SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

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Designing with Non-designers: Participatory Design Practices in the Arenas of Social Development and Commerce – SVA MA Design Research

Samira Jain

Designing with Non-designers: Participatory Design Practices in the Arenas of Social Development and Commerce

Collective Action Toolkit, © frog design inc.

Co-design is the practice of designers involving clients and/or end-users to inform design solutions. In recent years, design consultancies have packaged co-design as a methodology, codified for example in the form of free-access toolkits to help marginalized communities. At the same time, as designers become an integral part of large corporations, co-design is being oversimplified as a set of magical guidelines for commercial agendas.

This research explores the commodification of co-design methodologies in the arenas of social development and commerce, through the analysis of Frog Design’s Collective Action Toolkit (CAT) and IBM’s Sponsor User Program. What are designers hoping to accomplish from circulating these commoditized practices for public consumption? How can participatory practices in other fields be used to inform co-design? Is there a way to create cohesive and hybridized participatory design environments?

Co-designing at speed and scale

Against a virtual and deafening din of online articles, social media marketing and country wide tours by its design team, on January 21st 2016, IBM announced the launch of “new” design principles via a website for “a sustainable culture of design at a scale never before attempted.” They called it IBM Design Thinking—“human-centered outcome at speed and scale.”1

In recent years, IBM has been acknowledged as a design-led organization..2 Having already recruited over 750 designers and planning to expand the team with an additional 200 designers by the end of this year, they claim to have spread design principles to their 10,000 employees.3 This emphasis on design by IBM and other similarly large businesses stems from a culture that can be defined as the corporatization of design—corporations absorbing design teams and celebrating design as a savior for businesses. According to Anne Burdick, a program chair at Art Center College of Design, design is no longer “the province of design practitioners, researchers, and educators”. Instead, “Design” is variably a value-add, an everyday event, a working method, a byproduct, literacy and a complete abstraction,” propagated by those in the business world.4

Unlike toolkits such as Collective Action Toolkit by Frog, that has tried to avoid the use of design jargon, IBM Design Thinking overstresses the use of specialized language, such as “Hills” instead of project goals and “Playbacks” to describe project recaps, to promote their design methodology. The branded methodology identifies collaboration as one of the keys for design thinking to work at scale and has been packaged under the name Sponsor User Program—IBM’s version of co-design. These principles are applied internally at IBM but “by sharing it with the world,” says Lara Hanlon, designer at IBM Studios, Dublin, “it can help any team achieve better outcomes for the people they serve.”5

The Sponsor User program, like the rest of IBM Design Thinking, presents “a set of conceptual models, not dictated practices.” Ten sub-heads have been listed on the Sponsor Users page for practitioners to implement co-design such as “Observe through their eyes” and “Reflect together.” The phraseology used to describe these steps has been carefully selected and the web page is speckled with expressions such as Sponsor Users are not “passive subjects, they’re active participants” and “listen carefully to your Sponsor Users.” However, there is no indication or description of tools and methods that could help external teams in practically implementing these ideas.6

The webpage makes a clear distinction between different types of users. “Users” experience solutions but do not help shape them, “target users” are the actual consumers of the designed solutions, and “Sponsor Users” are those who are given “a seat at the table” and invited to “observe, reflect, and make with you.” According to the website, once there is clarity on target users, only then are Sponsor Users recruited. To help choose, the website states that “finding a good Sponsor User is like going on a first date” and the selector should not settle for the first person available.7 The writers of the program have refrained from elucidating on this aspect, but it can be said that Sponsor Users are not target users, and this negates the fundamental idea of co-design. The name of the program itself suggests a rather unequal relationship between the non-designer and the firm; a sponsored person cannot function autonomously.

To recruit potential Sponsor Users, teams circulate a flyer, which roughly outlines the firm’s motivations (user feedback and insights) and the benefits to Sponsor Users—“previews into upcoming releases”, “delightful user experiences”, “influence on release planning”, and “beta product access.” It glorifies the role of the Sponsor User to create excitement for potential recruits. However, the conversations with the implementers of the program at IBM revealed that the most important reason to apply Sponsor User program is to forge relationships with clients. In other words, build buy-in for projects.

The practitioners of Participatory Action Research have been critical of their own practices because they recognize that all facilitators have certain intrinsic interests that they want from the process. These could be professional, economic, social or political.8 It has already been established in the earlier sections that those who are invested directly in the solutions have their interests necessarily represented. Jodi Cutler, Senior Design Manager at IBM explained this aspect by using a hypothetical example. “Imagine if Google came to you, and said ‘I see you spend a tremendous amount of time (using Gmail)’ and you have actually purchased the advanced options like more storage etc., ‘We consider you a different class of user (Sponsor User) because you have a financial commitment in this application. And so we are going to listen to you differently because we have a financial stake in this and we are going to participate with you, in a different way.’ While regular end users are critical to the development cycle, there is an effort to merge the two (Sponsor Users and end users) to align good user practices with business objectives.” Often using the term co-create, Cutler insisted that there is nothing different about Sponsor User program from standard design research practices.9

Pieter Jan Stappers, co-author of Convivial Toolbox, warns researchers of using generic tools and exercises repeatedly for the fear of dulling the researchers’ powers associated with creativity, which can become contagious for the participants as well.10 The Sponsor User program insists on changing participants often, since, according to the implementers, they tend to bring the same set of insights and thereby engender fatigue in the project. However, to recap Stappers’ point, the tools lose freshness, not people. By switching Users often, the participants see only a part of the whole and this deters any one User from becoming the champion of the project. This way the real power can never shift from the implementer to the participant.

A corporation will disclose only a certain amount of information. Apart from these abstract guides, outsiders cannot access the material that designers use to implement the Sponsor User program such as the standard deck given to designers working at IBM. According to Jesyka Palmer, design researcher at IBM, the activities in which designers engage the Sponsor Users depends on what the designers/researchers know themselves and are comfortable in handling.11 Thus, the onus is on individual designers and teams. Laetitia Wolff, design writer, curator and strategist, emphasizes that most design education does not necessarily take into consideration the aspect of designers interacting with non-designers to solve problems.12 As substantiated earlier, co-design requires facilitators and designers, and often, the same person performs both roles. This would work if one assumes that a designer is also a good facilitator, but this is not always the case.

Owing to issues of confidentiality, IBM could not always include clients and users in their design development process. Sponsor User Program formalizes the interaction by making the participants sign an agreement wherein the terms of engagement such as time commitments and confidentiality concerns are spelled out. However, this creates an unequal relationship between the Sponsor Users and the firms, because Users do not own any intellectual property generated by them. By formally signing an agreement with the company, the participant is, according to Marx, alienated from the object of his own labor. Economic requirements of sale and exchange reduce or eliminate his/her freedom to control what he/she produces, and forces outside of him/her determine what he/she must produce, creating a one sided interaction.13 A formal contract such as this violates transparency in dialogue and access.

Ladder of Citizen Participation, a concept by Sherry Arnstein, explains that citizen power is at its highest when citizens are in control and lowest when citizens are manipulated.14 It is clear that IBM is still in control of all the design activities and decisions and is not comfortable in relinquishing its position of power. Thus, it is very plausible for the program to be subverted to a “technique of propaganda” as suggested by John Phelan, the author of Mediaworld: Programing the Public.

Hanlon (IBM Designer) glamorizes the role of user involvement. “When you use design thinking, your users are your North Star,” she says. Painting a utopian picture, she elaborates that users become the premise of all actions, from measuring success based on the value brought to users, to actively involving them in the firm’s work to understand real user needs. However, the purpose of involving the user in any of the design decisions is to generate value for the organization. At a crowded event at Parsons The New School of Design, Mauro Porcini, Chief of Design for Pepsi Co, demonstrated how design’s role in large organizations is to align itself with the goals of the business— purchase (sales), repurchase (loyalty), and recommendation (reach).15 In a McKinsey Podcast, Jennifer Kilian, digital VP of McKinsey Digital Labs, explained to the listeners that design is important to them as it provides customer loyalty—“the single biggest competitive advantage”, and if one can solve the customers’ needs first, they will “always win.”16

Transparency, access, and dialogue, the pillars of Prahalad and Ramaswamy’s “co-creation view” do not form the foundation for IBM’s Sponsor User program. Although their program attempts outlining expectations, motivations and interests, it does not necessarily do so in a transparent and comprehensive manner. It is also clear that a subjective and open-ended practice cannot be scaled as envisioned by corporations, as not all designers are familiar and comfortable with the same methods and may or may not have the right skills to facilitate these interactions. The primary focus of these interactions is to build client buy-in while also gaining knowledge in the process.


  1. Angus Montgomery, “IBM Launches Design Thinking Principles.” Design Week. February 22, 2016. Accessed April 17, 2016.
  2. Gjoko Muratovski Paradigm Shift: The New Role of Design in Business and Society, 2015, She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation.
  3. Lara Hanlon, “What Is Design Thinking and Why Is IBM Sharing Its Secrets?” Silicon Republic. April 06, 2016. Accessed April 17, 2016.
  4. Anne Burdick, “Designing without Designers”, April 29, 2009. School of Design Strategies at Parsons The New School for Design, New York
  5. Hanlon, “What Is Design Thinking and Why Is IBM Sharing Its Secrets?”
  6. “Sponsor Users | The Keys | IBM Design Thinking.” IBM Design Thinking. Accessed April 17, 2016.
  7. Sponsor Users | The Keys | IBM Design Thinking, IBM Design Thinking. Accessed April 17, 2016.
  8. IDS Bulletin, “Action research for Development and Social Change”
  9. Phone conversation with author, March 3, 2016.
  10. Sanders and Stappers, 83.
  11. Phone conversation with author, March 14 2016.
  12. In conversation with the author, February 10 2016.
  13. Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels, Capital; a Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, (New York: International Publishers, 1967).
  14. “A Ladder of Citizen Participation— Sherry R Arnstein.”
  15. Mauro Porcini, “Design Driven” March 9 2016, Parsons The New School for Design, New York.
  16. “The Power of Design Thinking,” McKinsey & Company, March 2016. Accessed April 17, 2016.