Independent Studies Project Documentation
Process documentation and informal reflections on the final deliverables for Independent Studies on Decolonial Theory (advisors Ahmed Ansari and Silvia Mata-Marin) and Participatory Design (advisors Jonathan Chapman and Dan Lockton) at Carnegie Mellon University
Brief overview of decolonial theory, participatory design, and where the two intersect
At the beginning of the semester, I signed up to do two independent studies — one on decolonial theory, and one on design in the public sector. 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?
Deliverables and Timeline
At the start of April (about 2/3 into the semester) I began to define what the deliverables would look like for this space between decolonial theory and participatory design. After ruminating and discussing with my advisors at length, I decided the outputs for this joint research project will be a workshop/discussion to put what I’ve learned to practice, a guidebook for designers working in this space, and a poster to submit to the Participatory Design Conference.
A breakdown of the timeline of deliverables follows. Since the poster submission is based on the manual, the manual would have to be finished before the poster. The workshop is somewhat standalone but insights from it will likely feed into the manual. I scheduled everything to be done before finals week so that I have some flexibility if I need more time to wrap things up. Since I normally meet with my advisors on or after Wednesday, I planned for these deliverables to be due on the Wednesday of each week so I can discuss in person with them.
In speaking with Ahmed during one our meetings, he suggested the idea of running a workshop with American Muslims that would ask the question, “What does it mean to be American Muslim?” i.e., what does that identity mean and look like? We also talked about cultural production among American Muslims versus Muslims in other parts of the world throughout history, and I thought that coming to some understanding of why we in America haven’t been culturally productive and what can be done to change that would be an interesting point of discussion. I also liked the idea of discussing culture because it is actionable, whereas identity is not something Muslims can go out and formulate; it just is.
I next set out to find participants for the workshop. I reached out to some old contacts and found that it was much harder to arrange a time and place to meet than I had anticipated. Nevertheless, I finally got confirmation from a few people. It was important that I have people attending who were reflective and interested in the topic and wouldn’t derail the conversation. I managed to get a good mix of age, gender, and ethnic groups, and now just need to wait and see who shows up.
Deciding on a location was also a bit tricky, because I wanted to choose a place where participants would feel at ease, but also keeping in mind issues of power, someplace where no one person would feel they could dominate the conversation. I also wanted a space large enough to be conducive to discussions, white-boarding, and posting things on the wall. I ultimately decided on holding it at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh because it is geographically centrally located to most of the participants, all of them are familiar with it so wouldn’t have trouble finding the place, and the building has plenty of space to expand if more people attend than I anticipated.
I next planned out the workshop and came up with the following structure: an Introduction, a Discussion, a Participatory ‘making’ session, and Wrapup. The following is a rough outline of the workshop. I intend to create a more detailed facilitation guide to assist during the workshop.
The purpose of this workshop is to see what a “decolonial participatory design” practice might look like in the context of marginalized groups in America, in this case American Muslims. How can marginalized groups in America work to create a cultural identity that is syncretic in the sense that it is unique and distinct to their community, yet still of value to those outside their community? I attempt to answer that question through a discussion with American Muslims. The discussion will be followed by a participatory design session in which participants will generate ideas around how Muslims in Pittsburgh can begin to produce an indigenous, American Muslim culture. The participatory aspect of the workshop is intended to offer actionable steps that these leaders in the community can take back to their communities.
- Introductions and the first thing you think about when you hear “Islamic culture”
- Define culture, cultural production
- Examples of culture in Islamic history
- Refer to “Islam and the Cultural Imperative” paper as introduction to the topic of an indigenous culture
- Have American Muslims contributed to American culture? In what ways? Why not? By whom and for whom?
- Is it important to be culturally productive? On the scale of issues facing American Muslims, where does cultural production fall?
- Is it important the culture we produce be indigenous? Can it be inspired by Indian domes, for example?
- In what ways can Muslim culture contribute and be attractive to American culture at large? (I.e. What do Muslims have to offer?)
- In what ways can Pittsburgh Muslims be culturally productive?
- What might that look like?
- Generate ideas
- Plot on a 2x2 of importance vs difficulty
- “Go forth and make things”
Final thoughts on theological grounding around art and culture as a spiritual practice
I started out by brainstorming various concepts that had come up in my research on both topics thus far. I then transferred these concepts to Post-Its and re-organized them. I ended up with four categories: Design, Designer, Participant-Stakeholder, and Dynamics. These, I imagine will be chapter headings for the book, and the topics under each of them will be translated to questions for the reader to consider when doing this work.
Next, I intend to list out questions for each concept for designers to reflect on when they are engaging in cross-cultural participatory contexts.
When I discussed the guidebook with Dan, he recommended I consider adding a section on how the designer initiates engagement (informed consent, communication about the process, timeline, feedback, other expectations, etc). He also raised the question of how the design might affect indirect stakeholders and what designers can do to address those unintended impacts. So those are two ideas I’m reflecting on and considering adding to the next draft.
I sent my progress so far to my history professor (Dr. Noah Theriault), who is also an anthropologist, for his feedback and insights. He made three very valid points:
- He said a truly participatory design engagement shouldn’t elevate the status of the designer, and that perhaps I can add a section about how one could democratize the design process and/or decenter the designer.
- He suggested I also consider how the participants’ different ontologies and “world-making practices” might affect the engagement. He directed me to some resources to understand that dynamic a bit better.
- Finally, he suggested I look into law and the consideration of different “socio-legal orders” as an aspect of decolonization.
I carried out the workshop on Sunday, April 8th with 7 people in attendance. From a decolonial perspective, the discussion was really interesting and educational for me, and offered insights into different ways to think about Islamic culture. One of the participants talked about how Islam in America is rooted in the slave trade with the arrival of Muslims from Africa and that, before immigration opened in the 1960s, blacks were the primary influencers of Islam in America. One of the biggest insights and conclusions the group arrived at was that it is the melting pot diversity of cultures that makes American Muslim culture different from that of Muslim culture in India, Egypt, or Malaysia—the culture is diversity and a flourishing and acceptance of that diversity. Another big theme was that Muslim culture is really about how Muslims comport themselves—their generosity, hospitality, compassion, and good character. Many agreed that those are aspects of Muslim culture that are most profound and most transformational.
The brainstorm session went well, but did not go quite as I had hoped. Most of the participants were focused on the intangible aspects of culture (like behavior and ethics), so the ideas that they generated were more about how Muslims can have a positive transformative impact in America and less about making things. In hindsight, I should have redirected the participants to think more about tangible forms of culture in which Muslims can engage. I was overly cautious to not influence the discussion, so could have done more to facilitate or direct the conversation towards the questions I wanted answered.
In terms of actionable steps, however, the brainstorm session was a success in that it helped identify where they as leaders might want to focus their efforts. Participants seemed to appreciate the Importance-Difficulty matrix and how it helped to strategize actions. One thing I might have done differently was in how I explained the Importance spectrum. Everything felt important to the participants (and it all was), but instead of putting all of it at the “extremely important” end, I might have pushed them to prioritize a bit more.
In terms of decolonizing design, the discussion raised interesting questions such as, what is Islamic culture? When we say “American Muslim culture,” do the geographic boundaries make a difference? What does it mean for a culture to be indigenous when cultural exchange has muddied boundaries? Is anything purely indigenous in modern America? How do we straddle finding a sense of belonging as an American while also belonging to a Muslim community? What if American Muslim culture is just the diversity of cultures that it comprises? I wish we could have discussed more what a ‘syncretic’ American Muslim culture would look like.
From a participatory aspect, I think I was successful at keeping my own power and biases in check. I made it clear that I was acting as a facilitator and not as an expert or scholar. I also tried to phrase my questions such that they weren’t leading or indicative of any single perspective, and I believe I was successful in that.
I believe the power dynamics among the participants was relatively equal. There were some differences due to age and levels of Islamic scholarship (culturally demanding deference to elders and scholars), but from my perspective most people felt comfortable speaking and sharing their thoughts in spite of that. Because I was on familiar terms with the participants, I had a fairly good understanding of their stance, experiences, worldviews, values, etc, which was very helpful in navigating the dynamics of the situation. It would have been quite different and more difficult to facilitate this discussion if I didn’t know the participants at all.
We didn’t get deep enough into the design process to consider those topic areas. If we had had time to start to flesh out one or two of the brainstorm ideas we might have been able to get into the deeper meanings of ‘world-making,’ which would have made for an interesting discussion. It feels like a lot of time to demand from people who are volunteering their time, but a second workshop might be useful to follow up on these outstanding questions.
I did a bit of research before the workshop to get a greater understanding of how culture and cultural production fits into the greater theological and philosophical outlook of Islam. The following is a list of reading materials referenced.
- Abd-Allah, Umar Faruq. “Islam and the Cultural Imperative.” CrossCurrents 56, no. 3 (2006): 357–75. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24461405.
- Ahmed, Shahab. “Applications and Implications: Coherent Contradiction, Exploration, Diffusion, Form and Meaning, Modern.” In What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic, 405–541. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.
- Ali, Wijdan. “Beauty and Aesthetics in Islam.” Muslim Heritage. Accessed April 6, 2018. http://www.muslimheritage.com/article/beauty-and-aesthetics-islam.
- Ogunnaike, Oludamini. “The Silent Theology of Islamic Art.” Renovatio, December 5, 2017. https://renovatio.zaytuna.edu/article/the-silent-theology-of-islamic-art.
I am working on developing a series of questions for the guidebook, but am finding that the questions are numerous. I need to think if there is a better way to address all these topics without it becoming overwhelming for the reader. I am meeting with Marc Rettig and Hannah du Plessis to get their feedback and insights on the project. I also am in contact with Karl Palmas and Otto von Busch to speak with them about outstanding questions I have. I’m looking forward to that discussion!
Work in progress on the guidebook can be viewed here.
This meeting was very fruitful and beneficial, as Marc and Hannah both have years of practical experience in participation and examining and understanding power structures. They referred me to several resources and theories:
- Sam Kaner refers to different types of diversity: horizontal and vertical. Vertical diversity includes different types of authority, including process authority, which belongs to those who know how to do things. There is also the authority of lived experience in whom those get to decide what is desirable and good for them and their communities. This was a particularly profound insight, as I had been struggling with the idea of diminishing hierarchy in a co-design project without diminishing the role of the designer as an expert in the process. This formulation helped me to understand that not all hierarchy is inherently bad and can sometimes be useful. He suggested I develop a “diagramming language” to help people think through these levels of hierarchies.
- Marc also mentioned different types of outcome, which is helpful to think about. Outcomes can be financial, but also social (goals for relationship outcomes, skilling, etc) and informational (what gives this community more reference, knowledge, etc.).
- We talked about framing design as a discipline of “problem-solving,” and Marc referred me to his Medium post on the topic. They both agreed that problem-solving is too mechanistic an operative framework, and that we should instead think about patterns of behavior, eco-systems, emergence, and shifts rather than solutions. They referred me to a paper by Alain Findeli, who asks, ‘In what way can I participate in this system so it shifts from state A to state B?’ [not a direct quote].
- I was still uncertain how to frame the role of the designer in these engagements, so I asked them what they believe their role is in the work they do. They said they act more as facilitators and “trainers for new tools, mindsets, and capacities;” others call themselves “space-makers.”
- We talked a bit about communication and how participants and designers relate to one another. Hannah spoke about the importance of recognizing power dynamics when facilitating, and that ensuring all voices are represented is in itself part of the craft. She also spoke about decolonization, and that, due to the power differential, formerly colonized people become acculturated to relate in inauthentic ways. (This ties in to the Franz Fanon reading I did for the Decolonizing Design part of this study). Marc mentioned referenced Zaid Hassan who asks, “what needs to be true for this to be perceived as different?”
- I asked if they had any thoughts on how to bring marginalized voices forth, and they referred to “the adjacent possible”—an alternative that is within reach because some people are already living it. Hannah mentioned the importance for designers to “be teachable,” to have an open mind, and to actively seek out alternative ways of thinking, doing, and being.
Both Marc and Hannah acknowledged that their approach to social innovation does not fit neatly into formal design practice because the goals of formal design are often profit-driven. Nevertheless, I feel these are valuable things to at least be aware of when doing decolonial design in a participatory setting, with the hope that, where there is a means to implement these subtle shifts in how we think about design, we will act on that.
I set up an account with the Participatory Design Conference so am set up to submit the poster. I also started looking at example conference posters, but found them all to be much too overloaded with text. I’m unfamiliar with conference poster design—how much information needs to go on it, how important are visuals, what size should it be—so will try to get some insights from the advisors when I meet with them.
4.16.18 Discussion with Otto von Busch and Karl Palmås
When I discussed Otto von Busch and Karl Palmås’ paper, “Social Means do not Justify Corruptible Ends,” with Dan, he mentioned that I might try to contact them to speak to them about some of the topics they brought up. I reached out to them last week, and I was excited and grateful that both agreed to speak with me over Google hangouts.
I had prepared a list of questions related to their paper and issues related to cross-cultural design that I were still unanswered for me. The discussion was very interesting and they raised several theoretical considerations related to design and coloniality that hadn’t occurred to me.
One of the things that came up a few times during the conversation was the need for designers to think critically about whose benefit they are serving. Even when engaging in participation, to what end? Is participation a deliberation to arrive at some agreement? Is it to disseminate tools or abilities? Does participation help people reclaim power? Is participation a means or an end? To what extent is design beneficial and desirable? Need there be limits to the power and agency invested in a people?
Otto also spoke about whether the engagement “reproduces participation,” empowerment, and capabilities. This had me thinking about whose abilities/skills are created, and whose skills are erased? If indigenous knowledges are replaced with Eurocentric ones, is that necessarily a good thing? Somewhat related, we spoke about how designing for others can be disempowering; if it was about teaching skills, Otto asked, why hire a designer and not a teacher?
When talking about humanitarian design, Otto mentioned that it is important to think about where the problem originates. We might be eager to solve poverty in Ghana, but we might not consider that the root of poverty is due to overconsumption in New York, or exploitative trade deals, or a crippling economy from international aid. Though those policies are much more challenging to address, I do think it’s important to keep in perspective the socio-political forces that give rise to the ‘symptoms’ we are addressing.
I asked about the framing of design as ‘problem-solving,’ and both Otto and Karl agreed that that is a problematic framing because the ‘wicked’ social problems we work on are essentially insolvable. Otto spoke about how, in every social problem, there are several outside forces with their own agendas who will try to undermine the interests of the designer. He gave the example of bike-riding, and that there are companies like Uber who profit off of people not riding bikes. It is in their interest to destroy any efforts to shift people away from cars, and therefore they will undermine those efforts.
Otto also mentioned that designers might bring their Western ideas about what structures / systems need to be changed, but that those changes could potentially disrupt innocent lives. He asked, “will disrupting [X problem] crate more social tensions adversary to my ends?” Who does the disruption benefit, and what are the consequences?
Karl also referred to the nexus of vested interests and inherent unpredictability in this work. In spite of best intentions, the outcome could be worse, so we must be careful not to make a bigger problem.
Finally, Karl suggested that decoloniality could serve as a mirror to one’s own culture and practices. What can we learn about ourselves through participation?
I had listed out a series of questions under each topic area in a Google doc. All of the advisors this week said it was a good start, but that the questions should be restructured in a way that is useful to a designer working in such engagements, so that it reads more as a guidebook and not an academic paper. Jonathan also suggested I add an abstract and a subtitle. The critiques are all definitely valid; I will now revisit the questions to see how they can be better structured.
4.17.18 Meeting with Dan
When I spoke with Dan, he raised the point that some of the answers to these questions lead to direction action (a practice they can modify/change), and some only prompt different ways of thinking about design in general. He suggested I reorganize the questions so the distinction is more clear between what is addressing a mindset shift and what is prompting practical changes. He said one way of doing this might be to structure the book in terms of stages of when the designer should consider those topics. This makes a lot of sense and was very useful feedback.
Other points he raised:
- It is okay to presume some level of prior knowledge, in which case I should focus on issues not already raised in Participatory Design papers already and which I can offer.
- What makes a good participant? A “compliant” one?
- Feedback/review should prompt the designer to evaluate if they achieved the ‘decolonial’ aims they intended towards.
4.18.18 Meeting with Ahmed
Ahmed asked me to consider what the goal of the guidebook is, and then to consider what knowledge is needed. I.e., how important to the task is it that I explain decolonial theory? He also suggested I think about a specific type of designer for whom I am writing, which is useful to think about. He said it might be useful to think about touchpoints or scenarios in a co-design session where a designer might find this guidebook useful.
He mentioned Paul Pangaro, who listed 4 types of conversations that designers facilitate, all of which I feel are relevant to my guidebook:
- Agreeing on goals
- Agreeing on means (how something will be done)
- Coming to a shared language / understanding
- Encouraging reflection
I took everyone’s suggestions into consideration and worked on completely restructuring the guidebook. I began by creating a Numbers file and copying and pasting the questions I had listed into buckets of phases of the participation process.
I then wrote an outline, and copied and pasted the questions back into the outline. I still felt there were aspects that were unclear, so I wrote all the various topics down onto Post-It notes and re-organized again that way.
I’m still not satisfied with the flow of the guidebook, but decided to step back from it for a while and work on whittling down the questions instead since some of them were duplicated.
I had reached out to a volunteer for the PD Conference about the size of the poster, and they said that the students weren’t required to design a poster, only submit images of the project itself. Though I was looking forward to designing the poster, I’m glad to have the time to focus on the craft and execution of the guidebook. So the next two weeks will be spent writing and crafting the guidebook.
I decided to take some time today to read some of the papers I had found that seemed to deal directly with issues of participation and decolonization, to see if they offered any insights I might have missed. For the most part, they did not cover anything new, but they did help to articulate some of the ideas better.
Hakken, David, and Paula Maté. “The Culture Question in Participatory Design.” Proceedings of the 13th Participatory Design Conference on Short Papers, Industry Cases, Workshop Descriptions, Doctoral Consortium Papers, and Keynote Abstracts — PDC 14 — Volume 2 2 (October 2014): 21–24. doi:10.1145/2662155.2662197.
This paper addressed more specific aspects of cultural theory, so I did not find it particularly useful for my project or research.
Hedemyr, Marika. Why Does “Participatory” Make Me Shiver? Proposing a Decolonial Practice for Participatory Work. Proceedings of NORDES 2017–7th Nordic Design Research Conference, Oslo, Norway. June 2017. http://hdl.handle.net/2043/24119.
This paper was about the need for a post-colonial perspective when doing participatory design in order to recognize, understand, and address potential imbalances of power and representation.
She writes about the importance of understanding the role value and profit play and how ‘participation’ can easily lead to ‘exploitation’:
In both design and art, there is on one hand the political dimension of user/participant empowerment, allowing different or marginalised voices to be heard and have a real impact on the development, and on the other hand an instrumental dimension where the artist/designer and the participants are used in order to create a certain value for the initiator or stakeholder. (2)
She ends with a series of questions that designers should keep in mind (very similar to the guidebook I am writing.) The questions are not as thorough as those I am compiling and somewhat vague, but are still good to keep in mind.
Mainsah, Henry, and Andrew Morrison. “Participatory Design through a Cultural Lens.” Proceedings of the 13th Participatory Design Conference on Short Papers, Industry Cases, Workshop Descriptions, Doctoral Consortium Papers, and Keynote Abstracts — PDC 14 — Volume 2, October 10, 2014, 83–86. doi:10.1145/2662155.2662195.
Like Hedemyr’s, this paper is about the importance of incorporating postcolonial frameworks to address issues of “ knowledge and power, agency and representation” in participatory design. In the authors’ view, postcoloniality does not only address issues of race, but all power imbalances including those rooted in gender, education, etc. With regards to participatory design specifically, they write about “hierarchies of knowledge/power that privilege the expert/outsider” and the need to allow for other voices and knowledges to be represented.
The authors also write about how what we design influences culture itself, and thus makes an understanding of culture an imperative for designers:
Thus everyone who participates in the design of new technologies is also engaged in the process of designing culture. Through the practices of designing, cultural beliefs are materially reproduced, identities are negotiated, and social relations are codified (Julier 2000/2014). In this process, design replicates previous meanings but at the same time it makes possible the expression of new meanings; the ability to understand culture in design research and practice becomes even more important. (83)
I realized that I had been using different terms throughout the draft of the guidebook, so decided to spend some time today coming to some definitions for myself and for my readers. For several of the terms, I listed out alternatives. For example, I knew I wanted to avoid using the “problem-solution” paradigm for the project, so I listed out alternative terms that capture the complexity of the engagement better. This is what I arrived at so far; I still need to define coloniality and participatory design, those of which I’ll likely borrow from papers I’ve read.
I’m sure many of these definitions will change over the course of the next two weeks. I also welcome feedback from the advisors on the clarity (or lack thereof) of my definitions.
4.26.18 Meeting with Jonathan
In this meeting, we mostly discussed concerns I had been having with structuring the guidebook. He said I might be trying to cover too much, but also (perceptive as he is) realized that I wanted to address as many of the ideas I had uncovered in my research as possible. He suggested I start off the book with big, general ideas about theory behind participatory design and decolonization, and then have the second part of the book centered around small focused ideas. So the first part would shift awareness, and the second part would answer “what now?” questions with tools, tactics, and examples.
He mentioned that readers might get defensive at some of the questions I had put forth, and suggested changing the approach to one of “unsettling shared, dominant mythologies” to “diffuse accusation and blame.” He was right, that some of the questions did feel accusatory, so his advice and insight was very valuable to deciding how to frame the guidebook.
I proposed the idea of meeting with all four advisors one final time to get feedback on the book, and he agreed and asked that I arrange to set up a meeting time. I was able to schedule a meeting for May 2nd, so will spend my time until then revising and iterating on the guidebook to have a more final draft to show them.
The time between my meeting with Jonathan and the joint meeting was spent revising and iterating on the writing and structure of the guidebook. I wavered between starting the book with common myths as Jonathan suggested or just straight-up theory, as not all of the ideas fit neatly into myths. In the end, I decided to frame them as myths for exactly the reason Jonathan said—they were shared and dominant misconceptions about the “social ends” of participatory design.
I also broke up the ‘practice’ section of the book into five parts:
- Recognize/self-reflect is when the designer examines his/her stance
- Learn covered several chapters relating to understanding the community, the participants, and the project.
- Come to terms is when the designer reflected on and reconciled differences between their stance and the participants’
- Dismantle is what the designers would do with that knowledge, so how they would establish terms and the structure of the engagement and evaluate progress through the lens of decoloniality
- Reflect would be at the very end, and includes both self-reflection and a feedback session with participants.
I thought this would help to divide the book in two ways: the “decolonizing intention” reflected in the five steps above, and the “participatory design process” reflected in the chapter headings.
I also thought about doing as Dan had suggested earlier and try to incorporate the workshop I had done into the book as a case study. I decided to run this idea by them in the meeting.
5.2.18 Joint Meeting with Jonathan, Dan, Ahmed, and Silvia
I didn’t have nearly as much progress as I had hoped by the time of our meeting, but nevertheless the feedback in this meeting was invaluable. I’m very grateful everyone was able to make the time to meet, because I received so much useful feedback on the draft I had.
Jonathan advised I reconsider my title (which was “Decolonizing Participatory Design”) because it over-claims and sets me up to fail. He said to think more about how one might begin to decolonize PD, saying that it is an ideal to strive for, but not something I claim to make happen through the reading of the book. He offered instead the title “Why Participatory Design is not so Participatory” which is very compelling.
Dan asked me a couple different times to articulate who my audience was, and in so doing, it became clear that the tone of my writing was missing the mark. I explained my audience was experienced designers who have foundational knowledge in participatory design but may be struggling with cross-cultural projects. Ahmed articulated this better, saying it might be designers who want to be more politically conscious about their work and are actively concerned with questions of identity, culture, or politics. I should imagine the practitioner audience and whether they are aware of the tensions in their work or oblivious. Jonathan said it seems as if the theoretical first half is for the oblivious and the practical second half is for the aware.
Dan again asked who my audience is, and said that if my audience is not academics, then the theory may not be as critical/relevant as the practical advice. They said the average designer wants to be able to pick up and read a book that will make their job easier or help them do their job better, and that understanding theory is not their main objective. Jonathan agreed, and said it can be difficult to balance writing for practitioners as part of an academic project, but that finding that balance will be important to the success of the book.
They said that being more clear about the audience will help to lay out the motivation for picking the book up, which was not clear in the current draft. They suggested I use the touchpoints I had laid out in the book to think about how designers would use the guidebook in a process they’re accustomed to and to think about examples or scenarios of when a designer would pick it up. If readers feel there is something wrong in their practice or there are tensions in their work, my guidebook might be a way for them to address it. But I need to articulate that more clearly. Very useful to think about.
All the advisors seemed to agree that my language was unclear and not accessible to the average designer. Ahmed said the word “dismantle” won’t mean much to the average designer, and that maybe going into such detail about decolonial theory was not necessary. Dan agreed, and said I should consider mapping my structure on to an existing diagram that designers are familiar with. Silvia suggested framing the book more as “cultural competency for designers” instead of decolonization to make it more accessible and less esoteric. They all said it might be useful to use language that translates these topics for an audience that is currently excluded from the academic literature. Jonathan suggested I pin down a consistent thread/voice and carry that throughout the guidebook.
Ahmed said there are two approaches to take when addressing decoloniality—either a negative critique or an opportunity to improve, pointing out tools to make a situation richer and better. He suggested I focus more on opportunities to improve than a negative critique. Jonathan said it seems I address both and make a switch in the middle (when moving from theory to practice), and that maybe I need to make that switch more clear/explicit.
Dan said when whittling down the content it might be useful to refer to Bruce Hanington’s book (Universal Methods of Design) and think what my book would look like if structured the same way. With such limited space to explain a concept, what would I include/exclude? If someone could only read one page, what would be on it?
Silvia suggested I structure the book as a quick reference guide with a checklist of questions designers can ask themselves in the moment.
Takeaways from the meeting
I definitely needed to clarify who my audience is, and I’m glad this meeting forced me to be more specific about that. I realized from these discussions that I need to be a lot more plain-spoken about what I wanted readers to get out of the book and how they should use it. Subtlety was getting lost, and I now see that guidebooks need to be a lot more direct and to the point. I also like the idea of more explicitly breaking the guidebook up into theory and then practical tips. Thinking back to guidebooks I’ve read on other topics, the first part is always filled with foundational information which I usually tend to skip over to get to the information I need in that moment. I need to structure my book in a similar way, such that the practical info is still understandable and accessible without the theoretical background.
I spent the next few days reorganizing and rewriting some of the content. I rephrased some of the “myths” that I had written and added a couple more to include all the theory. I decided not to use the 5 section headings I outlined above as the divisons were not clear. I instead decided to divide the book into two parts—Theory and Practice—and made the division between theoretical and practical parts more explicit in the contents and in the introduction. I then reverted back to dividing the practice-based part into sections based on the phase of the project—pre-project, pre-engagement, active engagement, and post-engagement. A family member I had review the book said I might cross-reference the myths to the questions, which I agreed would help tie the two sections in together while still maintaining the separation.
I kept the outline for the practical section almost the same, but wrote additional content to introduce each chapter, made some edits to the questions, and rearranged some questions that seemed out of place. In the interest of time, I decided not to use a case study in the book, but could see it as being a useful addition to future editions of the book.
I decided to entitle the guidebook “Power and Participation.” Although I thought Jonathan’s title was compelling, I felt a huge part of the book was about how power manifests in different ways, so wanted to include that in the title. Finally I wrote a conclusion, which I didn’t yet have.
I copied all of the content into InDesign and worked on structuring the layout and design of the book. I’m fond of big bold colors and fonts, and because the content of the book can feel serious and heavy, I wanted to design the book in a way that would be attractive and draw people to pick up. Ihad a rough idea of what the book would look like, but spent some time deciding on a color scheme.
I decided to use full-bleed pages as headings and section dividers. Since Dan and others suggested I make the content more of ‘reference book’ than a theoretical book, I color-coded the practice-based sections based on the four phases of the project.
Once all the content was in and formatted, I added back the citations (which did not copy from my Google doc) and wrote a bibliography. At the very end, I added and formatted the table of contents and wrote the acknowledgements.
The citations were the most challenging part, because so many of the ideas came from a number of different sources, including my advisors and people I spoke to, and others were of my own creation. It was difficult to parse the ideas and their sources out, but to the best of my knowledge and abilities each borrowed idea is accurately credited to at least one source. Other sources that inspired my ideas are included in the bibliography, even if not directly cited.
MDes graduate Mackenzie Cherban has a lot of experience binding books and teaches book-binding herself, and she guided me through the process of binding. Because I had 62 pages and thin borders on the edges of some of the pages, I didn’t want to do saddle-stitch binding, so instead printed spreads in order and then taped the pages together using double-sided tape.
I printed all the spreads, including bleeds, bleed marks, crop marks, and registration marks. I then used a bone folder to score and fold every page along the registration marks.
Next, I carefully stacked all the folded pages and bound them with binder clips.
I then used double-sided tape to tape the spine of each spread to the to the spine of the following spread. I repeated this on the other side so that each spread was taped to the next and the pages opened flat. This took many attempts, as the tape was extremely sticky, and if it even touched another part of the page, it was impossible to get off. I ended up reprinting and refolding the entire book because every section I taped got ruined in some manner. Nevertheless, I finally got all it all taped together and ready to cut. [Alas no pictures of the pre-cut, bound book].
Mackenzie said she felt confident in her cutting abilities and would help me cut the book, so I she was kind enough to cut it for me. It was 60 pages plus tape, so the cuts weren’t perfect, but still passable. She had me file off the paper shavings that result from multiple passes of cuts. Looking back, we wonder if it might be a good idea to self-bind, but have the edges cut off professionally. I might try that next time.
I wanted a thicker, firm cover, so bought illustration board and then taped the cover to it, and then taped the cover to the front and back pages. The spine is left open, but I like the effect. Overall, in spite of a few imperfect edges, I’m happy with how the binding turned out. I will attempt another run once I have feedback on the content and make final revisions.
Next Steps and Future Considerations
I will submit photos and an abstract to the Participatory Design Conference by the deadline of March 14. They ask for a website, so I will add a page to my personal portfolio with details and some documentation of the book.
I plan to send the PDF to Karl Palmas and Otto von Busch, since their paper was the inspiration for this project. I hope that they (and the advisors) have feedback that will help me iterate on and improve the book.
I intend to reprint and rebind a version of the book for myself and to take to the conference. This was my first attempt at bookbinding, so there are some mistakes that I now know how to avoid. Also, though Mackenzie was kind enough to help cut the book, it’s not perfectly square or smooth. Perhaps taking to a professional is worth the time and expense to ensure smooth edges.
In the future, I would like to incorporate more of the advisors’ suggestions regarding the structure of the book. It might be more useful to lay out each section as Bruce does in his book, and make the cross-referencing more visual for readers’ ease. I know there are some issues with the content of the book itself. I think my lack of hands-on experience in this field makes some of the ideas feel hollow. Feedback from actual practitioners would help in that regard, but I am also conscious that practitioners have limited time to read through manuscripts.
I think Silvia’s suggestion about a checklist is a compelling one. I already have the questions listed out, but I still worry the structure is unusual and might put people off. Maybe a checklist would be easier for people to work through.
I feel I am too immersed in the content to look at it objectively anymore. So I will take some time away from this and look at it with fresh eyes to see how it reads.
Thank you to all the advisors (official and otherwise) who guided me throughout this process. Your feedback was invaluable.