Mathias Poulsen

Play Activist & Researcher @ Designskolen Kolding

Democracy & design – fruitful tensions?

It’s funny. When I’m at work, surrounded by skilled designers and talented design students, I feel a little bit like an imposter, because I am not trained as a designer. Then, when I’m among democracy scholars and political scientists, as I have recently been at the ECPR (European Consortium for Political Research) workshop “Democratic Assemblage: Innovating Democracy in a Connected World“, it gets worse, because I’m even less of a political scientist than I am a designer. I realise all this “impostering” is a bit silly, and to be honest, I feel very welcome both here and there, even if I might be the odd one out. Regardless, I was surprised to find myself repeatedly speaking up for design at the workshop.

I should write a separate post about the experience and our conversations around democratic assemblages because it was all so immensely inspiring, thought-provoking and fruitful. For a newcomer to the ECPR community, I felt more heartily welcomed than I could ever have hoped for. They even invited me to host a small play session at the beginning, where I cheekily asked everyone to roleplay as an object they had found on their way to Toulouse. That was a lot of fun!

Such brilliant, sweet, generous people, who seemed to share a longing for better, more inclusive, diverse and vibrant democratic societies and practices. It reminded me of Tsings’s appealing notion of an “intellectual woodland” where “scholarship () emerges through its collaborations” (2015). In that spirit, this post is not meant as criticism, but rather as an invitation for collaboration, following design researchers Ståhl and Lindström’s proposal to make invitations that articulate “an area of curiosity, as opposed to defining a problem” (2014). My area of curiosity here is found in the tensions between democratic theory and design research I noticed repeatedly. This is something I have seen in democratic theory before, and when reading the papers for the workshop, it came yet again to the fore. The papers were mostly a kind of work-in-progress, so I won’t quote them here, but I will try to draw a few general points to discuss the somewhat uneasy relationship between democratic theory and design. What struck me was how there seems to be a general scepticism towards design, apparently related to a more or less widespread understanding of design as a conservative force favouring institutions and those in power, to be blunt.

First, design is routinely used without much unpacking and with little, if any, references, as if we all already knows what design entails. As Saward argues, design in democratic theory is typically “treated as a straightforward placeholder for more standard political science terms such as ‘change’, ‘choice’, or ‘institution’.”” (2021). To me, it seems that design is frequently treated as a placeholder for control or, perhaps more to the point, centralised control.

Design is often framed as something that is imposed from above as an instrument of power (which, granted, it certainly can be and I’m highly sceptical of “participation washing”). In such a process of designing, the lived experiences of citizens are all but absent, and one participant mentioned that design “falls short in capturing everyday practice”. Sometimes, democratic institutions and processes are described as “over-designed”, apparently meaning that too much has been determined in advance as a strictly sequenced series of event, leaving little to no space for citizens to intervene or change the trajectory.

With this logic, which I may be exaggerating and stretching a bit, but not much, design is problematic because it limits the capacity for open-ended citizen participation. As such, design becomes the enemy of the unpredictable, the possible, the barely imaginable. If something is designed, we can only do what the design – and the designers – permit.

This almost sound undemocratic, right?

In that light, I understand why there seems to a certain reluctance, sometimes almost animosity, towards design. Granted, there are numerous examples of things, services, processes, and systems designed like this, in democratic institutions and elsewhere. I want to argue that this is not, however, due to some inherent logic of design. If I were to guess, the reasons for these “over-designed” systems are to be found at least as much with those requesting the design – and maybe to some extent with democratic theory itself? Has the field, perhaps unwittingly, fostered expectations of participatory processes, such as the much celebrated deliberative mini-publics, as being orderly, linear and with somewhat predictable outcomes? This is pure speculation on my part, I merely want to suggest that the work of any designer is always highly context sensitive.

Since there is much literature I haven’t read, I make no claims to any universal truth here, I am simply observing some patterns in what I have read and heard. I see some attempts at more nuanced and elaborate investigations of design from the perspective of democratic theory, where especially Michael Saward takes important steps towards bringing democracy and design closer together (2021). However, I also find Saward’s use of Parson’s definition of design to be somewhat reductive: “Design is the intentional solution of a problem, by the creating of plans for a new sort of thing, where the plans would not be immediately seen, by a reasonable person, as an inadequate solution” (Parsons in Saward, 2021)

Design, as I hope to show, is much more than “the intentional solution of a problem”. In fact, what strikes me as particularly curious about these conceptions of design is that they seem almost antithetical to how design and design research is understood and practiced in the circles I traverse. Let me share just a few examples from design research. They should not at all be seen as exhaustive or representative, but they might hopefully give us a better impression of these diverging understandings.

Eva Brandt (who also happens to be my excellent colleague and supervisor) and Thomas Binder described what they called “experimental design research”: “As opposed to design science and design studies, design research as a label is used both to point to a particular aspect of professional practice () and as a particular designerly mode of scholarly inquiry often called practice-based research, that accommodates artistically oriented explorations of scholarly themes” (2007).

A few things stand out. First, the experimental nature of design research, and the orientation towards the artistic. Both point to uncertainty, unpredictability, and creative inquiries into the unknown. Brandt and Binder continued their work with experimental design research, contributing to the growing field of “constructive design research”, where “construction — be it product, system, space, or media — takes center place and becomes the key means in constructing knowledge” (Koskinen et al, 2011).

If we look to the “hybrid” discipline of “design anthropology” and the anthology “Design Anthropological Future”, the editors argue that “futures are not understood as striking visions created and implemented by scientists or designers, but rather as collaborative explorations of situated possibilities, formations and actions at the intersection of design and everyday life.” (Smith et al, 2016)

Further, they seek to “continue the development of conceptual and practical tools for inquiry into contemporary phenomena that are emergent and under-determined, and where pasts, presents and futures are closely linked and mutually constituted. One way of doing this is to engage in design anthropological speculations about how things could actually – not just in principle – be different.” (ibid)

Perhaps we can already start to think of democratic inquiries as “collaborative explorations of situated possibilities (and) contemporary phenomena that are emergent and under-determined (in) everyday life? Not much is guaranteed, predicted or controlled there.

In the same book, Binder also writes about “encountering the possible”, a phrase I quite like: “we encounter the possible as a path to pursue, a landscape to venture into: a path that does not break away from the present, but on the contrary opens a way from the well-known everyday of the collaborators towards the world of the ‘what if’ of virtuality, instrumented and mediated by the collaborative encounter. () the centrepiece in our research has been the staging of collaborative encounters and the formation of third spaces in which everyday experiences are reconstructed through design interventions”. (ibid)

The notion of “what if” is common in design research, inviting and facilitating the exploration of “the possible” – possible futures, in this case.

In a similar vein, Halse and Boffi propose that “design interventions can be seen as a form of inquiry that is particularly relevant for investigating phenomena that are not very coherent, barely possible, almost unthinkable, and consistently under-specified because they are still in the process of being conceptually and physically articulated.” (2014)

While some very reasonable criticism has been leveraged at Dunne and Raby for their work on “critical design”, they have, however, asked important questions, such as this: “Where can new worldviews be developed, how can they be used to generate new visions for everyday life?” (2013)

By doing so, and by insisting that design does not have to deliver solutions, I believe they have contributed to a stronger language and awareness on a broader raison d’etre of design: “There are no solutions in these projects or even answers, just questions, thoughts, ideas, and possibilities, all expressed through the language of design. They probe our beliefs and values, challenge our assumptions and encourage us to imagine how what we call nature could be different. They help us see that the way things are now is just one possibility and not necessarily the best one.” (ibid)

This is a fundamental pursuit of design – to insist that everything could essentially be different, and to explore and prefigure how that difference might play out.

Where critical design has been criticised for sustaining a privileged position to the designer, allowing non-designers mostly to interact with or observe the results of design, speculative design is often framed as more participatory processes. As an example, Light seeks to “show the value of speculation as a collective and co-created process” by “engaging a group of participants in developing their own concerns, offering them the chance to hold the world in their hands and to account for it.” (2021)

Design research is often quirky, playful and with a certain amount of mischief. Take the paper “Anti-Solutionist Strategies: Seriously Silly Design Fiction” (Blythe et al, 2016), which “reject the search for solutions and deliberately seek to create unuseless, partial or silly objects”:

“We are not arguing that these anti-solutionist strategies inoculate the researcher against solutionism. They are not a first stage of problem exploration that will inform the later and more serious solution development state of a process. We claim that they are of value in and of themselves in that they explicitly reject the notion that complex social, political and geographical phenomena like ageing populations are technological problems to be solved.” (ibid)

In this context, it is also interesting to note how many designers have, in recent decades, been seeking to subvert certain images of design, that were probably closer to the way design is still described in democratic theory. Li Jönsson, for instance, described how she struggled with notions of the designer as a “form-giver, problemsolver, and forecaster of certain future aesthetics”, when she wanted instead to “accommodate a designerly engagement that does not contribute to quick solutions to a problem, but a practice that opens up for alternative ways of understanding, intervening, and expanding issues.” (2014)

Let us end this whirlwind-paced walk through the hugely varied topography of design research with a book that engages directly with democracy, Carl DiSalvo’s “Design as Democratic Inquiry” (2022). First, DiSalvo is suggests that design can be seen as a mode of “democratic inquiry into diverse civics”:

“In such a practice designing is, at one and the same time, a way of participating in anticipatory worlds through making and an endeavor through which to reflect on the conditions that might make those worlds possible, desirable, or not. Designing becomes a way to care, together, for our collective futures.”

DiSalvo, along with a growing number of designers, questions the heroic narratives of individual designers who swoop in and save the day:

“Describing this work as collective and collaborative, attending to the labor of all involved, is part of what needs to be done to counter those stories that mythologize the individual maker and valorize the presumed expertise of the professional designer. () By acknowledging the influence of design as limited, I hope to offer a theorization of design that recognizes how designers might aspire to participate in democracy, while remaining self-effacing about the effects of that participation. This does not mean such design is useless or token. Rather, I merely seek to recognize that such design is often modest. (ibid)

Finally, I appreciate how DiSalvo draws connections between design, democracy and practices of care, noting that they are all in perpetual states of becoming:

“Both design and democracy, in this sense, are process-oriented. They are undertakings that are ongoing, that find value in the action of that undertaking, in the doing of design and democracy. Care is similarly process-oriented. We continue to practice care, even as our actions fall short, even as our conditions are compromised, even as the goals we work toward fail to be realized. Care is not characterized by its “success.” (ibid)

As I said, I don’t seek to paint a complete or even coherent picture here, I merely want to tease out the impression that design and design research are quite different from the narrow and almost derogatory way it is sometimes used in democratic theory. Across these overlapping strands of design research, I see numerous recurring themes and patterns in what is valued and appreciated. Recent trends in design emphasise empathy, care, and sensitivity in processes of close collaboration, involving both humans and non-humans within situated practices. Design research typically unfolds through constructive processes, where we are “exploring the possible through making” (Binder & Brandt, 2017), and designers seek to create a “more level playing field for participants, through materiality that engenders a more participatory mindset and results in better outcomes for participation in design processes” (Khan et al, 2020). These practices and processes are almost always open-ended, creative, experimental, often playful, unstable and unpredictable. Many stress that ambiguity (Gaver et al, 2003; Linse, 2017) and uncertainty (Pink et al, 2018) are not problems to solve, but catalysts of fruitful tensions and frictions, prisms through which we can see the world anew.

These are just some of the traits of design research I am particularly interested in. If I compare those with the areas of democratic theory I am drawn to, I sense a much stronger affinity than is typically acknowledged (from both sides). In general, I am inspired by all the many democracy scholars who are curious and persistent about making possible, in theory and practice, a broader and more diverse participatory repertoire to cultivate more democratic democracies.

At the workshop, as in current democratic theory more broadly, many such inquiries were oriented towards the concept of “democratic innovations”, which Graham Smith (2009) defined as “institutions that have been specifically designed to increase and deepen citizen participation in the political decision-making process”. More recently, this definition has been revisited and expanded by Elstub and Escobar to cover: “processes or institutions that are new to a policy issue, policy role, or level of governance, and developed to reimagine and deepen the role of citizens in governance processes by increasing opportunities for participation, deliberation and influence” (2019)

Clearly, this second definition can accommodate a greater range of initiatives, not least by including “processes” alongside “institutions”, potentially including more informal processes that are less determined by formal institutions. The revision should also be seen as an attempt at reconciling some of the critical voices arguing that the concept of “deliberative democracy has become too hegemonic” (Smith, 2019) within the domain of democratic innovations. I agree with those who argue that deliberation is but one aspect of both democratic innovations and democratic participation more broadly, even if deliberation has attracted most of the attention in recent years. Following Pateman, I am interested in “democratizing democracy”, seeking “changes that will make our own social and political life more democratic, that will provide opportunities for individuals to participate in decision-making in their everyday lives as well as in the wider political system.” (2012). I find a similar motivation with Bua and Bussu, who seek to “reinvent democratic innovations” by paying greater attention to grassroots politics and progressive movements. They propose the concept of “democracy-driven governance” (2023) to describe “the kinds of participatory projects that arise when social movements engage with participatory deliberative institutional design, as part of their strategy to reclaim the state” and to “demonstrate the possibility of other worlds” (ibid).

It is intriguing to me how a growing number of scholars are pushing the boundaries of “democratic innovations”, both when it comes to the highly popular deliberative initiatives, and other forms of democratic participation. Take, for instance, Toby Rollo’s argument that we should consider people’s deeds as legitimate democratic contributions, alongside their words: “It is () no less a violation of democratic ideals to demand speech from citizens who wish to contribute in silence through their everyday deeds than it is to impose silence on those who wish to contribute through their speech.” (2016). Parry and Curato follow the same line of reasoning when they argue that, also in deliberation, it is important to better grasp “alternative forms of speech, those that do not rely on the aural quality of voice but rely on the creative, playful, emotional, sometimes carnivalesque forms of claimmaking” (2018). Similarly, Papacharissi argues that there is a need for “opportunities that invite joyful, playful, and more meaningful interaction between citizens” (2021). Further pursuing this possibility of playful engagement, Hans Asenbaum and Frederic Hanusch proposed the concept of “democratic playgrounds” (2021) that might “afford avenues towards democratic serendipity which might bring about alternative, more democratic futures” (I almost have to mention that when Hans shared this this particular paper with me, it marked the beginning of my journey into several inspiring communities of democratic theorists, including visiting the “Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance” last year and the ECPR workshop last week).

Finally, I agree with Felicetti that “we need a renewed effort to understand what democratic practices are and how they can lead theorizing in new directions” (2021) as well as Asenbaum who suggest that the “goal of democratic theorizing is to enhance agency, inclusion and transparency in the process of generating democratic theory.” (2022)

Both Felicetti and Asenbaum stress that there is also a need for democratic theorizing that follows both new and existing practices without a predefined expectation of how or even whether they might be democratic. That calls for more open-ended, experimental approaches with a looser and less restrictive hold on already established principles. For instance, with the massive focus on deliberation, what are the possible democratic practices that we don’t see or appreciate? The voices we don’t hear? The worlds we can’t imagine?

I have read (and met) many eminent democracy scholars, who seem to share a longing for more vibrant, creative, engaging, experimental, open-ended encounters, where citizens develop a sense of ownership, can influence the trajectory of their participation, express themselves in more ways than only through talk-centric deliberation. This is also what I am drawn to, embedded in the ideals of a more widespread “democratization of democracy” (Pateman, 2012), which pertains as much to a lively democratic culture as democratic institutions, echoing the familiar notion that “democracy is a reality only as it is indeed a commonplace of living” (Dewey, 1939). That again calls for “the remaking of everyday interaction and thinking patterns in a democratic fashion.” (Asenbaum, 2021)

Such ideals and aspirations, I would argue, could be greatly enriched through a much closer and deeper dialogue with design, and perhaps it’s time to revisit Binder et al’s call for “democratic design experiments” (Binder et al, 2015)? Conducting democratic design experiments entails “making issues experientially available to such an extent that ‘the possible’ becomes tangible” in a continued search for “new forms of emerging publics and aiming to enrich the repertoire of democratic forms of expression” (ibid). It doesn’t sound too far removed from “democratic innovations”, does it?

I want to stress that I’m not trying to gloss over or conceal the fact that the broader field of design remains fraught with problems. On the contrary, I believe that much of Papanek’s famous and harsh critique of design remains true to this day. He claimed that there are “professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them” (1973), and he called for a “high social and moral responsibility from the designer” (ibid). Have we yet fully realised those important ideals in the broad field of design? No, clearly not. However, I see many researchers and practitioners trying to invoke fundamental changes to the field, and there are also a growing choir of voices speaking up against the injustices of design, such as Tunstall’s “Decolonizing design: A cultural justice guidebook” (2023) and Costanza-Chock’s “Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need” (2020), to mention but a few recent and important contributions.

Further, the relationship between democracy and design is reciprocal, and it is not that design holds all the answers. Far from it. While design in general, most notably Participatory Design (see Bødker et al, 2022 for a recent introduction), has long been concerned with democratic issues, there seems to be less engagement with contemporary democratic theory. The conception of democracy is certainly more robust with some design researchers than with others, yet I have no doubt that the field of design research could – and should – grow much stronger roots in democratic theory.

In other words: where democratic theory tends to perpetuate a simplified and narrow conception of design, design research is at times guilty of similar transgressions with democratic theory. Both fields could benefit from much richer cross-pollination, and maybe by “listening across differences”, as Iris Marion Young put it, there is room for more rewarding conversations?

As I stated initially, this whole post should be seen less as criticism and more as an invitation, an attempt at strengthening relations and reinvigorating collaboration across the fields of democratic theory and design.

Knowing amazing people in both fields, that’s certainly a party I’d love to attend.


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