Participation in charrettes is crucial for practicing how to run through the design process and conduct quick prototyping sessions to solve problems. Working within constraints is the most important part about these sessions. Participated in:
- Temple Design Challenge 2013, 2014
- University of the Arts Applied Design Lab, 2012, 2013
- Designing for Public Conversation Design Sprint
Highlight: Designing for Public Conversation: “Citizen Kindness Exchange” AAR
Sprint duration: One week.
Team size: two designers.
Prompt: Design a scenario/intervention for a public conversation around a topic that is situated in a specific public space in Philadelphia, PA.
We had just one week to run through the entire design process and with a very open prompt, my teammate and I (Min Yeh) set out on an exciting adventure of exploration, learning and designing.
Before touring the city and beginning our research, we tried to understand what it means to design a conversation: we looked at what other designers have created and we tried to understand Pangaro and Dubberly’s model for designing conversations. Finally, we tried to get all our assumptions out by writing down what we expected to see (possible places, people, things that are missing, etc.). All of this pre-tour preparation helped us clear our minds and be open to looking for different possibilities.
We later set out to observe and absorb what Philadelphia’s public spaces have to offer. It was extremely cold outside, so there were fewer people than usual. Nevertheless, we were determined and had our eyes wide open. Places we considered and visited included: public parks, City Hall, China Town, Reading Terminal Market area, North Broad Street, South Broad Street, News and Food stands, street intersections, bus stops, train stations, and the Concourse.
After gathering our mainly qualitative research, we headed back to the studio and started to synthesize and make sense of what we had observed on our tour. We used the AEIOU method to organize our information and began to see patterns immerge. We asked ourselves the question:
What is a meaningful conversation/interaction between users of the space that can generate learning/exchange between participants through utilizing/activating the space? How can we design an intervention that sparks this conversation?
Up to this point we had not yet ruled out any of the observed public spaces and we started to brainstorm on possible ways to answer our question. Of the ideas we had, we were focused on involving the types of people who pass through this space, as well as a way to incorporate an element of the public space into our prototype. After much deliberation and countless efforts to frame our intervention, from incorporating the “LOVE” statue into our prototype to sparking a conversation between security/government personal with the homeless who take shelter in the Concourse, we reached our AHA! Moment.
We wanted to spark a public conversation about another sense of citizenship. Center City has some beautiful architectural structures and a long history and connection to the founding of this nation, but the heart of the city only beats because of the people that pass and flow through it. To us, citizenship is much more than the right to vote. It is a social bond between members of a community. In the words of Peter Block in his book Community:
“A citizen is one who is willing to be accountable for and committed to the well-being of the whole. That whole can be a city block, a community, a nation, the Earth. […] Citizenship is a state of being. It is a choice for activism and care.”
We thought, what better location to strengthen this bond with a conversation between citizens than the place that connects the city to the larger government. It is a place that screams grandness, and connects us individually to the whole but doesn’t strengthen our bond with each other. That place to us is City Hall. A beautiful national landmark, with a center meant to be a public square.
After declaring what we wanted to say and where we wanted to say it, we went on to focus our research and began to brainstorm the best way that we can say it. Countless ideas for prototypes emerged on ways we can spark a conversation and activate the space. We looked at more examples of design work in this realm (Candy Chang’s work, and even the Hide Park Speakers Corner inspired our intervention). We ideated on a prototype and we pursued it.
Our prototype/design intervention was finally refined to having the users of the space exchange kindnesses. Participants would be given the prompt “I would like to give you a _____” and they are asked to fill in the blank with a kindness. The completed prompt is folded and placed in a box, and in exchange the participant chooses someone else’s completed prompt out of the box. In that action, the participant makes a kind of connection with her or his fellow citizens.
Before setting out to implement/test our prototype, I was personally a little nervous that no one would approach us or participate in our conversation exchange. Never had I tapped people on the back and asked them to participate in an activity so publicly. I was also afraid that setting up on a city landmark (the ground mural in the center square that represents the very center point of Philadelphia) that we might be approached by security and be asked to leave the space (especially since there were signs all over City Hall stating that the place is always under surveillance). Nevertheless, I reminded myself that my teammate and I are not only facilitating the conversation but as citizens (no matter what our nationality) we are participating in it.
Our timing couldn’t be better. Just around lunchtime and with no rain to intervene in our test, we set our prototype in the center and we began to approach passers by to participate in this fun quick activity. I wasn’t sure what to expect at first but after a good deal of nice participants my initial concerns turned into a wonderful experience. Of course, it took some reading people to know whether or not they’d be open to join. But a lot of people were engaged and drawn by the element of mystery and surprise that we incorporated into our design. They wanted to know what they were going to get out of the mystery box. To read such a direct message from a stranger that says “I would like to give you a ‘hug’” was more powerful than we thought when we were trying to compose just the right prompt. Reading a kindness from someone else dedicated to “you” put a smile on most of our participants faces. I say most because some people told us they are givers not receivers and chose to only dedicate a kindness.
In a little over an hour, my teammate and I had gathered many stories from our participants. For example, an elderly lady seemed lost and confused and approached me asking for directions to enter the government building. She was going to file a divorce. I didn’t know what to say. I asked her if she would like to receive a kindness from the box and surprisingly, with all her confusion, she did. She wrote something down and when she picked a kindness out of the box, the message read that “things will be all right”. She smiled and said: “I needed that!”
Reflecting on our project: what went well for us, I believe, is incorporating an element of surprise, and mystery. Participants were willing to give “a million dollars” to someone even though they don’t have it. No one knew whom he or she were giving a hug to or receiving an encouraging quote from, but they were happy to give and receive. I think by that, the metaphorical bond we wanted to strengthen was strengthened one way or another. Of course not all people are open to participating. Some passers-by wouldn’t even look at us, especially when they saw clipboards. Others asked us if they were required to give us money to participate.
There is definitely room for improvement in certain areas. I believe that we could have considered the fact that from where we stood, our signage on the prototype should have been visible from all 4 sides. We also could have found a way to create prompts that didn’t need a clipboard to lean against for writing – maybe we could have had those who avoided us for that very reason actually participate. In the future, it would also be great to explore if this kind of prototype could stand on its own, without us facilitating the activity. It would have to be done differently, of course, because there are always those who choose to vandalize if something was left unattended (as happened with some of our classmates). In addition, we initially prepared bumper stickers as a give away for participants, thinking it would help us have more people join the conversation, but I honestly think that the concept of “less is more” worked to our advantage: the element of surprise was the hook and that was all we needed.
Nevertheless, generally speaking, I believe a conversation was sparked between citizens about being kind to each other, and we hope that it made some people feel more connected to their fellow citizens. Because we know for a fact that we felt this connection just by going up to people and conversing with them, listening to their stories, and giving out a few hugs here and there, and that was definitely a worthwhile experience. Would we improve upon it and repeat in the future? Absolutely.