Creating Technology for Social Change

Visual Approaches to Illustrating the Field of Co-Design

Together with Sasha Costanza-Chock and Molly Sauter, I’m planning to make a visual map of co-design. Thus far, this has involved learning about co-design, meeting co-designers in the UK, and familiarising myself with theories of co-design.

Now that the field is coming into focus for me, I’m starting to make decisions about what things to include, and what visual approaches to take. Here are some of my initial thoughts.

I think that a timeline will be very helpful in the upcoming class Sasha is teaching on co-design. Timelines are very good at setting something in context, showing how a trend develops over time, and presenting a pile of names and examples in a narrative (see the Design History Timeline as an example).

Since co-design is partly a reaction against mass production, I expect that the timeline I develop for co-design will show precursors to co-design such as the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Henry Mercer Museum, and custom manufacturing such as the Baldwin Locomotive Works. I also plan to show notable contrasts to co-design, such as project Cybersyn, which was democratic in nature, but still not developed with a co-design process. Amongst all of this of course will be as many examples and theories and practitioners of co-design which I can find.

Timelines alone are not sufficient, especially because they tend to reinforce a Whiggish misrepresentation of a subject. Here are some of the other visual approaches I’m considering:

Showing interconnectedness is an approach I love, especially coming from the field of hypertext (here is my visual map of the first book of Euclid). Nevertheless, I was skeptical that this would help illustrate co-design as a field. Then I read Gerhard Fisher’s paper on Understanding, Fostering, and Supporting Participatory Cultures. Gerhardt’s paper is a deeply intertwingled big ideas paper which connects many disparate themes of design and participation. At points, the paper reaches as many as six levels of sub-hierarchy, with large numbers of interconnections. The connections between ideas seem very important in co-design theory and practice, and a linked diagram may help highlight the nature of those connections.

Venn Diagrams
I am very suspicious of Venn diagrams, which present vague impressions as opaque membership in clear boundaries. Venn diagrams are even worse when we apply them to more than two or three things, since they often distort the importance of some things while also creating spaces of absurdity from the intersections of ideas not meant to touch. I do admit that the basic activity of placing discrete objects onto a Venn Diagram is useful: determining if something is in a set or not. Nevertheless, like the edge cases which so often arise when using Venn diagrams, I’m on the fence.

Visual Metaphors
I have been convinced by Fred Brooks, Mitch Resnick, Dave Gray, and Hiroshi Ishii that visual metaphors are an essential part of developing a design philosophy. Towards that end, I am collecting visual metaphors relevant to co-design as part of this project. As I collect them, I will be keeping in mind Alan Blackwell’s excellent piece on A Taxonomy of Diagram Taxonomies.

Visual Processes
Nathan Eng, a friend of mine who is a researcher at Imperial College London, has reminded me that visual tools can also be used to support the design process itself. This is an area I’m personally very interested in, as it connects with my prior research on collaboration with visual software. Despite this, I think that visual practices to support co-design are likely to appear within my visual map of co-design than constitute an independent section.

Many practitioners of co-design choose to document their sessions using slideshows. I’m toying with the idea of collecting some of these slideshows for this project. If you can share any especially good examples, please do!

Next Steps
I’m starting with the timeline, so if there is anything you think should go on it, please please please post it in the comments, and I’ll consider it. I hope to have some initial drafts in the coming week or two.