Daily Reflection 15: “Embedding” Design Methods

As usual I am not satisfied with my progress for this week. I am far enough along now that I know that part of my difficulty is inherent to the process, but another part is that I need to develop a good working routine. Of course, it will be a constant battle, and I have some good things in place — such as my semi-daily reflections. This weekend will be a good opportunity to set in place a good plan for next week. Perhaps outlining some daily milestones will help me move forward in a productive and focused manner.

My major accomplishment this week came in the rough topic chart above. I only made some minor additions over the last two days, but I think they are important and reflect my evolving attitude toward design methods. The topic highlighted in red starts to get at an idea about the connection between design methods, physical space, and long-term community development. Over the last few weeks I have grappled with my own concept of design methods, what about them is unique, and what about them I might study. I haven’t come to any conclusions, but I do have some thoughts that are leading me forward.

a) Design methods never play out the same in two projects
b) Designers are constantly adapting, revising, expanding their methods
c) Designers develop a specific attitude and skills toward the design process
d) Design methods are often used for in a narrow scope or for a short length of time

When I compare these thoughts with my understanding of complex social problems a few issues arise. The problems facing neighborhoods, cities, and the world have deep roots in the habits, cultures, economic systems, et cetera, of people. Any method aimed at understanding, let alone providing solutions to these problems needs to have a sustained impact that reaches large numbers of people at level deep enough to alter perspectives and behaviors. It seems like much of the literature I have read on participatory design highlights moments of people coming together for short-term problem identifying or problem solving activities. For me, such practices seem valuable for developing interactions or new products — of course, many of which can have a dramatic impact on the way people interact, behave, learn, live — but if the aim is to address “wicked problems” then many participatory design practices still seem too focused on developing solutions for components of systems or parts of systems. Even many well-connected, research-grounded social entrepreneurs seek to drive change from a very narrow perspective. How many organizations with a social mission does it take to change a city?

Of course, there are certainly emerging examples of successful positive development (and/or revitalization) efforts in neighborhoods and communities throughout the world. Perhaps they will provide some interesting case studies (I’m thinking of a project in Oakland that I will have to look up). And so, the question arises: what are the characteristics of the people/organizations leading development at a community level? At the moment, my feeling is that they are actively engaged with local businesses, have diverse interests, are highly visible, maintain faith/trust in the people they invest in, and are invested in the long-term healthiness of their communities. So maybe I should ask, what about design methods can aid people who have started this process already? For me, there still seems to be a lot of potential for design methods to help people collaborate in building and sharing “community models” that can serve as a guide for development based on a holistic perspective of what the community is and what it hopes to be.

I am aware this is starting to turn into a pretty big discussion, but I am hopeful that I am developing a more established frame for my research as I continue down this road.