MAKING THINGS HAPPEN: Participatory Design Beyond the Post-it Revolution

By Ezio Manzini, DESIS Network

Hannah du Plessis’ earlier post on this site starts by quoting a question raised by a student during the Design Ethos do-ference:

If I come up with a solution for the community, I am not giving them the opportunity to learn to do it themselves . . . how should I help them then?

Hannah then states that there are inherent dangers for designers as they attempt to “solve a community’s problem.” She goes on to list some dangers linked to this “design-for” approach, and concludes by stating that what designers can do is, “work with them to bring their vision to life”.

Personally, I concur with Hannah’s take on the subject. Yet, this “enabling approach,” in my view, presents still other dangers: the risk in considering participatory design, for instance, in a narrow and administrative way, where creative ideas and design culture tend to disappear.

When confronted with the threats of the “design-for” approach that Hannah succinctly lists, perhaps the best move we designers can make is to take a step backward, and consider our work as that of “process facilitators,” by asking other actors’ opinions and wishes, writing them on small pieces of paper, sticking them on the wall, and trying to synthesize them, following a more or less formalized process.

We could call this dispersed attitude the post-it revolution, where the term “revolution” is justified by the fact that it represents a strong step against the dominant and fashionable design star-system on one hand, and the imperious design technocracy on the other. And, most importantly, because it has been driven by the strong (and revolutionary) idea of considering people (with their knowledge, capabilities and social networks) as assets: potential useful resources in the definition of a problem, and in the conception and delivery of its solution.

Having been one of those who, in many ways, contributed to create the conditions for this kind of interpretation of participatory design, I now see its risks, too. The predominant one is methodological: by reducing all of the issues to small sentences, we risk missing the fact that some ideas, often the best ones, do not come from the assembly of several small ones.

The second risk, which mainly concerns designers, is that, in this way, the co-design process threatens to overlook the specific contribution that designers could and should make, bringing into the process their specific creativity, sensitivity and culture. In other words, trying to overtake the big-ego design of the last century, the present “participatory designers” tend to transform themselves into administrative actors, with no specific contributions to make other than aiding the process with their post-its (and, at the end, maybe, with their nice visualizations).

In my view, participatory design is a revolution due to the aforementioned motivations, yet goes far beyond polite discussions, co-design exercises and post-its on the wall. Participatory design is a long, complex, and contradictory process where a constellation of actors collaborates, clash and, in the end, arrive at the production of a shared value. It is a process where everybody is allowed to bring ideas, even if these ideas could, at a given moment, generate problems and tensions with the others.

Assuming this broader view, participatory design is a design process emerging from the dynamic interaction of different forces and design modalities. For example: the daily local design activities (where designers can “design with the community”), the autonomous initiatives that a community can take (initiatives “designed by the community”, whereby the designers’ role could be one of conceiving and developing the most appropriate, enabling platforms) and triggering events that, coming from outside the community, feed its social conversation with new ideas (and here designers’ culture and expertise can and, in my view, must play a major role). Is this third design modality the old “design-for” approach?

Yes and no.

Yes, because in this design modality, designers make proposals initiated by their own ideas (and creativity, culture and skills). No, because their visions and solutions are not proposals to be directly realized, as much as they are intended to be considered as “food for the social conversation” of the involved communities. In this respect, they are visions and solutions that these involved communities can use as such, if they really like them; or freely interpret or use them as triggers to generate different ideas; or simply, to reject them.

In this framework, the range of design activities (and therefore, of requested capabilities and skills) is very wide: designers can, of course, act as facilitators, supporting on-going initiatives. But they can also be the triggers that start new social conversations. Similarly, they can operate as members of co-design teams, collaborating with groups of well-defined final users, but they can also behave as design activists, proactively launching socially meaningful design initiatives.

Given that, let’s go back to the Design Ethos do-ference. Adopting this broader definition of participatory design, the do-ference mentality has to be seen in the framework of the long-running work in the field done by the local community and by the SCAD team.

In regards to this background, my interpretation is that the SCAD team dared to bring together a particular neighborhood with a strange circus of exotic designers, and say: “Look, all these strange people are here to do something with you, because this neighborhood is important, it has a lot to say, and has a lot to give to the city (and to the Planet)”.

The design idea here is the intuition that this exceptional event could empower the community’s self-consciousness, promote a new vision of the neighborhood (and of the city), and make something happen to help implement this same vision.

Has it been a good idea? Did it contribute to the long-term co-design process?

I think, at the end of the day, the answer to this question is not to be sought in the number of post-it ideas that moved (or will move) from the wall to reality, but in the way that the design idea of bringing that neighborhood together with a circus of designers made something useful happen to support the community’s long-term co-design process.

I leave to the local community and to the SCAD team to answer to this question. What I can observe here is that this idea came from a strategic design intuition (that the SCAD team has been capable of transforming into an exceptional event): a daring strategic design idea. A risky idea, as all the real design ideas have to be.

In conclusion, going back to the original student’s question, my specific answer would be: Do something that makes something else happen, and learn from the results.

That is: Dare to act. Listen to the others. Be ready to change your mind. Dare to act again. And again.


For more than two decades Ezio Manzini has been working in the field of design for sustainability. Most recently, his interests have focussed on social innovation, considered as a major driver of sustainable changes, and on what design can do to support it. In this perspective he started and currently coordinates, DESIS: an international network of schools of design and other design-related organisations specifically active in the field of design for social innovation and sustainability. Manzini has taught and carried out research in several design schools and, in particular, at the Politecnico di Milano where he directed several research projects coordinated the Unit of Research DIS, the Doctorate in Design and, DES: the Centre for Service Design in the Indaco Department. Parallel to this, he has been director and vice-president of Domus Academy , and Chair Professor of Design under the Distinguished Scholars Scheme at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (in 2000).

2 Responses to “MAKING THINGS HAPPEN: Participatory Design Beyond the Post-it Revolution”

  1. Ramsey Khalidi

    Bravo Design Ethos for listening seriously,then mobilizing ,then a call to action in an extremely cooperative fashion creating an inclusive project as is possible , which already has predictive(ly) begun to bear fruit!


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