Deanna Herst

Participatory design has changed the role of the designer: from an author of finished products, like books or furniture, into a developer of frameworks or structures of ‘open works’, like Wikipedia.

Where users have traditionally been guided by physical forms created by the designer (e.g. reading a book), in ‘open works’ they now share responsibility for the design (e.g. co-creating a chair), in a process directed by the designer. Within the context of participatory design, the concept of ‘user follows form’ appears to have been supplanted by the opposite approach: ‘form follows user’. In this scenario, the designer creates a framework that encourages the user to complete the form or product. What are the ramifications of this role-shifting for art and design education?

The ‘form follows user’ paradigm represents a shift towards the classical (modernist) notion of artistic authorship, traditionally defined by the ‘genius’ of the artist/designer.  DESIGNERS This perspective is especially relevant in art and design education, where authorship is legitimized from an artistic point of view and students are trained to become ‘authors’ by developing their individual aesthetics and signature. Within the context of participatory design, the challenge for art academies is to find and develop new ways to define the artistic signature in participatory authorship and to implement these methods within the educational program. Which areas need to be explored for graphic designers, product designers and other design professions?

From a functionalist point of view, a commonly applied property of participatory design is ‘usabilility’: ‘a method for improving ease-of-use during the design process’. 1 Usability concerns user accessibility and implies a corresponding experience and equal resonance for every user. For art academies, however it is equally important, if not more important so, to also identify aesthetic parameters, complementing the functional properties of the designed object. Within the context of new kinds of authorship, fields such as participatory aesthetics or creative strategies for involving users will need to be explored further. A starting point could be the exploration of the ‘open form’. In The Poetics of the Open Work, Umberto Eco describes the artistic use of the open form as follows:

The author offers … the addressee a work to be completed. He does not know the exact fashion in which his work will be concluded, but he is aware that once completed the work in question will still be his own. … At the end of the interpretative dialogue, a form which is his form will have been organized. […] The author is the one who proposed a number of possibilities which had already been rationally organized, oriented, and endowed with specifications for proper development. 2

This quote pinpoints the role and position of a designer in a participatory situation. For art and design students, the awareness of creative responsibility for the ‘open form’ is an essential point of departure: how do you design rules for the user? A possible next step could be the exploration of participatory strategies derived from other disciplines, for instance storytelling. Anthropologist Marilyn Strathern has identified an effective participatory strategy: ‘In some Papua New Guinean traditions [...] people are told half a story, and have to find the other half from within themselves – or from someone else’. 3 This approach is comparable to the Surrealist model of the cadavre equis; both offer a structure that, by its form, triggers its users. In these examples, form follows user, but in the end it is the designer who issues the invitation.

  1. Nielsen, J, Ten Usability Heuristics. Available online at , accessed on 19 October 2010.
  2. Eco, U, The Poetics of the Open Work. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1989.
  3. Strathern, M, ‘Imagined Collectivities and Multiple Authorship’, in Ghosh, R (ed.) CODE: Collaborative Ownership and the Digital Economy. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2005. E-book available online at , accessed on 13 January 2011.
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