The field of design is evolving. For Elizabeth B.-N. Sanders and Pieter Jan Stappers, the authors of the paper “Co-creation and the new landscapes of design,” this evolution means blurring the traditional lines that separate the designer, researcher and “user.” This push is a result of a wide shift in what is being designed: experiences rather than products. Because the purpose and identity of users have become the focal points of the design process, users must be seen as competent individuals, worthy of a seat at the creative table. They contribute as “experts of their experience.” The resulting design strategy, which merges the roles of researcher, designer and user, is what Sanders and Stappers call Participatory Design (PD).
Whereas “Co-creation…” centers on the concept of PD, the paper, “Biographical Prototypes: Reimagining Recognition and Disability in Design” focuses on the implementation of PD as a medium of meaningful, social change. Cynthia L. Bennett, Burren Peil and Daniela K. Rosner, the authors of the paper, define biographical prototypes (BP) as “material manifestations of people’s oral or written personal stories of ‘making something work’”. The purpose of a BP is to shed light on the disabilities of users, which are all too often overlooked in the design process. The paper centers on a workshop in which the authors brought together a group of differently-abled people to create BPs that explored their respective disabilities. The artifacts created in the meeting ranged from clever tools to physical depictions of emotions, are all effective BPs. Through the example of the workshop, it becomes clear that BPs are useful and inventive tools for disclosing the nuances of a life lived with disabilities.
PD in theory is different from PD in practice. PD usually starts as an authentic and empathetically motivated practice. As the process evolves, however, it devolves into a feedback loop that gives an outsized voice to privileged and unqualified individuals.
In the fields of design that center on the built environment, for instance, participatory design sessions (public workshops and/or stakeholder meetings) are productive, lively and stir up excitement in the both the participants and the designers. But when these meetings are put in their proper perspective, problems begin to emerge.
For one, the participants in most of these PD sessions, especially stakeholder meetings, are often white, affluent and — plainly — older individuals with time to spare (e.g. the classic portrait of an HOA or PTA president). Even when meetings take place in an area that selects for lower income, racial minority and/or LGBTQ+ communities, this problem persists. It is plain to see why. How many undocumented individuals, for instance, are going to attend municipally organized events? After working all week, why would an exhausted single mother give up her weekend to aid in the development of a public project, increasingly gentrifying in nature, that she will likely never be able to use?
A compounding effect occurs where designers engage with the community in meaningful and productive PD session, but the results of these meetings are tailored to wealthy and bored individuals. This is PD, but is it impactful or meaningful design? Bennett et al. begin to tackle issues like this through biographical prototyping. Their approach, inclusive and exciting, is far from where PD is as a publicly implemented process at present.