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Salena Burke

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How Can Participatory Design Shift Designers to More Equitable and Inclusive Design

Design is the process of creating an object, system, or service to meet the requirement of an intended user. It involves various tools, methods, and practices to achieve a desired outcome. Design plays an essential role in shaping how we interact with the world.

Design is in an era of design and social justice; participatory design is an essential tool to assist designers in addressing complex issues beyond objects. Gjoko Muratowski described Design as the evolution of design discipline as a paradigm shift from production-oriented to service-oriented[1]. Design can shape social structures and increase awareness of Design's impact on systemic change. This shifts designers from focusing on products to focusing on complex problems surroundings systematic issues.

Participatory design is a collaborative approach that brings awareness and possibility to social justice and future work. Unfortunately, it brings about discourse across disciplines because it redefines who the expert is. However, applying design practices like participatory design beyond the normal design context is bound to bring up issues that require Design to adapt and change to stay in tune with its new role in its new environment[2]. Design is pushing the boundaries into industries beyond its original scope because systemic issues are impacting social systems around the world. As organizations struggle to respond to a world where problems are becoming more open, complex, and increasingly networked, many have turned to design thinking to obtain solutions and achieve innovation[3]. Design theory and practice have always been concerned with social systems; this new trend in design and social justice and social inequities highlights the failures in democratic processes and renascent the popularity of design practices[4]. Irwin et al. describe the need for design to facilitate a transition into a new way of inhabiting the world[5].

Contemporary participatory design suggests a move away from the engagement of limited stakeholders in preconfigured design processes and predefined technology outcomes towards complex and long-term engagement with heterogeneous communities and larger ecologies of social and technological transformation[6]. A broader, inclusive approach that engages diverse communities and ecosystems is essential to produce sustainable and equitable outcomes. Designers must include those often marginalized or excluded from the traditional design process when working on complex problems surrounding systematic issues.

Design is a powerful tool with consequences that can affect the user. Hence, it is essential to involve users in designing, but equally important, to put the knowledge learned from research into practice outside academia. The "term 'practice' in this sense refers to the habitual actions or action patterns that can be identified within particular social groups, and the aim is to be able to classify social norms for normative theories of action to be established." [7] Participatory approach commands the researcher to ensure that research produces knowledge for both researcher and participant. The purpose of research should be two-fold; to continue to bring knowledge to the research community, but more importantly, to provide knowledge that will provide solutions to the public. Participatory design is a promising method that allows full engagement of participants, but how do researchers define PD?

Participatory Design has become a commonly used methodological approach, given its promise of democratizing design[8]. There is a collection of knowledge and recognition of qualitative values on participatory design in the social science space. However, in the field of Design, participatory is understood as the possibility of active user intervention in project development, which fosters the subsequent appropriation of the products by users and the improvement of final results[9]. According to the Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design, participatory design is investigating, understanding, reflecting upon, establishing, developing, and supporting mutual learning between multiple participants, users, and designers. [10] The participants and researchers work together to understand the issue from the user's perspective and how Design can help create a solution. Franke and his co-authors define this process better with the concept of lead-user theory, in which they state that "lead users are defined as members of a user population who (1) anticipate obtaining relatively high benefits from obtaining a solution to their needs, and so may innovate and (2) are at the leading edge of important trends in a marketplace under study and so are currently experiencing needs that many users in that marketplace will later experience."[11] This principle is based on the concept that a complex system cannot successfully change without the participation of those impacted by the change.

Equally crucial to participation is the knowledge gained from the researcher and how that new knowledge is used. Vaughan states that "the research aim of the degree is to produce an original contribution to knowledge in the form of a thesis. Within the thesis, the student is required to provide evidence that they have read the 'literature' of their field and have positioned their research in relation to this." [12] However, combining knowledge generated from practitioners coupled with research generates what Vaughan calls designer-practitioner-researcher. Vaughan "emphasizes that expertise acquired outside a field is not necessarily superior to, or even relevant to, the expertise of the practitioner inside the field." [13]

Scholars who engage in participatory design consider it a form of social action, mimicking methods such as Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) and Participatory Action Research (PAR)[14]. PAR focused on communities with the objective of sharing knowledge through a collaborative process. Harrington et al. argue that situating the individual as a co-creator and collaborative partner promise to allow individuals who are directly impacted by a phenomenon or technological intervention to play an active role in the design process[15]. Participatory action research allows designers to work with people, use iteration and reflection, and measure success through change[16]. The three central tenets of PAR are living in society (participatory), experience (action), and the search for knowledge (research)[17]. Instead of working with objects, PAR focuses on people and communities.

To be influential designers, we must redefine the makeup of design professionals, empathize and understand the end user, and discern the impact of user participation. Unfortunately, or maybe, fortunately, this may require the redefinition of design. "Digital technologies have pushed designers into embracing unprecedented rules for design, based on interactivity and user participation; design comes to be seen as collaborative, plural, participatory, and distributed."[18] As a result, design is being transformed into practice, and real-world people are replacing personas and simulations. Arturo Escobar presents a concept that embraces diverse and multiple opportunities that actual users cultivate called Pluiverse.[19] Design must engage users in the process of making from a participatory, human-centered, and socially oriented perspective. As we attempted to design for the desired purpose for all users, there must be a paradigm shift from performing tasks as usual and focusing on user innovation or project-led approaches. Different concepts have emerged with the design justice movement, which aims to reshift design practice from traditional methods that create inequality to a more equitable and inclusive approach. As designers continue to explore different methodologies, we, as a design community, will become closer to design for all people.

1 Gjoko Muratovski, “Paradigm Shift: Report on the New Role of Design in Business and Society,” She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation 1, no. 2 (2015): 118–39,

2 Kees Dorst, “Design beyond Design,” She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation 5, no. 2 (2019): 117–27,

3 Dorst.

4 Richard Buchanan, “Systems Thinking and Design Thinking: The Search for Principles in the World We Are Making,” She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation 5, no. 2 (2019): 85–104,

5 Terry Irwin, Gideon Kossoff, and Cameron Tonkinwise, “Transition Design Provocation,” Design Philosophy Papers 13, no. 1 (January 2, 2015): 3–11,

6 Rachel Charlotte Smith and Ole Sejer Iversen, “Participatory Design for Sustainable Social Change,” Design Studies 59 (November 2018): 9–36,

7 Vaughan.

8 Harrington, Erete, and Piper, “Deconstructing Community-Based Collaborative Design.”

9 Cristiele A. Scariot, Adriano Heemann, and Stephania Padovani, “Understanding the Collaborative-Participatory Design,” Work 41 (2012): 2701–5,

10 Jesper Simonsen and Toni Robertson, eds., Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design, Routledge International Handbooks (New York London: Routledge Taylor & Francis, 2013).

11 Nikolaus Franke, Eric von Hippel, and Martin Schreier, “Finding Commercially Attractive User Innovations: A Test of Lead-User Theory*,” Journal of Product Innovation Management 23, no. 4 (July 2006): 301–15,

12 Vaughan, Practice-Based Design Research.

13 Vaughan.

15 Harrington, Erete, and Piper, “Deconstructing Community-Based Collaborative Design.”

16 Aidan Rowe, “Participatory Action Research and Design Pedagogy: Perspectives for Design Education,” Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education 19, no. 1 (April 1, 2020): 51–64,

17 Robin McTaggart, “Principles for Participatory Action Research,” Adult Education Quarterly 41, no. 3 (September 1991): 168–87,

18 Escobar, Designs for the Pluriverse.

19 Escobar.



Buchanan, Richard. "Systems Thinking and Design Thinking: The Search for Principles in the World We Are Making." She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation 5, no. 2 (2019): 85–104.

Dorst, Kees. "Design beyond Design." She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation 5, no. 2 (2019): 117– 27.

Drame, Elizabeth R., and Decoteau J. Irby, eds. Black Participatory Research: Power, Identity, and the Struggle for Justice in Education. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Franke, Nikolaus, Eric von Hippel, and Martin Schreier. "Finding Commercially Attractive User Innovations: A Test of Lead-User Theory*." Journal of Product Innovation Management 23, no. 4 (July 2006): 301–15.

Harrington, Christina, Sheena Erete, and Anne Marie Piper. "Deconstructing Community-Based Collaborative Design: Towards More Equitable Participatory Design Engagements." Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 3, no. CSCW (November 7, 2019): 1–25.

Irwin, Terry, Gideon Kossoff, and Cameron Tonkinwise. "Transition Design Provocation." Design Philosophy Papers 13, no. 1 (January 2, 2015): 3–11.

McTaggart, Robin. "Principles for Participatory Action Research." Adult Education Quarterly 41, no. 3 (September 1991): 168–87.

Muratovski, Gjoko. "Paradigm Shift: Report on the New Role of Design in Business and Society." She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation 1, no. 2 (2015): 118–39.

Rowe, Aidan. "Participatory Action Research and Design Pedagogy: Perspectives for Design Education." Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education 19, no. 1 (April 1, 2020): 51–64.

Scariot, Cristiele A., Adriano Heemann, and Stephania Padovani. "Understanding the Collaborative-Participatory Design." Work 41 (2012): 2701–5.

Simonsen, Jesper, and Toni Robertson, eds. Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design. Routledge International Handbooks. New York London: Routledge Taylor & Francis, 2013.

Smith, Rachel Charlotte, and Ole Sejer Iversen. "Participatory Design for Sustainable Social Change." Design Studies 59 (November 2018): 9–36.

Vaughan, Laurene, ed. Practice-Based Design Research. London Oxford New York New Delhi Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

Wiesmann, U. N., S. DiDonato, and N. N. Herschkowitz. “Effect of Chloroquine on Cultured Fibroblasts: Release of Lysosomal Hydrolases and Inhibition of Their Uptake.” Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications 66, no. 4 (October 27, 1975): 1338–43.

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