Participatory Design, 21st Century Version

Natural, biological growth and decay as design.


It was Hironori Yoshida’s talk at TEI 2019 (ACM International Conference on Tangible, Embedded and Embodied Interaction ) that led to us to musing that Participatory Design — a design stance born in1970’s Scandinavia out of a co-operation between designers and community stakeholders — has been resurrected in a more radical shape. Designers from Japan to Indiana to Germany have been coaxing design results out of natural, biological growth and decay. Growth sounds optimistic and decay, well, doesn’t. But it can shape design. Nature, in this new take on participatory design, joins the design group as co-designer.

”Interwoven” Image Ruud Splinter, by Diana Scherer.

”Interwoven” Image Ruud Splinter, by Diana Scherer.

Irregularly shaped wood has long shaped architectural and product design, from archery bows to sinuous wood beams. The authors of Yoshida et al.’s “BranchConnect” riffed on this idea, and in the new dual-spirit of participatory design, collaborated with kids to upcycle fallen tree branches using CNC-milled joineries. Children are stakeholders in the future, and wood that is often seen as waste someday can be harvested and employed in architectural and interior applications.

BranchConnect provided by Hironori Yoshida, Image Panafold.

BranchConnect provided by Hironori Yoshida, Image Panafold.

Along with using the byproducts of natural growth and decline, this new form of participation resurfaced in a number of talks at TEI on natural processes. Notable was Szu-yu et al.’s “Decomposition as Design: Co-creating (with) Natureculture” (Indiana University-Bloomington). They ask, what can designers do that decenters the place of the human? Peering through eyeglasses that also see non-human creators, they propose that natural decomposition combined with a provided scaffold engenders fruitful and surprising designs. Tactics emerge through fragmenting, aging, liberating, and tracing.

Diana Scherer’s scaffolding-related work was brought to our attention during Iceland’s 2019 DesignMarch by Philip Fimmano of Lidewij Edelkoort. In “Interwoven,” the German artist 3D-printed a path for roots to grow through. Root systems co-design intricate motifs as seen in the image at the top of this post.

Vase. Decomposition as Design TEI paper:  https://www.szuyuliu.com/decomposition-as-design

Vase. Decomposition as Design TEI paper: https://www.szuyuliu.com/decomposition-as-design

Bread-, beer-, and cheesemakers have long understood how harvesting, decay and growth allow nature to co-create in the design process. It’s natural that artists and product designers open up to this form of participatory design, too.

Explore: To Decompose Is to Create https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=3059454.3078696

Batya Friedman’s TEI Keynote: https://vsdesign.org/publications/pdf/non-scan-vsd-and-information-systems.pdf


Meg Withgott