Designers’ agency: human-centred design in communication design practice
This article was published in 2007 in the Design Principles and Practices: An International Journal, Vol 1, No. 2. It can be downloaded here (fees apply):
When citing this article, please use:
Akama, Y 2007, ‘Designers’ agency: human-centred design in communication design practice’, Design Principles and Practices: An international Journal, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 1-6
This paper presents a case study of a communication design project that undertook a consultative process in the designing of a visual identity for a socially based organisation. In particular, this paper explores the agency that designers and other stakeholders brought to this project, and the impact it had on the overall outcome. This project was a part of the author’s practice-led doctorate research situated in the field of communication design. As a practice-based project, the research was undertaken through designing. The research employed a process of design action and critical reflection and draws on theory from various fields of practice. Although the paper draws on literature on participatory design in fields outside of communication design, it did not undertake a participatory model of designing.
In unpacking this project further, the paper begins by providing the background to the project context. Key observations are made of certain interactions that occurred amongst the stakeholders and in particular, how empowerment became a crucial factor in steering the visual identity outcome. The paper illuminates why politics and power were key agents in this project context and how the consultative process became rhetoric for community ‘buy-in,’ rather than an empowerment for the community members. The paper demonstrates the ‘messiness’ of a human-centred design approach and the realisations that have emerged for a designer as a result.
In critiquing the role the designers’ played in this project context, the paper also attempts to broaden this discourse within communication design. The main practice in this field is characterised by design processes creating artefacts through a visual exploration. This is evident in the large body of literature and design books that are lavish, colourful and beautifully crafted. The marketplace is full of such artefacts that celebrate the visual aesthetic produced by communication designers. In this paper, I have questioned the limitations of the designer’s ‘form-giving’ role at the tail-end of a project. I questioned whether there were other roles that the designers could have played and what potential agency they could have had in this project.
Furthermore, this paper is provoked by the discussion surrounding human centred design where designers are acknowledged as key stakeholders in the design process. Krippendorff (2006, p.48) states, ‘Designers’ extraordinary sensitivity to what artifacts means to others, users, bystanders, critics, if not for whole cultures, has always been an important but rarely explicitly acknowledged competence.’ Agency in this research context concerns how designers act, intervene in, or contribute to the social process of design. This research sees the role of the designer as a key agent in the design process alongside other stakeholders in the project. Bruner (1996) discusses how agency implies the capacity for initiating and having the skill and know-how to complete intended actions. This research acknowledges that the communication designer has much to contribute to the design process, whether it is their professional design skills, creative talent, design knowledge and experience. The research explores what the designer’s particular contribution is in a human-centred framework. Thus, in questioning the limitations of the traditional role of a communication designer, the paper addresses how empowerment plays an active role in enabling designers’ agency. Does empowerment enable designers to undertake different roles and have input at an earlier stage of the design process? When could the designers’ input be more instrumental, and what outcomes might result from this?
Background context to the project
The site of the design intervention was an organisation that provides office space to small socially or environmentally based non-profit groups. A survey conducted within the organisation revealed that the community felt their previous visual identity did not appropriately reflect the activities of the organisation. Resultantly, the organisation decided to have a new visual identity designed. The management committee asked a design company within their organisation to re-design the visual identity by undertaking a consultative process with community members. I was invited by the design company to facilitate a consultative process between the community and the design team.
The consultative proposition was an ideal process and outcome for a socially based organisation to engage in. The key objective of this project was to empower the community in consolidating the ‘values’ of the organisation that could be translated into an identity system, which could then be applied to stationery, the organisation’s website, and interior and exterior signage. Clarifying an identity for this organisation involved an internal and external communication process. It involved the internal consolidation of ‘who’ they are as a community, as well as an external communication of a unified organisation to the people outside of the organisation. The diversity of the non-profit collectives housed within the organisation (for example, human rights, disability, environmental, indigenous issue groups etc.) posed an interesting challenge in creating a visual identity that represented them as a whole.
The intention for the consultative group was to be active at key stages throughout the project in discussing and consulting on relevant areas as the design progressed. In this way, the community’s views could be actively incorporated into a visual identity that represented the organisation, as well as empowering the participants to foster a sense of ownership of the visual identity. Furthermore, an ‘open forum’ with the rest of the community was also planned. This event was requested by the management committee so that other community members could engage in this project and ‘have a say’ on the evolving design.
The specific context of this project was that there were no clear-cut boundaries separating the client, audience and designers, as they were all part of the community housed within the organisation. I was the only ‘outsider,’ brought in to facilitate the consultative community workshops that took place. Due to the nature of the organisation all stakeholders possessed similarly aligned values of respecting mutual input in decision making. I initially observed that the community consultative process was ‘designed’ to balance-out power relations within the organisation in order to avoid any single stakeholder ‘controlling’ the outcome.
The role of the management committee, (comprised of elected members from the community) is to undertake the day-to-day management of the organisation. The designers and the management committee discussed how the consultative workshop participants should play an active role in steering the visual identity. Direct involvement from the management committee thus seemed minimal, as the designers were asked to simply ‘report back’ on the progress at key stages of the design process.
In an attempt to harness the diversity of the organisation, a group of five representatives were selected from the community. They ranged in age, gender and associated grass roots-groups. These participants took part in workshops for generating discussions and critiquing the progressing designs for the visual identity. My particular focus as a workshop facilitator was to create a forum where the participants could actively engage in generative discussion on the visual identity with the designers. I undertook a hybrid role of designer-facilitator to ensure open discussion on the visual identity amongst the participants who each brought diverse backgrounds and experience to the workshop.
The consultative workshops were open, informal and organic. This ensured that all participants felt comfortable to share different viewpoints, participate in discussions and generate ideas for the visual identity. The workshops were productive and effective in generating associated values for the organisation that could be explored within a visual identity. The participants voiced their awareness of how the organisation was undergoing change in its activities and aspirations. The participants felt that the visual identity project was a good vehicle to explore the organisation’s potential and to reflect this aspiration.
The discussions generated during the workshop then generated a design ‘brief,’ which was then visually explored by the designers to propose several possible directions for the visual identity. I believe the relationship between the designers and the workshop participants were well balanced, and the generative energetic and inspiring conversations had emerged as a result. In total, three workshops were conducted over a period of two months.
However, despite an attempt to undertake a ‘democratic’ process of community consultation, there were stages during its process that had caused rifts and concern amongst the stakeholders. In particular, the intervention by the management committee in the latter stages of the project resulted in disempowerment of designers’ and workshop participants’ roles. Several observations have been made as a result, which are discussed further in the next section.
Key observations of the project
Observation one: power and politics
The participants and designers consolidated four strong proposals for the visual identity that were based on the values generated from the workshop. Amongst the four proposals, one design proposal was selected that had the most potential for the direction of the visual identity. This design proposal chosen reflected the energy and dynamism of the organisaion, which departed significantly from the old visual identity.
Subsequently, the four proposals were presented to the management committee. Despite the preferred design proposal by the workshop participants, the committee asked the designers to proceed with a different proposal. The management committee explained that the organisation was undergoing a difficult transitional period where stability and security is of greater importance than radical change. This political agenda was reflected in over-ruling the workshop participants’ preference on the visual identity proposal. The design proposal that the management committee had chosen reflected the organisation’s history by its visual reference to the architectural features of the building. Uncannily, this design had strong resemblance to the previous visual identity. For this reason, the workshop participants and the designers considered this design the most ‘conservative.’
This turn of events uncovered the true politics behind this project. Despite endorsing a ‘democratic’ process of community consultation, the management committee over-ruled the community’s preference based on their political agenda. The consultative process became an ideal situation for community ‘buy-in’ for the visual identity and in hindsight can be viewed as a political exercise engineered by the management committee so that the community members would feel ‘included’ in the process. From this perspective, the workshop participants and the designers never had any authority over the decision about the visual identity.
Afterwards, the designers and I discussed how the management committee could have dictated what they wanted for a visual identity at the beginning of the project. Such a situation would have been made their style of management more ‘transparent’ and would have made the process much simpler for all stakeholders concerned. However, in the management committee’s defence, we speculated that the management had not initially intended events to unfold this way. During the course of the project, the workshop participants illuminated certain aspirational values that they associated with the organisation, reflecting the changes that they felt could occur. I believe that the management committee was ‘afraid’ of these changes and preferred to maintain the continuity and stability associated with the past. The designers and I speculated that such politics might have been uncovered through the visual identity project.
Observation two: ‘designing’ equal value and mutual respect
If the designing of the visual identity was put aside, what else was or could have been ‘designed’? Furthermore, if the design process was considered from the viewpoint of ‘designing’ how people are valued, this project can be critiqued in a very different way. Literature on Co-Design and Participatory Design often emphasises how to empower people in the design process to propose and generate design alternatives (Fischer, 2003; Sanders, 2000; Spinuzzi, 2005). Sanders (2002) in particular discuss how designers could design ‘scaffolds’ to enable people to engage with other people. In this project context, such designed ‘scaffolds’ were the workshop, the consultative processes and the management of stakeholder engagement. Yet on critical reflection, only parts of these scaffolds were ‘designed’ with specific intention to enable empowerment of all stakeholders during this project.
One example that attempted to empower all stakeholders and value mutual input was the consultative workshops. They were designed to be an organic and informal forum for idea generation and discussion. In this workshop, I played a hybrid role of the facilitator and designer. In this hybrid role, I ensured that I facilitated the discussion amongst varying levels of ‘expertise’ of design between the workshop participants and the designers. Arias & Fischer (2000) term this as ‘the symmetry of ignorance’ in order to collaborate across different levels of knowledge distribution among various stakeholders.
During the workshops, multiple perspectives were shared and explored that were generated from the diversity of backgrounds, experience and expertise of each participant. Word and image association games, visualisations, brainstorming exercises were undertaken without having to use the ‘formal language’ of design. We looked at logos of other organisations and companies and discussed how and why certain words were associated with the logo. Other exercises revolved around a list of adjectives that the participants associated with the organisation. These exercises were catalytic in generating possible directions to pursue. Discussion on selecting key adjectives for the organisation enabled the participants to realise the complexity of representing the organisation in just a few words. This realisation enabled them to understand the difficult task that lay ahead for the designers. I believe these workshops were effectively and productively designed, which was instrumental in shaping the initial stages of the visual identity.
Furthermore, allowing mutual input by the participants had opened up the possibility of unexpected interactions to emerge. Fischer (2003, p.2) discusses such a framework of design as ‘Social Creativity.’ He explains, ‘bringing together different points of view and trying to create a shared understanding among all stakeholders can lead to new insights, new ideas, and new artifacts.’ In other words, the design of the workshop created a generative forum for all participants’ input to be equally valued and respected.
Observation three: the importance of empowerment
During various stages of the project, I observed that the designers were very passive and voiced little concern when these revelations were made. Reflecting on this incident later, the designers commented that they felt ‘intimidated’ and that they ‘lacked control’ during this stage of the process. I believe this feeling was reflected in their passive behaviour.
The designers’ disempowerment was most obvious during the open forum. During this event, I noticed how nervous the designers seemed when displaying the designs to the participants. As explained previously, this open forum was organised so that the community could voice their views on the directions presented to them. However the project had progressed too far for the forum to be an open-ended generative discussion exploring potentials and possibilities for the visual identity. Some of the participants were also very vocal in criticising the visual proposals and this made the designers feel judged on their designs and skills. The unfolding events at the forum restricted the designers to simply listening to feedback and therefore, to being passive participants in the forum.
The ‘lack of control’ felt by the designers related to the absence of the discursive processes they are usually accustomed to. The designers revealed that their usual procedure involves a more informal, dialogic process where the progressing designs are critiqued and discussed with key stakeholders. During these discussions different views, concerns, alternatives and potentials are explored and exchanged amongst the stakeholders. Trust and respect forms between the stakeholders and these elements are key components in a successful working relationship. However, an opportunity to undertake an informal, discursive and generative process with the management committee was not made available in this project context. I believe that the designers’ feeling of ‘intimidation’ and ‘lack of control’ is a direct result of such disempowerment.
Observation four: the transition of roles
Transition of the roles, especially the role of the ‘client’ had a significant impact on this project. Initially, the workshop participants and the designers took the leading role in generating and steering the visual identity direction. As explained earlier, the specific context of this project was that there were no clear-cut boundaries separating the client, audience and designers, as they were all part of the community housed within the organisation. However, as the project unfolded, the management committee exercised their role as the traditional ‘client’ by making the final decision on whose views to value the most.
Power struggle over whose views are respected and who makes the final decision is a common concern for most designers. Within the field of communication design there is a genuine desire by designers to assert their professional presence and significance in the contemporary visual culture (Poynor, 2003). The desire to be in a mutually respectful relationship with their clients and other stakeholders is a rejection of being delegated the task of a ‘stylist’ or ‘window-dresser’ at the tail end of the design process (Rock, 2002; Poynor, 2003).
This project provided a unique context to explore what the designers’ contribution could be resulting from an earlier involvement in the design process. Their positioning as ‘community members’ enabled the designers to have input alongside the workshop participants in generating possible directions for the visual identity. However, the roles for the designers transitioned later in the project. Despite the lack of a traditional ‘client’ role, the management later behaved in a ‘client-like’ manner. The designers’ positioning as ‘subservient’ to the client is not uncommon in communication design (Poynor, 2003). Similarly, the designers were delegated the role of finalising and producing the visuals that the ‘client-management’ had chosen. By being labelled as ‘designers’ and not as ‘community members,’ could the designers have been less valued by the management committee?
What is the designers’ agency in human centred design?
Emerging from the observations above, several illuminations have been made around the designers’ agency in human centred design that relate to roles and empowerment. These concepts are unpacked further in the discussion below in order to question and broaden the traditional role of a communication designer as ‘form givers’ in producing artefacts at the tail end of a process.
Firstly, a key agency that a designer can bring to a project is the creation of forums for input by key stakeholders at various stages of the project. From the observation made on ‘designing’ how people are valued, the ‘design’ of the workshops and the role I played within them highlights a potential for broadening the traditional role of a communication designer. In this context, the agency I brought as a designer-facilitator created space for a generative forum enabling input by all participants.
In contrast, the lack of such discursive forums with the management committee during the project was a determining factor in the project’s outcome. Similarly, the open forum that involved other community members was less productive than had been hoped. The event was organised on the management’s insistence to be inclusive of other community members’ views on the evolving visual identity. However, the designers and I were concerned about how to manage this event. I was asked to facilitate the open forum. I made every effort to ensure the forum was constructive rather than critical, yet the most vocal people appeared to sway the opinion of others. One vocal member in particular voiced negative criticisms on the designs that made both the designers and myself feel uncomfortable. These criticisms seemed to be made out of personal dislike of the visuals. As a result, the designers and I were unclear about how to address and incorporate the feedback from the open forum. We were also concerned that it may impact upon the visual and conceptual directions that had been generated and pursued in the consultative workshops. On reflection, I had little leverage in this forum to enable valued exchange between the participants. This forum may have enabled the attending community members to feel included and valued, but it resulted in both the designers and myself feeling judged and devalued. However, this experience was valuable in understanding different ways that a community involvement in the design process can occur, and respecting and valuing the agency that all stakeholders can bring to the process.
Secondly, empowerment was observed as an important factor in enabling agency. The designers’ lack of empowerment during the open forum and subsequent meetings with management inhibited the expression of their views and concerns. As discussed earlier, the common role of designers as ‘subservient’ to the ‘client’ may have contributed to their lack of feeling empowered. They accepted, without protestation, the task of finalising and producing the visuals that the management committee chose. This reveals that the designers had not been empowered as advocates for the design proposal or the community in having the ability to question the management’s interventions in this project. Being part of a single community can be a double-edge sword and any criticism voiced may have negative repercussions on the relationship in the future. Could I have been more proactive in my role as an ‘outsider’ in facilitating discussion amongst the designers, the management committee and the workshop participants?
Thirdly, the discussion above also sheds light on how different roles contribute to different agencies. I mistakenly perceived the community as having an active and vocal role in this organisation. As an outsider to this community I was alarmed by the actions taken by the management committee, given that this organisation consists of members from social and environmental groups who are staunch advocates of inclusiveness and equal rights. In a workshop undertaken after the management revealed their preference, the workshop participants seemed to have resigned to accepting the management’s decision and intervention. They were not alarmed or surprised by what had happened. To my astonishment, they had not considered engaging in a broader discussion with the community to question how decisions are made within the organisation. As an ‘outsider’ observing this political drama I reflected on how my initial desire to facilitate a discussion amongst the designers, the management and the community might only have satisfied my own ‘political’ agenda to vent the frustrations I felt in this project.
Lastly, I believe that the agency that a designer brings to their particular context is firmly related to their human experience, background and personality traits. This perspective of designer-as-human within human-centred design does not regard them as ‘objective decision makers but as intelligent actors’ (Krippendorff, 2006, p.34). The human agency that designers bring to a design project acknowledges that they are individuals with identities, histories and emotions. Such notion challenges the baggage still carried from Modernism’s worst moments when it embraced formal, objective and scientific approaches. Thus, I believe that the greater or lesser agency the designers have is very closely related to how and who they are, as people.
In conclusion, this paper has explored the designer’s agency in human centred design using this communication design project as a site for investigation. By questioning the designer’s role and critically examining ways to enable their input at various stages of the design process, the project illuminated a number of strategies that might enable a human-centred approach in practice.
Working with a variety of people inevitably involves differences of opinions, viewpoints and values. This diversity and differences is the human-ness in the design process. Amongst this human exchange, politics and power were observed as a key agent that could have a significant impact on the design process and outcome. A design process can thus be argued as a political negotiation between stakeholders in a project. Given this political context, valuing input by various stakeholders in a design process is not a ‘default’ setting that comes automatically with the project. As observed in this project, some stakeholders can be valued over others. In this political framework the designer’s agency is not a black and white issue concerning ‘control’ over the design process and outcome. Rather, the designer’s agency relates to how they express their personal and professional view of the world, and enable and facilitate others in expressing their view of the world. Through this process the designer becomes a key agent in facilitating each stakeholder to understand each other’s understanding. Through a dialogic process, relationships can be built and understanding can deepen between the stakeholders, resulting in an awareness of the value that each person contributes to the design process.
The paper has explored and illuminated key factors that enable agency, such as roles and empowerment. However, I believe there is more that can be explored. Further work is being carried out to investigate the designer’s agency in a human-centred framework in other project contexts.
Arias, E., & Fischer, M. (2000). Boundary objects: Their role in articulating the task at hand and making information relevant to it. Paper presented at the International Symposibum on Interactive & Collaborative Computing, University of Wollongong.
Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press.
Fischer, G. (2003). Meta-Design: Beyond User-Centred and Participatory Design. Paper presented to HCI International, Crete, June.
Krippendorff, K. (2006). The semantic Turn: A New Foundation for Design. Taylor & Francis.
Poynor, R. (2003). No more rules – graphic design and postmodernism, London, Laurence King.
Rock, M. (2002) The Designer as Author. In Bierut, M., Drenttel, W. & Heller, S. (Eds.) Looking Closer Four: Critical Writings on Graphic Design. New York, Allworth Press, 237-244.
Sanders, E. (2000). Generative tools for codesigning. In B. a. W. Scrivener (Ed.), Collaborative design. London: Springer-Verlag.
Sanders, E. (2002). Scaffolds for Experiencing in the New Design Space. Information Design, Institute for Information Design Japan, Graphic-sha Publishing Co. Ltd.
Spinuzzi, C. (2005). The methodology of Participatory Design. Technical Communication, vol 52, no 2, 163-174 May.
Show and tell: Accessing and communication implicit knowledge through artefacts
This article was published in Artifact journal 2007, Volume 1, No. 3. It can be downloaded (fees apply) from here:
When citing this article, please use:
Akama, Y, Cooper, R, Vaughan, L, Viller, S, Simpson, M & Yuille, J 2007, “Show and tell: Accessing and communication implicit knowledge through artefacts” Artifact Journal, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 172-181.
This paper contributes to the current discourse on the role of artefacts in facilitating and triggering interaction among people. The discussion will focus on artefacts used as part of an interview method developed in order to discover knowledge that was observed but absent from both project reports and other documentation within multidisciplinary collaborative research projects, located within the field of Interaction Design. Using artefacts in an interview context enabled participants to reveal insights that were, in turn, participatory and human-centred. Thus the method was effective and appropriate in illuminating knowledge situated in interaction. This ethnomethodological tool enabled participants to reflexively externalize their understanding of the complex interactions that occur within projects, encouraging participation, interaction, visualization, reflection and communication through the use of tools aimed at capturing and illuminating the lived experiences of human engagement. These interviews were conducted with a selection of participants, chosen because they were researchers, working together within a cooperative research centre.
Keywords: design methodology; ethnomethodology; interaction design; playful triggers
This study draws from our exploration of an interview method that uses artefacts to elicit information, and was employed to illuminate knowledge built among collaborators. That knowledge, embedded in multidisciplinary interaction design practice, was absent from project reports. In order to identify this missing information, we explored the use of artefacts based on Playful Triggers (Loi, 2005) to help visualize, communicate and capture the complex human interactions that occur within interaction design projects. Playful Triggers are designed tools that both generate collaborative practices and create meaningful dialogue. As Loi describes:
Playful Triggers generate receptive modes through their tactile, visual, mysterious, playful, tridimensional, poetic, ambiguous and metaphorical qualities. These triggers ask people to challenge taken for granted or conventional ways of doing, seeing and articulating things to co-generate shared understandings and collaborative practices. (p. 18)
Playful Triggers are a modification and extension of cultural probes (Gaver et al., 1999) that engage users in inspirational exercises to generate ethnographic or empathetic data.
This case study involved 11 interviews with project participants within a funded research centre. These interviews were not intended to be a comprehensive survey of the research projects themselves, but rather to explore the various roles involved in interaction, as well as the experiences of collaborators through a representative sample of different projects. The intention was to illuminate human interactions, which are situated in practice (Suchman, 1987), in order to discover knowledge that was observed but absent from written documentation.
In this work, we first provide background on the research centre’s projects along with a critique of their documentation procedures. We also develop the rationale for this interview method within that particular context. Second, we discuss the origins of the artefacts used in the interviews and how the use of these artefacts draws on work developed by Loi (2005) as well as Akama’s ongoing research, and the work of other researchers (Arias & Fischer, 2000; Gaver et al., 1999; Sanders, 2000). Examples and visuals drawn from our case study demonstrate how these artefacts were used in accessing and communicating implicit knowledge embedded in human interaction within design projects. Finally, we will discuss why the adaptation of Playful Triggers was an appropriate ethnomethodological approach in illuminating human-centred interactions in design projects. Using Playful Triggers, a physically participatory, human-centred approach, enabled participants to reveal insights that were, in turn, participatory and humancentred.
As we shall show, the triggers enabled participants to communicate both verbally and non-verbally their understanding of their own roles, as well as the complex interactions and project activities that took place with others associated with the project. Using these triggers, participants were reflexively able to display their understanding of these elements to others.
We will argue that the use of artefacts in an interview context can contribute to the discourse concerning the relationship among artefacts, processes, and people. The artefacts used here effectively demonstrate that they can be triggers for reflection and imagination, tools for the articulation and communication of ideas and experience, and facilitators for participation and generative meaning-making. Indigenous and introduced artefacts play different roles within interview contexts. Introduced artefacts are objects brought in by the interviewer to facilitate the conversation, but have no particular history or association with the project. Indigenous artefacts are designed artefacts from the projects that had the language of process embedded within them. Irrespective of whether these artefacts were unfinished, as in loose sketches, or finished, as in finalised outcomes, these artefacts had specific meaning, history and context associated with them.
Background: the CRC Project context
A review of project documents was initially conducted to provide an understanding of the research centre’s activities, and to identify potential interviewees. As a result of reviewing the project documents, the researchers discovered that those documents communicated a summary of the projects, but that critical incidences or problems between team members within projects were not evident, making it difficult to know how these collaborators dealt with obstacles, how they identified vulnerabilities, or what the researchers might have learnt from such adversities. Issues such as unexpected leaps, tangents or breakthroughs, which often occur during a project, were neither included nor explicitly considered as contributing factors to the outcome of a project. Project documents were geared to report tasks and procedures undertaken (”we did this, we did that”) in light of project order deliverables. Any reflective enquiry or articulation of project processes was absent in the documents. We observed that human-related factors that influence most collaborative projects were not documented or observed. This made it difficult for those of us who are outside a specific project to understand the complex and variable human interactions that take place when people work together, and how those interactions influence the project’s final outcome.
A particular area that was difficult to comprehend through the project documents concerned how people collaborated with one another in project teams. The absence of any discussion about collaboration within a multidisciplinary context implied that the collaboration within the team might have been taken for granted. The project document successfully indicated who was responsible for which task, but failed to communicate how seamlessly, or problematically, the collaborative process was, what methods the team used to facilitate the collaborative process, and how those methods contributed to overall project objectives.
Our critique of the project documents enabled us to identify certain kinds of omitted information, which included knowledge loss within projects that happened when team members left the group. This missing information caused us to further explore exactly what was being captured and recorded, and what was being lost from projects in the research centre, including the collaborative processes and the methods used by group members. Afterwards, we asked ourselves if interview techniques might be used as one way of illuminating embedded knowledge regarding the processes and interactions between people. In order to develop questions that we would explore within the interviews, we looked for absences in the project documents. However, as we developed these questions, we also considered that the interviewees were researchers and practitioners who worked on Research Centre projects, and were from diverse disciplines and backgrounds, including theatre, sociology, computer human interaction, engineering, industrial design, and interaction design. The diversity of participants presented interesting possible obstacles to the interview process, such as how we might construct shared meaning with participants from such different practices and backgrounds. We hypothesized that these differences might mean that other forms of non-verbal or textual communication could better support and facilitate the process of identifying the missing information.
The language of artefacts
Artefacts are considered by some as “a language of interaction” (Krippendorff, 2006, p. 46). The exploration of artefacts as another language invited us to consider that their use could complement traditional interview approaches, by facilitating conversations with the participants. While a more traditional interview emphasizes textual and verbal language as the means for facilitating conversation, we used Krippendorff’s (2006) perspective to motivate the use of artefacts as another language element, which might illuminate the complex human interactions that take place within projects. Thus an artefact approach was explored to capture and facilitate the fluid, temporal aspects of interaction and conversation.
The exploration of this interview methodology is being developed in Akama&’s ongoing doctoral work, which makes use of Playful Triggers (Loi, 2005) to facilitate conversation. Akama has explored various ways to visualize conversation situated within communication design practice. Initially, in that work, drawing and sketching reflected the language of a designer’s practice, because it is common amongst many design disciplines to sketch and draw as a way to walk through thinking processes, and articulate thoughts visually (Banham, 2004; Grocott, 2005). However, in this case, not all the participants were designers. Therefore, we assumed that drawing might inhibit the flow of conversation by raising unnecessary performance anxiety. Similarly, a sense of “preciousness” associated with a blank sheet of paper might restrict these participants. Furthermore, marks on paper could imply a sense of permanence that seemed at odds with facilitating a conversation based on and around people’s fluid interaction.
In response to these concerns, a diverse range of objects was chosen for the purpose of facilitating the interviews. These objects are not purposefully designed, like Playful Triggers, but are a collection or modification of existing artefacts that share qualities such as being playful, ambiguous, tactile, and everyday. When placed in a specific context, the artefacts take on the meanings placed on them by the participants. This echoes the notion of boundary objects (Arias & Fischer, 2000) that act as brokering tools across disciplines, and support reflection within a shared context. Boundary objects serve as objects to support interaction and collaboration between different communities of practice. These objects involve translation, coordination, and alignment between different perspectives in order to enhance the creation of shared understanding. Furthermore, these artefacts echo Sanders’s (2000) exploration of tools to “elicit emotional response and expression from people” (p. 4).
Thus, this interview context explores how people use objects for reflection, communication, and the co-creation of meaning. The range of objects used in the interviews is shown in Figure 1. These introduced artefacts included Yowies (Australian plastic animals), coloured matchsticks, buttons, glass beads, nuts and bolts, coloured wire, pipe cleaners, pieces of wood, and husks of seeds. Additionally, participants were asked to bring artefacts that were indigenous to their projects. The indigenous artefacts could take any form, such as sketches, work-in-progress prototypes, or final designed outcomes that enabled them to communicate or collaborate within teams. The researchers anticipated that such indigenous artefacts would complement the use of the introduced objects during the interview by providing multiple languages to enrich and enhance the communication.
Interview case study
Ten of the eleven interviews were conducted as informal face-to-face conversations modeled on an unstructured interview process. Each interview ran for approximately an hour, was audio- or video-recorded, and included photographs of the interactions between participant and artefact. The data, including transcripts, visual data, notes, and observations were progressively analysed in order to identify similarities, differences, and patterns in the interviews. We looked for these elements in order to identify implicit knowledge and interactions embedded within the projects. However, it is outside the scope of this work to focus on results concerning implicit knowledge. Rather, in this work, we focus on how participants used the artefacts in facilitating and communicating tacit knowledge embedded in interaction design projects, which we argue allowed us to gather better data for analysis.
The use of artefacts facilitated interaction not available using traditional approaches where the interviewer asks questions and the interviewee answers what he or she hears. In this context, the chosen artefacts often became ice breakers. Some participants were immediately fascinated, and touched and played with them. Others at first expressed bewilderment and puzzlement when objects were taken out of the box. One participant even stated that they “don’t do things like this”, and visibly communicated discomfort in interacting with the artefacts. In these situations, the interviewer often initiated the engagement by using the artefacts to clarify certain concepts that emerged during the conversation. By asking, “so, is this what you meant?” whilst moving the objects around, the interviewer invited the participant to interact during the conversation. This approach was successful with every interview. The participants then intuitively interacted with the objects and seemed to relax and actively engage with the task.
Our conversations with participants began with open-ended questions addressing the aims, roles and interactions that took place within the projects. Through narratives and storytelling, the participants shared their research experiences and provided an opportunity for the illumination of certain aspects of implicit knowledge embedded in the participant’s process. Additionally, the organic and flexible nature of these conversations allowed fruitful new tangents to emerge. The approach was engaging for participants, allowing them to generate and explore a variety of themes. Aspects relating to the diversity of people, knowledge, and collaborative practices were constantly illuminated within the interviews. Photographs of those interviews, shown here, illustrate how participants chose and used the objects to articulate very complex processes and interactions that occurred amongst team members.
Figure 2 illustrates the community of people involved in a project. In this case, the Yowies were favoured most to represent different people, while the objects represented the diversity of knowledge, expertise, experience, and backgrounds brought to the project. This participant chose different objects, including matchsticks, beads, and buttons to represent knowledge, expertise, and experience. Those items are positioned behind the animals to show that each team member brought a diversity of knowledge to a project. The nut in the middle of the group (circled) represents the end product that they were all working on.
Some projects suffered from a change in direction or an unsuccessful teamwork structure. An example of unsuccessful teamwork is shown in Figure 3. It illustrates a project where different nodes, represented by the pairs of animals, collaborate together. The pile of objects in the centre represents the collective work of the team. However, two pairs of animals at the top are at a distance, hiding the wing nut behind them (the arrow points to that object). The participant communicated that some people on the project had not been transparent and open in sharing their findings and knowledge. The particular knowledge that was withheld from the team is represented by the wing nut.
The ambiguity of the objects allowed participants to represent intangible processes between team members. The following series of photographs shows how the team identified communication problems and then took steps to address them. In this project, the participants had problems communicating with one another due to the multidisciplinary team composition. Different uses of terminology within different disciplines had caused misunderstanding within project teams, which took up lengthy periods before those misunderstandings could be discovered and addressed.
Figure 4 illustrates how communication problems were identified. Each animal represents a different discipline within the team, while the pipe cleaner represents each discipline’s process. Distances between the positioning of each pipe cleaner communicate how different disciplinary processes were not interwoven. Separate processes and split roles dictated the problems that the team had working together.
The way that the team began to work out a collaborative approach is illustrated in Figure 5. These developments are represented by the matchsticks, which were placed between the pipe cleaners. The matchsticks represent various communication tools and methods put in place to facilitate collaboration. However, the finger points to an obvious gap in one area of the communication.
To address the gap, the team created systems to support shared understanding among participants without diluting the vocabulary of each field. One suggestion made by the collaborators concerned a glossary of terminologies to avoid communication problems. The last image (Figure 6) illustrates how certain activities like workshops brought people together to share their disciplinary knowledge and processes. The pipe cleaners are not separate any longer, but instead are interwoven into a three-dimensional structure. As the next section will show in more detail, by creating a greater understanding of each other’s processes and languages, communication barriers gradually diminish and greater collaborative abilities result.
Reflections on the role of artefacts
The ways participants engaged with the artefacts illuminated significant discoveries concerning what these artefacts had enabled and facilitated in the interview context. These discoveries are discussed in detail below.
Encourages playful interaction
Our participants interacted with the artefacts in a variety of ways. During the interview, the tools encouraged playful, informative conversations and assisted participants in articulating complex roles and activities. This experience has also been noted with the use of Playful Triggers, which create dialogue between the inhabitants of an interview setting enabling relationships that could foster and sustain cooperative and collaborative practices (Loi, 2005). While participants can perceive a traditional interview process as formal and imposing, the artefacts were able to break the ice, making the interviewee feel more relaxed and comfortable in engaging with the interviewer. This sense of comfort was most notably observed in the interviewee’s body language. Before the interview commenced, many participants looked serious and sometimes anxious. However, once the interviewer and interviewee began to incorporate the objects, the participants became animated and expressive. The tactile nature of each object aroused curiosity and encouraged participants to touch and play with the artefacts. Some participants were observed keeping items in their hands whilst talking almost as a form of comfort. Some participants utilized their imagination and created certain objects to represent specific things. For example, a string of buttons represented a website.
Facilitates reflective practice
Some participants used the various physical qualities of the artefacts to brainstorm a response to a question, processing their thoughts whilst positioning the objects. For example, in one interview, the participant was observed moving the buttons and matchsticks around a Yowie in order to consider where they should be placed to represent what he intended to communicate. It seemed that the participants made use of reflection-in-action (Schön, 1983) as a way to formulate and articulate their thoughts. Unlike trial and error, reflection-in-action is a process that encourages reasoned and purposeful reexamination during the process of making. This process often occurs when something unusual appears as one tries to accomplish a task, which causes individuals to alter normal practice. The objects tangibly and visually reflected the participants’ thoughts in action, which led to the choice and positioning of the objects. The objects were also used to re-enact conversations that had taken place among stakeholders in the projects. Through recalling particular moments, or mimicking past interactions with the artefacts, participants were observed reflecting on those particular incidents and experiences. Aided by the questions from the interviewer concerning how and why teamwork was (un)successful in their projects, the re-enactments through the objects were not just descriptions of interactions that had taken place but also became tools for sense-making and questioning. This experience echoes the notion of using artefacts, such as Playful Triggers and visualizing through diagrams (Grocott, 2005), to assist reflective practice.
During the interview process participants frequently used words like “this” or “that” whilst manipulating the objects to abstractly represent specific relationships, processes, and interactions, which occurred within the projects. This observation relates to a characteristic of Playful Triggers: they enable an understanding of specific settings and interactions, thereby providing nuances and/or insights that a conventional process would fail to make explicit. The artefacts enabled an exchange of knowledge in the interviews, visually mirroring conversations as they unfolded. The Yowies frequently became people or products whilst other objects such as pipe cleaners, buttons, and husks of seeds represented directions, processes, products, qualities, or ideas. Once meaning or roles were assigned to the objects, they became visual cues for the conversations that took place during the interview. With these cues, it was easier for participants to recall details of topics touched on earlier, allowing them to jump backwards and forwards in conversation time. The objects represented moments within the conversation, and therefore facilitated the recapping and looping of ideas and concepts. In this context, the artefacts became externalizations to capture and articulate the tasks at hand (Bruner, 1996). The language of artefacts complemented the verbal words used to describe the complexities of the interactions occurring in projects. Rather than being caught up with definitions of words, debilitating the process of achieving quick mutual understanding, the artefacts enabled another form of literacy.
Facilitates co-creating meaning
During the flow of conversation, both participant and researcher would manipulate objects in order to explore the details of the interview theme. The artefacts were observed to accelerate communication between interviewers and participants, who would move each object around to clarify each other’s point of view. The objects tangibly reflected conversations in which both participant and researcher had ownership but neither had claimed authoritative control. Thus, these artefacts enabled and facilitated the co-creation of meaning, in that both parties were active participants in establishing contextual meaning. The artefacts became instrumental in clarifying, articulating, and communicating tacit knowledge and activities from the participants’ particular processes and interactions. In this sense, the artefacts became catalysts in engaging stakeholders in an active co-creation of meaning and experience.
Communicates relationships and interactions
The data from these conversations suggest ways that participants articulate tacit knowledge concerning their roles and interactions with others in a team. In particular, as mentioned earlier, the Yowies were frequently chosen to represent people. They became the avatars of the participants who projected either themselves or others who worked with them. This was a safe and therefore popular phenomenon, because an avatar created distance between the interviewee and his or her past experiences, allowing the ensuing conversation to be less personally charged. Similarly, instead of using the first person “I”, the Yowies, such as the dingo or the koala, were used frequently when participants talked about an interaction that involved themselves and others. These animals were sometimes chosen because they reflected certain characteristics of people. For example, one participant purposefully chose an echidna, which is similar to a hedgehog, to represent a team member who liked to “dig around and fossick for ideas”. Other examples suggest that participants specifically chose different kinds of animals like fish, birds, and mammals to represent not only the diversity and differences within a team, but also the obstacles and challenges that come with differences in viewpoints. In this way, the participants were observed comfortably re-enacting interactions, conversations, and relationships in projects.
As stated earlier in this paper, the objects were not specifically designed artefacts for the interview purpose; they were simply a collection of objects, or modifications of existing objects. It was observed that these objects facilitated the use of a visual language for communication. This echoes a similar situation in which a concept such as the “offside rule” can be explained using salt-and-pepper shakers. In an attempt to explain this complex football rule, the table transforms itself into the football pitch and the salt and pepper shakers become the players, ball, and goal posts. By moving the objects around, the players’ complex manoeuvre can be captured. We believe that the transformative ability of objects in context is something that humans acquire through play during childhood. As a child, a cardboard box can become a boat, a house, or a car simply by imagining its role in the story being told. In discussing transitional objects, Winnicott (1974) describes how objects can be possessed by the child’s imagination so they are neither fully part of the self nor explicitly external. He further explains that in playing, “the child gathers objects or phenomena from external reality and uses these in the service of some sample derived from inner or personal reality” (p. 51). Similarly, these objects were found, collected, or modified, because they embodied a certain playful feel. Yet, in this specific context, these ordinary and playful objects enabled people to project their imaginations, to design, as it were, something else in the stories that they told.
Enables communication design
The artefacts provided a catalyst for the participants to design rudimentary communication pieces. Various objects were orchestrated, constructed, arranged, and manipulated in order to assist communication during the interview. This process reflects situations and outcomes in design where objects became triggers and catalysts that enabled the communication and co-creation of meaning. Because the resulting orchestration of objects was photographed and captured in succession, these photographs became firsthand visual quotes to convey and demonstrate certain themes, which helped us develop the interview report and extrapolate the findings. These photographs were particularly effective in a workshop conducted to convey the interview findings to the rest of the research team. Photographs similar to the ones shown in this paper, along with audio- and videorecordings, aided the process of reflecting and communicating our findings to the rest of the team. During the workshop, each photograph became a rich source of information that communicated various aspects of the collaborative process. Information from the interviews was shared by grouping quotes, notes, and photos under themes that began to emerge from the data. We asked the group to add their thoughts, additional themes, and questions in response to the display (Figure 7). The feedback and discussion within the team assisted additional emerging thoughts.
The role of indigenous artefacts
The researchers observed that indigenous design artefacts from the projects themselves had the language of process embedded within them. Sketches, photographs, presentation slides, and design prototypes that the participants brought were discussed during the interview. Using these project-specific artefacts as triggers for discussion provided the researchers with an enriched understanding of the participants’ collaborative process undertaken during the project. Prototypes and work-in-progress artefacts were particularly useful in triggering conversations around process and collaboration, because we could then identify how collaborators developed the project, who made the project, and why the project came to be. These conversations revealed exploratory avenues, failed attempts, and breakthroughs that had occurred during the collaborative process.
Because the knowledge embedded within an artefact is rarely made explicit, it can only be accessed and communicated by those who can interpret it (Tonkinwise & Lorber-Kasunic, 2006). Therefore, we asked the participants to explain in great depth why the chosen artefacts were a valuable part of the design process, and how those artefacts had facilitated collaboration amongst the team. Some participants revealed how prototypes became a focal point around which team members could come together with their diverse expertise. For example, a prototype of an interactive device facilitated discussion in a group that included an industrial designer, an engineer, a software developer, and an interaction designer, who could effectively critique that shared concept in order to propose different directions. Others commented on how sketches and photographs captured certain processes and served as visual reminders of the discussions that had taken place between team members. The articulation and externalization of this knowledge transformed each artefact in terms of how it was interpreted and understood by the researchers. Embedded meanings and layers of knowledge were revealed that transformed items, such as a loose sketch, into a strategic organization of information.
In conclusion, through this case study, we discovered that artefacts were an appropriate ethnomethodological tool for illuminating human- centred interactions in processes and projects. The participatory, human-centred methodology embedded in these artefacts enabled participants to reveal and illuminate insights, which were, in turn, participatory and human-centred. These artefacts enabled each participant to communicate an individual understanding of complex interactions with others from within, and reflexively display their understanding of those interactions to others.
These interviews became a way to explore the different kinds of artefacts and the roles they play. In particular, we observed differences between the roles played by indigenous and introduced artefacts. As stated earlier, indigenous artefacts emerged from the projects themselves embedded with a language of process. Irrespective of whether they were unfinished loose sketches or finalized outcomes, the participant could read a specific meaning, history, and context and share it with us. However, the introduced artefacts, which were objects brought by the interviewer to facilitate the conversation, had no particular history or association. Those artefacts allowed us to co-create contextual meaning with the participants. We believe that the different roles indigenous and introduced artefacts contribute will provide an interesting area for future exploration.
Finally, the use of artefacts in an interview context broadened their role as catalysts in facilitating, triggering, and enabling interaction among people. By encouraging reflection and imagination, acting as tools for the articulation and communication of ideas and experience, and facilitating participation and generative meaning-making, artefacts add an important dimension to traditional interview techniques.
The authors would like to thank and acknowledge the support of RMIT University, University of Queensland, and the Australian CRC for Interaction Design (ACID) for their support in the writing of this paper.
Akama’s doctoral work titled The Tao of Communication Design practice, undertaken at the School of Applied Communication, RMIT University, Melbourne, is due for completion in 2008.
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Dear John: Design as catalyst for action
This text has been published in Antithesis, published by University of Melbourne. Please cite this text as:
Akama, Y 2006, ‘Dear John: Design as catalyst for action’, Antithesis, vol. 16, pp. 112-123
This paper will discuss Dear John, a collaborative project initiated by a group of postgraduate graphic design students inspired to motivate young people to defeat John Howard and the Liberal Party in the 2004 Australian national election, with the intention of using design as an agent of activism and intervention.
Motivated by the significance of grassroots websites for fostering community action and the increasing power of viral electronic campaigns to influence change, Dear John website set out to mobilise and spread its message by engaging young voters to download and forward witty emails and materials within their “networked” community. Recognising that many people have turned from being political in the traditional sense, political rhetoric and journalistic spin were avoided. The message reinforced by Dear John was that personal political involvement may be as simple as the act of wearing a t-shirt or putting up a poster.
Dear John invited people to download copyright free t-shirt transfers, badges, posters, screen savers and forward letters and clipart to their friends. In addition there was a gallery space on the site to showcase materials visitors had made themselves, creating a virtual space for a community of people who, out of concern for the outcome of the election, sought a place in which they can practice and participate in democracy.
Research context of Dear John project
Dear John was one of the research projects undertaken during the last year of my practice-led research degree in Communication at RMIT University. Practice-led research in the context of design is a way of producing knowledge. Peter Downton argues “research is undertaken to test existing knowledge, and to produce and increase knowledge; design processes both use knowledge and also produce personal knowing and collective knowledge. Such knowledge is different, not inferior.”1 Research through design puts forward the idea that “designing is a way of researching, and is a way of producing knowledge. Design knowledge consists of the knowing and knowledge designers have and use, concerning design and how to do it.”
Practice-led research critically employs a cyclical process of designing and reflection, revealing and illuminating theories derived from practice, which in turn informs the practice. Leon Van Schaik explains practice-led research as a way “[…] to show how a theory/idea/concept makes a difference to their design, and this is demonstrated through their ‘designing’– or their practice […] experience drives practice, and practice drives theory, which in turn affects experience.”2
A key awareness that frames my research is that this heuristic process is situated within the personal – it is about how I understand my design practice and how I engage as a practitioner. My research interest, situated within graphic design, is to examine ways to enhance the design process so that communication outcomes engage the active participation of the audience.
Frascara explains that “communication design is an activity directed at affecting the knowledge, the attitude and behaviour of people […,] defined this way, people assume a central role[.]’ 3 This approach recognises that design practitioners play a central role in shaping and informing the ideas and behaviours of people and their environment. To clarify, my research exploration is not concerned with the role of design in promoting consumerism, but with how to effectively amplify and extend the social role of graphic designers through processes that actively engage people. The Dear John project became the critical incident in my research, where the experience highlighted another role design could play within society. This will be explored further in the ‘Conclusion’.
The disaffection and sense of powerlessness apparently felt by many people is a source of mounting public concern. Demonstrations in Seattle, Prague, London, Gothenburg and Genoa confront governments and media with worrying signs of disturbance in the depths of the social body. If there is still a tendency to stigmatise all acts of protest as the work of an irresponsible carnival of activists, falling voter turnouts in national elections are beginning to oblige even the most complacent politicians to face the fact that growing numbers of citizens feel their democratic votes count for nothing.4
With another election looming on the horizon, our team of designers recognised that many people have turned from being political in the traditional sense. The challenge therefore was to motivate young people to discuss and debate the socio-cultural issues that determine the society they live in.
At the beginning we assessed:
1) the significance of the youth vote in the Spanish national elections in March 2004;
2) the recent success of grassroots websites for fostering community action in the US;
3) the ‘connected’ lifestyles of young Australians;
4) the culture of forwarding witty emails, and;
5) the increasing power of viral electronic campaigns to influence change.
From this we decided to have a website called Dear John to target uncommitted voters between the ages of 18–30, with the challenge being to engage this often cynical or disinterested demographic in the 2004 Australian national election. We believed that many young voters’ disinterest in politics would resonate with the following three responses. First, diminishing belief in the rhetoric of the empty sound bite: “all politicians sound the same”. Second, increasing cynicism towards the power of mainstream news media to independently report politics: “it’s not news, it’s spin”. Lastly, a sense of being overwhelmed by information overload and the responsibility to make an informed decision: “don’t know where to begin or who to believe”. In designing Dear John we decided that we would avoid the language of journalism or politics and avoid pushing articles to substantiate our politics. Instead, we chose to make it personal – the message reinforced that personal political involvement could be as simple as the act of wearing a t-shirt or putting posters on a wall.
Most of the Dear John design team had never taken part in a politically-oriented project and many were nervous about designing within such an unfamiliar context. Our uncertainty about the election date (which could be called by the Prime Minister one month prior to Election Day) meant that we had to be flexible with what we wanted to achieve. Being a self-initiated project, we had no budget and the hours we could commit to had to fit in with our jobs and other commitments. This resulted in many sleepless evenings and weekends, but also allowed us to form stronger bonds and develop a greater ability to work as a group. Due to time constraints, many ideas initially planned had to be rejected and the Dear John website was live for just over a month prior to October 9, 2004. Finally, we had to rise to the challenge of writing copy and press releases for the media – skills that are not commonly emphasised or inherent in our practice – and we managed to overcome these challenges by seeking advice and input by other practitioners.
A “Dear John letter” is a term derived from a WWII phenomenon in the US where wives or girlfriends wrote letters to their boyfriends or husbands who were servicemen stationed for long periods overseas in order to announce the break up of their relationship. We extended the Dear John concept, using an intimate tone and humorous language to give the public a forum to announce that they no longer wished to associate themselves with certain policies represented by John Howard, and why. We reinforced this message by asking people to vote Liberals last, but also to make their own choices on who to vote for. Various categories for possible Dear John letters were listed in order to capture as many different viewpoints as possible, ranging from national patriotism, concerns for the environment, treatment of asylum seekers and increases to university fees, et cetera (see Fig. 1 & 2). Some involved lengthy detailed letters, others were short and to-the-point. These ideas were then extended to t-shirts, posters, screen savers, badges and flyers. We wanted the messages to spread by “network activities” such as word-of-mouth and the use of email to forward funny jokes and pictures.
The Dear John website (fig. 3) housed 5 poster designs, 10 t-shirt designs, 13 versions of the Dear John letter, as well as badges, stickers and screensavers. The design of the website communicated an open, friendly feel, with downloads being available within 3-4 clicks. We also ensured that anyone with a basic home computer and printer could produce the posters and t-shirts themselves.
Each designed artefact invited different kinds of audience participation through the use of various tones, languages, visual styles and messages (fig. 4). Some utilised hand-drawn illustrations with a naïve and child-like quality in order to initiate a personal and intimate discourse. Artefacts that aimed at specific interests used a more direct language and referred to particular issues that might engage targeted responses. Other artefacts included simple ideas or instructions for DIY practice that might inspire people to develop their own message (fig. 5).
In order to be effective with those fatigued by cynicism or overwhelmed by rhetoric, we avoided polemical language. We also did not want Dear John to look like a political announcement. Our strategy relied on intimate, first person storytelling. We were not focussed on facts that aim at drawing parties into denials and counter attacks, instead we asked people to inform themselves on issues that mattered to them and choose who to vote for themselves. In order to facilitate this process, the Dear John site had links to most political parties and independent media outlets. This access to other websites fostered an independent way for people to source information.
Our site stood out from other political sites in its look, feel and ways of communicating. We mixed aesthetics with politics and the site became a ‘designed’ vehicle to share our concerns. Other political sites at the time relied on pushing information-intensive criticisms about the Howard government’s policies which did not consider how to effectively engage responses from their audience. Their approach seemed to be based on the assumption that factual information and reasoned argument is sufficient. It also highlighted they failed to consider the range of voters they wanted to communicate to, especially the undecided and less opinionated voters. From observation, these sites had the common element of talking AT their audience, assuming that the importance and seriousness of the content of their messages will make readers take note.
Through press-releases sent to broadsheet and tabloid newspapers, TV and radio stations and web publishing houses, Dear John received nation-wide public media coverage. In Melbourne, for instance, the A3 lifestyle section of The Age newspaper published a feature story with a full-page front cover colour photograph of people wearing Dear John t-shirts.5 In general, the media took a ‘politics and fashion’ angle without trivialising our cause or messages. Statistics of the website revealed that the highest number of hits and downloads occurred when it was mentioned in the media. We also received numerous e-mails from people who were encouraged or enraged by our site. The negative responses were few and far between and often assumed that we were pushing the Labour Party. However, such responses also indicated that Dear John was successful in getting people to actively engage with it. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence suggested that Dear John had spread through ‘network activities’, such as word of mouth and chance encounters, as we had hoped. For example, one person wrote to tell us they had been curious enough to visit the website because they had seen a waitress wearing a Dear John t-shirt.
Dear John then began appearing in websites related to political commentary and in personal blogs that, in turn, provided further links to the site. Within the first 2 weeks of operation the site received over 4,000 visitors with 150,000 hits. This indicated that most visitors were also downloading or forwarding items available on the site, actively spreading the messages through the networked community. By the Election Day on 9th October 2004, the site received 12,561 visitors and 550,000 hits.
The website also invited people to send back letters they wrote themselves and artworks they created in response to what we made available on the site which were then displayed on the site’s public gallery. This was considered to be an important aspect of Dear John as it would allow people to voice their opinions and, in effect, recreate the site as a public domain. We hoped that it might become a virtual space for people who, having a sense of solidarity in being concerned about the outcome of the election, might practice and participate in democracy. We felt that the presence of people on the site through photos and messages (see Fig.6) was important to bring the discourse back to the individual, and to demonstrate various ways people can be involved in and express opinions about politics.
As a practicing designer I have always felt a certain unease with the overemphasis of graphic design’s role in promoting consumerism in society. Amongst the literature in graphic design, the ‘First Things First manifesto’ is one of the most prominent texts in addressing such issues. The manifesto was initially penned in 1964 by Ken Garland but after being re-circulated in 2000 it ignited discussions in the design community about the ability of design to address social issues. It argues, ‘Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact. To some extent we are all helping draft a reductive and immeasurably harmful code of public discourse.’6 Although the manifesto has indeed prompted discourse amongst students and practitioners of graphic design, it appears to have also polarised debate. On the one hand criticism has been fired at designer’s pandering to capitalist consumption, while on the other, criticism is returned at what is argued to be the moral preaching that design should alleviate conditions of society. For this reason, I believe the debate does not offer any direction or an alternative model to how graphic designers can move forward.7
Within the debate on design’s social role, arguments for the designer’s social responsibility are still largely framed by charity and good intentions such as doing pro-bono work for socially oriented organisations, or using environmentally friendly methods of printing and production processes.8 However, the designer’s act of benevolence within such framework still operates on the same model of dictating a client-centred agenda with a controlled outcome to achieve a specific response from the audience. Here, graphic designers are perceived as the middle-people between client and audience so as to inform people of specific information for instance, or to sell or make commodities desirable through their packaging and advertising.9 In this model content is still a commodity—whether it be a product, an idea or a social issue—that is sold or told to the audience, implying a closed and concluded conversation because the objective is to limit the responses to only those desired.
However, in my view, the social aspect of graphic design might deploy communication as an exchange between participants involved in a two-way dialogue. For graphic design to fulfil its social role, I believe it needs to acknowledge the active role audience plays as participants within the communication exchange, and not limit audiences to passive and silent receivers of information.
In my opinion of the Dear John project, design’s role was different to the dominant model of design as it enabled audiences to create their own experience in communicating their message. Statistics of visitors and hits to the website—people sending photos, artworks and e-mails—publicly displayed the various ways in which our messages were received. More importantly, this feedback mechanism has enabled me to understand the power of design in affecting people in personal ways. Dear John project offered an alternative model to the social role of design.
The Dear John design team were aware that viral-marketing campaigns used in most commercial context was controversial due to its clandestine way of selling people a commodity without their awareness of such advertising taking place. Though Dear John relied on a similar method of the viral spread of ‘word-of mouth’ to reach people, I believe that Dear John had been transparent and open in it’s intention of engaging people to voice their own opinions. Rather than the ‘sell and tell’ role of conventional graphic design, Dear John actively encouraged people to choose how and what they wanted to say.
Even though Dear John declared its aim to defeat John Howard by voting Liberals last, in my view, this became a secondary purpose to the project. Within the context of the 2004 Australian national election, Dear John, as a design intervention, engaged people by enabling conversations to start, and people were encouraged to voice their concerns. The notion of providing opportunities for people to amplify their voices and creating a space for such voices to be shared and communicated, allowed a number of unique interactions. Dear John explored a broader application of the power of design by offering a different way for engaging the audience within a political campaign discourse. This different model of design, in my view, has potential to contribute to society in many ways, as it engages people to be active, thinking and decision-making participants of society through communication. Undertaking this project has raised further questions regarding the potential for such a model of engagement with the audience in the day-to-day practice of design within society.
From observation, it appears that there is a trend amongst certain technologies and entertainment in moving towards engaging a participatory response from audiences. Voting for eviction on Big Brother, interactive TV, mobile phone technology and an increasing number of ‘blogs’ (personal web journals) are providing opportunities for individuals to become co-creators of content, rather than passive receivers of information. However, the majority of such participatory activities are largely driven by commercial agendas and are far from promoting civic values.
Similarly, an increasing number of networked communities actively seek ways to question decision making processes, accountability, transparency and honesty within corporations and organizations. (Eg. Civic journalists like Margo Kingston’s Webdiary on the internet are joining a collective of independent media groups to provide an alternative to mainstream media). Dear John was a designer’s direct and personal response to the society we live in and to how people participate in it. However, looking back at the project with some distance, Dear John seems to have been a part of an increasing number of networked citizens forming a collective global movement in carving out the space for democratic practice.
1 Peter Downton, Design Research (Melbourne: RMIT University Press, 2003), 91.
2 Leon van Schaik, The practice of practice: practice based research in architecture (Melbourne: RMIT University Press, 2003), 13.
3 Jorge Frascara User-Centred Graphic Design: Mass Communications and Social Change (London: Taylor & Francis, 1995), 3.
4 Rick Poyner, Obey the Giant: Life in the Image World (London: Birkhauser, 2001), 8.
5 Matthew Murphy and Guy Gurgess “Keys to Power”, The Age, Sept. 30, 2004, A3 section, 4-5.
6 Rick Poynor, First Things First 2000, Eye Magazine 2001. http://www.eyemagazine.com/feature.php?id=18&fid=99. (accessed August 2005).
7 Steven Heller, Michael Bierut, and William Drenttel, Looking Closer: Critical writings on graphic design. Vol. 4, (New York: Allworth Press, 2002); Rick Poynor First Things First 2000.
8 Steven Heller & V. Vienne (eds.) Citizen Designer – Perspectives on Design Responsibility, (New York: Allworth Press, 2003).
9 Rick Poyner No more rules – graphic design and postmodernism (London: Laurence King, 2003).