that a variety of perspectives ultimately creates results that “are more likely to be flexible and robust in use, accessible to more people, more easily appropriated into changing situations, and more adaptable to these situations over time” (6).

That PD strongly emphasizes ethics and values in design is a big selling point for me. Again on page 6, they write “An ethical stand underlies Participatory Design in that it recognizes the accountability of design to the worlds it creates and the lives of those who inhabit them.” This ties directly in to probably my favorite design-related quote from Clive Dilnot in “The Gift”:

…we make things not only in order to make things as such (things in themselves), but to make a world that is a particular kind of world in which we can be particular kinds of human beings (for how we can be as human beings is dependent, in large part, on the kinds of human worlds we can make) (56).

Design Things and Design Thinking: Contemporary Participatory Design Challenges—Erling Bjögvinsson, Pelle Ehn, and Per-Anders Hillgren

This paper covered a lot of the same topics as the other papers I read, but also highlighted and elaborated on interesting perspectives on PD that were either briefly mentioned or weren’t brought up at all in any of the other papers.

In sum, PD differs from traditional Design Thinking in that it focuses on the “socio-material assemblies,” referred to in this paper as Things with a capital T. That is, one cannot design in isolation of the practices surrounding that project. In fact, they say, whereas traditional design is centered on a terminal project, PD should “infrastructure” to embed and align the solution with the context / environment and other Things in use. Because “envisioned use is hardly the same as actual use, no matter how much participation has occurred in the design process” (107), the authors argue that the appropriation of the design solution is itself a form of designing, “seeing every use situation as a potential design situation” (107). Thus, they argue for “deliberately [designing] indeterminacy and incompleteness into the infrastructure, leaving unoccupied slots and space for unanticipated events and performances yet to be” (108).

Their approach to PD seems to be a very open and fluid one, reflecting the unpredictability and fluidity of life itself—the very context in which they operate. On page 109, they write

In this perspective, design becomes a question, not so much about the new or about innovative products, but … more about everyday practice in particular sites and locations. This is a practice committed to the work of envisioning emerging landscapes of design through which social and material transformations take place, landscapes shaped by the opening up of questions and possibilities.

They then go on to discuss social innovation and design “as a process for radical change—for developing services, systems, and environments that support more sustainable lifestyles and consumption habits” (110). I LOVED reading the case study on Malmö Living Labs and their work with RGRA, “a grassroots hip-hop community…whose members are first-and second-generation immigrants living in the suburbs of Malmö” (111). The solutions were so innovative, interesting, and relevant to the youth. The collaborations they were involved with were of mutual benefit to all involved, and they didn’t shy away from addressing the political and legal impacts of the work and collaborations they were doing. It was also interesting to note how, through these innovative solutions, the landscape itself was changing, raising questions about things like property rights and the nature of a bus. This to me reinforced the need for an ethical framework in design to help guide designers confronted by new challenges in changing landscapes.


The following are some rough guidelines on Participatory Design gleaned from these readings:

  • PD is rooted in democratic principles and strong ethic that those who are impacted by the design should take part in the design process itself
  • Conflict and controversy are welcomed, and addressing conflict only makes the final design solution that much stronger
  • PD and engagement with user-participants should be an ongoing process
  • PD takes the entire socio-material-cultural environment into account. Understanding and designing for the practices helps increase the likelihood of the design solution being accepted / adopted.

From readings from a history course entitled, “How (NOT) to Change the World,” I would reinforce the importance of designing with those who are being impacted, to empower user-participants to design their own solutions to foster more sustainable interventions, and also to approach social innovation projects with a humble stance.

2.1.18 Meeting with Jonathan

The meeting with Jonathan was very helpful as he gave me a lot of advice to help guide my research. He said that identifying a critical dimension will be critical to ensuring something fruitful comes out of the research. He suggested I observe, notice, and gather examples of things that relate (either directly or tangentially) to participatory design practices, perhaps collating them all in a Pinterest board. In so doing, I will also identify successes and failures, what works in this sphere and what does not. Related to that, we talked about how participation may not always be a good thing, and that it might weaken the results. Are there projects in which participation is not helpful, or simply moments in the process? Jonathan advised that I make note of these and other questions, even commenting on this Medium post to gather a timeline almost of questions as I progress through the research.

Most significantly, he suggested I explore “participation” and “public sector” as ideas and come to a clear definition for myself, which will also help guide the research. What are the necessary ingredients of participation? What does it look like? Similarly, he noted that “public sector” is a much broader space than the one I intend to look at for this research, so I will need to come to much clearer terms. We talked about avoiding “plastic words” that are broadly used but not clearly defined. I think arriving at clear definitions will be the most challenging work this week.

Finally, he cautioned that my reading list might be too extensive, and that he would rather I read fewer pieces and get more out of them. So I will not try to rush through all the topics, but still keep the full list there for my own personal future reference.

Week 4–5

“Systems 2: Infrastructures” video with Lisa Suchman and Katherine Gibson Graham

Civic Engagement—Peter Block

Unpacking the Notion of Participation in Participatory Design—Tone Bratteteig and Ina Wagner

Co-Creation and the New Landscapes of Design—Peter Jan Stappers and Liz Sanders

From designing to co-designing to collective dreaming: three slices in time—Liz Sanders

This gave a good historical context to the ‘rise’ of co-design.

2.15.18 Meeting with Jonathan

Next Steps

Week 6

“Social Means Do Not Justify Corruptible Ends”—Otto von Busch and Karl Palmås

Dan had suggested I read this, and I felt it was such an important paper; it answered a lot of questions I had regarding PD and raised some others. As written in the abstract, the authors “discuss the tendency for social design and innovation literature to focus on design processes rather than outcomes, and introduce ideas from realist political theory to account for the corruptibility of social innovations.” On page 3 they make important distinctions between social design and social innovation. The discussion about the “individualistic myths of wealth and poverty” again ties in directly to the history class I am taking and ideas of development, utilitarianism, neoliberalism, and grassroots movements. von Busch and Palmås write,

In the participation regime, the conceptual tools of development have been reformulated in a way that aligns it with the tenets of microfinance; action becomes an individual responsibility, and empowerment loses its political connotation of the struggle for real power. In both cases, the answer to marginalization has become a question between perceived free and equal individuals, placing the locus of political debate far away from more structural issues (von Busch and Palmås).

The authors point out that participatory design can in some ways be its own “unjustified exercise of power,” which I had never considered before. They refer to philosopher Jacques Rancière:

He posits that the type of participatory regime we normally refer to as “democracy” merely concerns the tiny space left unoccupied by the dominant order. 54 For Rancière, then, democratic participation has become disarmed — it concerns minor or even illusionary choices about matters where citizens do not threaten power. Thus, participation masks our inability to change the ruling order (von Busch and Palmås).

It is worth reflecting on how PD can be executed in such a way that does not give affective, “illusionary” perceptions of power.

Some of the issues with social innovation that they raise tie in directly to the history class I am taking and the independent study on decolonial theory. They write about the Capitalist mindset with which microfinance advocates approach poverty, neglecting to consider alternate economic models. They write:

Given that the economic arrangements based on self-interest follow a European lineage,61 one may argue that alternatives arrangements are more likely to emerge in the Global South. However, the spread of microfinance currently seems to have the opposite effect, cementing the mode of economic life that prevails in the richer parts of the world (von Busch and Palmås).

Similarly, they question the assumption of universal appeal of participatory design practices. This was probably the most significant point of the paper for me, as it made me realize that we need to be careful to not propagate PD as the West tends to propagate democracy. Just because the system works here does not mean it will be well-received in other parts of the world. Enforcing certain design methods is its own form of neocolonialism that we need to be mindful of. von Busch and Palmås articulate it very well:

…The field of social design and innovation may be well served by relating to criticisms put forward by development scholars such as Cooke and Kothari, who argue that participative processes may obscure and sustain macro-level inequalities and injustice.73 One particular point of contention is the supposed universalism of participative practices, which nevertheless represent the perspective of the party that holds the power in the process. John Hailey argues that in a situation where a participatory process takes place in a collectivist, high-power, distance culture in the developing world, but is managed on the basis of individualist low-power distance cultures of the West, “the process of participation is not universal and is contingent on different cultural norms or assumptions.” 74 Though these practices may be construed as “universal common sense,” 75 they should be seen as culturally specific, often representing the particular perspective of a stronger party. This insight from development studies needs to be brought into the discussion on social design and social innovation. The pursuit of universalist claims may obscure the power relations embedded in social design processes (von Busch and Palmås). [Emphasis added]

The section on how Capitalism has infiltrated social life was enlightening. They write, “Lazzarato argues that contemporary capitalism is defined by its very tendency to generate profits though the intermingling of the economic and the social.” Through social media, our social lives have also become commodified.

This was an excellent, thought-provoking and insightful paper. Although I feel some pressure to move on and read other papers, I believe it will benefit the rest of my research to take the time to re-read this paper and reflect on it more deeply.


Reading this paper made me realize that the two independent studies and history course I am taking all intersect at ideas around international development. I had been thinking about Jonathan’s question on where all this going, and thought it would be interesting to synthesize all the research and readings I’m doing in these three different courses by writing about the neocolonial heritage that a lot of international development projects tend to carry, and whether PD can or cannot mediate that.

2.21.18 Meeting with Dan

My discussion with Dan brought up additional questions to consider. I mentioned the presumption of universalism in PD and Dan mentioned that there might not be a “best” way to do anything, that maybe there is no right way at all. He said it might be worth considering whether participation (with a designer as a facilitator) is really preferable to people having their own process of working through problems. He asked me to also reflect on the element of design in participation, and how Participatory Design is unique from other types of participatory practices. I don’t yet have an answer to that question.

I asked Dan if he had any thoughts on how this research might culminate, as I was concerned that a project or facilitation exercise with a nonprofit organization (as we had initially considered) might not get at the deeper, more critical issues in social innovation and PD that I am interested in looking at. He too suggested writing a guidebook as a set of questions that address critical issues in PD for people who run these types of projects. It is an interesting idea that would raise important questions while also being something tangible. I am still interested in writing a paper, so might consider writing a paper and then synthesizing the main points into a guidebook. Dan mentioned running a workshop as a means of making people aware of these important questions and issues in PD; that is another viable option.

Dan agreed I should start reading case studies of PD in contexts that are of interest to me and to pay attention to the methods they use and how they were derived. He also said I should start considering a specific context of interest to me, as international development and grassroots efforts are two very different contexts with varying levels of receptivity to and feasibility of participation.

Week 7


This week, I started to explore more about PD in a social design context, especially in that of international development. I started to see some overlap between what I was learning through this PD research and the other independent study I was doing on Decolonial Theory, and this week’s readings addressed some of those overlapping issues.

Humanitarian Design and Imperialism
The Nussbaum-Pilloton debate related to humanitarian design pointed directly to some of the concerns of designing for international development. Nussbaum felt that humanitarian designers should focus more on problems at home rather than sexier international projects. Pilloton of Project H actually agreed with him, and said that she had learned from Project H’s mistakes made on the Hippo Roller project and decided to relocate to a small town in North Carolina and focus their attention there instead. Though I’ve heard similar debates before, it forced me to confront my own thoughts about why international development is so much more interesting to me than local or domestic social innovation projects.

“Designing for Usability in Namibia”—Heike Winschiers
This was a very eye-opening paper to read, because the authors address a question Otto von Busch and Karl Palmas raised about the universality of participatory design. In this paper, the author writes about how a misreading of cultural differences in a participatory setting could be misinterpreted as a lack of interest or knowledge on the part of the participants, and that “areas of cultural conflicts identified by cross-cultural psychologists such as values, perceptions and perspectives, and communication codes play an important role in participatory interventions” (73).

Consideration of culture is not only important in the context of participation, but also in how we design technology, interfaces, experiences, etc. For example, Winschiers writes that American values such as “individuality, low context communications, competition and cooperation, business, tight time management, and high work ethic” are embedded into the design of technology itself—values that not all cultures assign to. Winschiers feels that designers unavoidably “recreate reality according to their background, experiences, knowledge, interests, intentions and emotional interrelations with reality” (74). Winschiers developed a framework for “culture-driven design,” which offers some valuable points of reflection in the design process.

Overall this paper was important in highlighting the intersection between decolonial design and participatory design and that the approach we take to participatory design may itself need to be decolonized of our Western worldviews, values, and perceptions. It also highlights how decolonial theory can not only be applied in the context of social design, but UX design as well. What is user-friendly to an American might be entirely cumbersome and confusing to someone in a different part of the world.

“Contextuality of participation in IS design: A Developing Country Perspective”—S.K. Puri, Elaine Byrne, José Leopoldo Nhampossa, and Zubeeda B. Quraishi
This paper expanded upon the paper above and gave more examples of how participation and willingness to participate differs across cultures. The case studies in this paper were done in South Africa, India, and Mozambique, and the authors describe how receptivity to participation in each culture varied and thus how participatory practices were carried out had to be modified and tailored to suit the different attitudes.

In addition, the authors mention certain practical and logistical assumptions that people in the West may make regarding capacity to participate, such as “democratization of the workplace, high literacy rates and a reasonable infrastructure” (49). The authors note that in developing countries none of these may be present at all, reiterating that participatory design must also “understand the socio-economic, cultural and political context that shapes the behavior and actions of the ‘users’ of the system” (49).


As I began to see overlaps between the two independent studies I was doing, I wondered if it might be more valuable and interesting to combine everything I was learning for one bigger final project rather than considering each in isolation. In preparation for my meeting with Jonathan, I began to outline some of my thoughts around the topic, and in so doing raised new questions. The von Busch and Palmas paper was still in my mind, and the question lingered of whether participation is illusory and actually masks power. Does participation in fact undermine a community’s agency and increase dependency (again perpetuating the failed dependency-inducing models of international aid)? Whose perspective, whose utopia is being created in a participatory setting facilitated by someone outside the community? Who benefits and who is harmed from the change? Three loci of concern came up for me: AGENCY, POWER, and INTERESTS.

3.1.18 Meeting with Jonathan

When I met with Jonathan, I that I was thinking of melding the two independent studies for the final deliverables, but that I wasn’t sure what direction the research should take. He suggested I articulate my ideas in writing, based on my opinion alone, after which I can find literature or evidence to support the claims I was making. The exercise of preparing to discuss this with him was useful and help jump start the write-up that he assigned.

Week 8

I spoke to the professor teaching a history class I am taking about my idea of combining decolonial theory with participatory design, and he suggested I look into papers on Participatory Action Research (PAR) which is more rooted in the humanities. He also sent me several links to papers to look through; some of them seem promising. This week, I read one paper on PAR and one more specifically about PD in a global context.


“Participatory Action Research” — Fran Baum, Colin MacDougall, and Danielle Smith
I had never heard of PAR before, but many of the fundamental concepts described in this paper relate very much to PD. For example, issues of power, representation, critical theory, democracy, and neocolonialism were all discussed in this paper. Like PD, PAR “reflects questioning about the nature of knowledge and the extent to which knowledge can represent the interests of the powerful and serve to reinforce their positions in society.” Since a large part of participatory activities are carried out as a means of research, I think what knowledge we are obtaining and how we are using it is important to think about.

In addition, the authors view PAR as a means of countering “the misrepresentation of Indigenous societies, cultures, and persons by non-Indigenous academics and professionals.” Misrepresentation is something that came up tangentially (mostly in terms of power) but not directly in the PD papers I’ve read. Since ethnographic studies are often used in design, participatory design should also be used to clarify misconceptions and ensure that participants’ ideas and values are truthfully and fairly represented.

“Multi-Level Participatory Design of Land Use Policies in African Drylands”—Patrick d’Aquino and Alassane Bah
Though the particulars of this case study were not entirely relevant, the concerns the authors mention raised some interesting points about participatory efforts in an international context. This paper specifically addresses the fact that trying to glean from indigenous knowledge also means working with “profoundly different worldviews which do not match ours” (207). Many indigenous peoples apply similar ethics to non-human life as to humans, which is almost antithetical to the Western capitalistic worldview that treats nature as a resource-rich pool to be used for our benefit. In this paper, the authors mention the need to “efficiently [embed] the specific worldviews of drylands societies in the current policy framework paradigm” (208). What is unique about this paper is the employment of “self-design,” which hadn’t come up in any of my other readings to date. The authors define self-design as “letting participants design their own conceptual framework of issues and goals with no inputs from facilitators, modellers, or scholars’ perceptions” (208). They present the stages of this approach in which the participants take a primary role in the research and design.

3.7.18 Meeting with Dan

This was a fruitful meeting and Dan offered many more avenues and things to reflect on. We talked about participation as a means of social innovation, whereby the collective making and talking through the problem brings about some kind of social healing or change.

We then talked a lot about what kind of output might result from this study, especially in combination with the study on decolonial theory. Dan suggested a few different ideas:

  • Creating a curriculum / syllabus of how to teach these ideas to designers, listing topics that should be covered, relevant literature, and points to consider when carrying out these types of projects
  • Dan mentioned I might look into “translocated making”: seeing how things are done and how the making can be translated to other contexts.
  • Dan also mentioned a guidebook, but suggested considering at what stage it would be useful. Can it help correct course if mistakes had already been made?
  • A guide for how to analyze and evaluate existing projects, such as the Hippo Roller

He also raised some important things to consider when deciding what form the output might be, such as:

  • What would I want someone else to know about these topics?
  • Is there a point I want to make? A recommendation? A suggestion?
  • Who is my audience?
  • Point out the tensions but don’t attempt to answer them.

We talked about the presumption that participation is universally desired, and if facilitation is also colonial. He referred to a paper called “Design as Symbolic Violence” and the idea that design is disruptive in that it changes how people live their lives (as did colonialism). He also referred to “cognitive anthropology” which studies how different people around the world think. That would be very useful to think about, though probably beyond the scope of this independent study.

Finally, he referred me to a few additional resources and people doing this work, such as:

  • Ann Light, who does PD with community groups
  • Yanki Lee, an inclusive design expert
  • The Participatory Design Conference
  • Humans, Heat, and Hygiene

The Participatory Design Conference is in August 2018 and is accepting student project submissions until May 14, so I’d definitely like to try to submit to the conference.

Week 9

This week, I worked on synthesizing my thoughts into a writeup, as Jonathan suggested. I submitted the writing to Jonathan and Dan as well as Ahmed and Silvia to get their thoughts on my proposed research direction. Jonathan said that it was good, and that now I should add in relevant literature, a timeline for the rest of the semester, and what the output(s) will be. Ahmed agreed a bibliography would be helpful, and also suggested that I situate my project geographically (i.e., where and with whom I wish to engage). He also highly urged me to do some practice-based project to tie in both areas (participation and decoloniality). This suggestion has come up several times, and though I agree it would be beneficial, I’m struggling to figure out what form that would take. I will work on plotting out ideas and planning out the rest of the semester. For reference, my writeup is copied here:

Independent Study Mid-Point Reflections

At the beginning of the semester, I signed up to do two independent studies — one on decolonial theory, and one on participatory design. I hadn’t intended the two topics to diverge at all, but the more I learned about both, the more I see a potential role for participatory design as a tool for decolonizing design.

Decolonial theory essentially addresses the hegemony of a Eurocentric worldview, propagated through and facilitated by hundreds of years of colonialism of the global south. This Eurocentric hegemonic worldview persists today and has been effective at marginalizing (if not, in some cases, completely eliminating) alternative ways of thinking, doing, and being in the world. Design as the manifestation of culture and thought plays an instrumental role in establishing this single worldview, and globalization has facilitated the propagation of these designed forms, cementing physically, socially, culturally, and even metaphysically a hegemonic, Eurocentric worldview, even going so far as to influence how people imagine their future.

Though hegemonic, this is not to say that the dominant worldview is the only, or single existing worldview. Alternative ways of understanding the world still exist, but these ideas are marginalized and subordinated to the dominant way of thinking. Design as form-making can help shift towards greater pluriversality by acknowledging, valuing, and bringing to the forefront subaltern perspectives. Designers can either take a top-down approach and propagate the dominant way of thinking, doing, and being (wittingly or otherwise), or they can act as instruments for dismantling coloniality from the bottom-up through participatory design.

Participatory design is rooted in a democratic ethic and gives voice to the people being affected by the design, essentially making the designer’s stance secondary to that of the recipient or user. With globalization and proliferation of the internet, the projects that designers today engage in have an inherently international scope, making participatory design an all the more essential tool for decolonizing design. This is true whether designing for social innovation and working on humanitarian projects (who decides what form development should take?), testing usability (what is considered “usable” in Namibia?), or even designing film sets. In the film Black Panther, for example, an American set designer inspired by architect Zaha Hadid — who is also notably not African — designed and created a world meant to represent a futuristic Africa. The result was a fetishization and mish-mash of pan-African tribal cultures. One building in the futuristic, fictional city-scape of Wakanda was a replica of a 13th century adobe structure in Mali — hardly visionary or original. That no African architects or designers contributed to the set design of the film is a disappointment, a missed opportunity, and an erasure of African voices. Co-designing with African designers is an obvious solution to such misrepresentation and might have resulted in a more believable and authentically African vision for the future.

By giving the space for subaltern innovation and perspectives in design, participatory design can help maximize the effectiveness, impact and receptivity of design projects and grant an increased sense of ownership, accountability, and investment among those heretofore marginalized user/participant groups. Furthermore, rather than parachuting in solutions, working directly with the end users will enable those users to iterate on and adjust the design based on their particular needs and values once the professional designer completes and presumably leaves the project — thereby maintaining authenticity as well as ownership of the design over time.

The presumption that participation is universally desired or beneficial is something to be evaluated. Additional questions that remain to be answered: Does participatory design in an international context still reenact or uphold colonial, imperialistic frameworks and attitudes? Does involvement in alternative practices require an in-depth knowledge of those practices on the part of the designer-facilitator? What is the role of the professional designer in these participatory activities? How does one tailor the design process and methods to suit specific cultures or contexts? Is participatory design sustainable on a larger scale? Is cross-cultural collaboration from designer-to-designer more suitable than designer-to-user? Whose goals, agendas, and needs do these projects ultimately serve?

Week 10

This week, I found additional literature that could support some of these ideas I’ve been thinking about related to decoloniality and participation. I tried to parse out some ideas about what the output(s) of these independent studies might look like, and saw that commonalities center around power/domination and whose voice is heard. Some interesting discussions came up with Ahmed in our meeting, too, which are written up in this Medium post. One of the things he mentioned was a workshop, so I started listing out some questions to help me frame the workshop:

  • What am I decolonizing? Design/minds/how we think/identities?
  • What artifact are we producing?
  • How will participatory design help?
  • What group am I working with?

I also did some mind-mapping and brainstorming, but still could not come to a clear idea of what output would be best.

3.29.18 Meeting with Jonathan

I mentioned the idea of submitting a project to the Participatory Design Conference (PDC) this year, and Jonathan was very encouraging and supportive of the idea. He suggested weaving the PDC submission into the design of the independent study, which is useful.

We again discussed the shape that the outputs will take (as I write this I realize how much time has been spent on this!), and he recommended listing out the various components and assigning them a percentage—both of time and effort, and of weight in terms of grading.

We talked about the workshop, which he said is a means of testing hypotheses and piloting ideas. He suggested I scope it properly to focus on a small aspect of what I am trying to resolve, and let it expand as it needs when it is carried out. Also, he said that I should consider it as less of an educational workshop and more of an “experimental creative discussion” or series of interviews with people.

Everyone has given me so much to think about, and at this point I need to make a decision and move forward.

Week 11

I submitted a summary of outputs and the timeline for the deliverables to all the advisors, and they seemed to be on board with what I had proposed.

Heretofore, the bulk of the work for this Independent Study will be producing those outputs, the work which will be documented in this Medium post.

4.4.18 Meeting with Dan

In this meeting, Dan and I discussed progress so far and challenges with participation. I mentioned it was difficult to get participants to confirm a time that they were able to meet, and he raised the point about how participation is often lauded as a good thing, but the inherent practical challenges in participatory activities are not often raised. He questioned if this is why participatory design has not caught on, or why it fails to achieve its objectives. Agreeing on terms can be a challenge, too—either the participant may want more than the designer can deliver, or the participant does not want a sustained relationship beyond the single workshop, for example. How does one address situations where the values/goals/intentions between the participant and the designer conflict? What if dynamics change over the course of the engagement? How does a designer adapt to these changing situations? He also lent me the book, Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries, by Steve Portigal, which offers some interesting, practical insights into the challenges of user research. Regarding working across cultures, he mentioned Jan Chipchase’s book, The Field Study Handbook, which I have heard a bit about but have not yet read.

Dan suggested I add a segment on practical aspects of participation in my guidebook, which would be very useful. He said I might talk about how one sets up an event/engagement, how to explain the process to partners, how to communicate things like informed consent, the timeline, feedback, etc. Might there even be a manual specifically for participants and what they can expect?

Finally, we discussed the workshop I had been working on and Dan raised some interesting questions about cultural values around recognition and visibility of creatives and aesthetic philosophies, and how that may differ from culture to culture.


Intro to Participatory Design

  • Balsamo , Anne, Lucy Suchman, and Katherine Gibson Graham. “Systems 2: Infrastructures.” Lecture. November 16, 2013.
  • Bjögvinsson, Erling, Pelle Ehn, and Per-Anders Hillgren. “Design Things and Design Thinking: Contemporary Participatory Design Challenges.” MIT Press Journals.
  • Block, Peter. “Civic Engagement and the Restoration of Community: Changing the Nature of the Conversation.” 2005.
  • Bratteteig, Tone, and Ina Wagner. “Unpacking the Notion of Participation in Participatory Design.” Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) 25, no. 6 (December 2016): 425–75. doi:
  • du Plessis, Hannah and Marc Rettig. Interview by author. April 14, 2018.
  • Gregory, Judith. “Scandinavian Approaches to Participatory Design.” Vol. 19, 2003.
  • Portigal, Steve. Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries: User Research War Stories. Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media, 2016.
  • Robertson, Toni, and Jesper Simonsen. “Challenges and Opportunities in Contemporary Participatory Design.” Design Issues 28, no. 3 (July 1, 2012): 3–9.
  • Sanders, Elizabeth B.-N., Eva Brandt, and Thomas Binder. “A Framework for Organizing the Tools and Techniques of Participatory Design.” In Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Participatory Design Conference, 195–198. PDC ’10. New York, NY, USA: ACM, 2010.

Participatory Action Research

  • Baum, Fran, Colin MacDougall, and Danielle Smith. “Participatory action research.” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 60, no. 10 (October 2006): 854–57. doi:10.1136/jech.2004.028662.

Social Design & Development

  • Blenkin, Aly and Ellie Ereira. “Humans, Heat, and Hygiene.” Vimeo video, 0:33. Posted by “Interaction Design Association,” February 8, 2018.
  • d’Aquino, Patrick, and Alassane Bah. “Multi-Level Participatory Design of Land Use Policies in African Drylands: A Method to Embed Adaptability Skills of Drylands Societies in a Policy Framework.” Journal of Environmental Management 132 (January 1, 2014): 207–19.
  • K. Puri, S & Byrne, Elaine & Nhampossa, José & Banu Quraishy, Zubeeda. (2004). “Contextuality of participation in IS design: a developing country perspective.” 42–52. 10.1145/1011870.1011876.
  • Nussbaum, Bruce. “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” Co.Design, July 6, 2010.
  • Pilloton, Emily, and Emily Pilloton. “Are Humanitarian Designers Imperialists? Project H Responds.” Co.Design, July 11, 2010.
  • von Busch, Otto, and Karl Palmås. “Social Means Do Not Justify Corruptible Ends: A Realist Perspective of Social Innovation and Design.” She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation 2, no. 4 (December 1, 2016): 275–87.
  • Winschiers, Heike. “The Challenges of Participatory Design in a Intercultural Context: Designing for Usability in Namibia.” PDC, January 1, 2006, 73–76.