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

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
SVA MA Design Research

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Expert Citizens, Citizen Experts: Transforming Participation in Product Design – SVA MA Design Research

Tiffany Lambert

Expert Citizens, Citizen Experts: Transforming Participation in Product Design

Do Hit Chair by Marijn van der Poll for doogroog, 2000

Image courtesy droog

What is necessary is a different understanding of participation—one that is realistic in acknowledging imbalances, but also more fully articulates what participation means in contemporary product design.

At the very core of design is the user, whose instrumentality only continues to evolve. The recent groundswell of interest in the non-industrial fabrication of objects created by such technologies as 3-D printing, shows how users are becoming increasingly involved in the design process. Users are rapidly becoming their own producers of objects. What does it mean when boundaries between design experts and design citizens begin to blur? This research engages the realm of collaborative design practices—from the various roles the user has assumed, to the resulting reception and dissemination of user-made products—tracking historic precursors to the current impulse of participation for the populace. Critical developments and inherent complexities prompt a reevaluation of the optimistic rhetoric surrounding participation, opening up a space to carry the collective discussion forward.


Function faltered to cultural possibility in the 1960s at the confluence of political and social upheaval, and with material and technological advances, the course of the user in design began to change. Vehement criticism of commodity aesthetics was directed at the superficial mechanisms of streamlining and styling objects, pinning design as a marketing tool. Fundamental arguments based in the theoretical works of Theodor W. Adorno, Jurgen Habermas, Max Horkheimer, and others,sprang up to critique society and the nature of a commodity culture, and proved to be particularly influential on designers. 1

Conceptual projects from the time articulated the growing dissatisfaction with mass production as designers sought an antidote to the “soulless” aesthetics of modernism and passive consumerism. Groups promoting a socially critical agenda began to form all over the world, coinciding with the American counterculture movement. London-based Archigram used technology to design utopias, while in Florence, Superstudio focused more heavily on a social critique of negative utopias, and an “operation to remove all commercially driven clutter from the object.”2

The effort stretched beyond the studio. A 1964–1965 exhibition titled “Architecture Without Architects,” organized at the Museum of Modern Art by Bernard Rudolfsky—who Paola Antonelli describes as “one of the most important curators in history”3—promoted unfamiliar types of architecture, such as African cliff dwellings and Chinese underground villages.4 It was an aesthetic and methodological shift toward an alternate understanding of society—one that prioritized everyday people over the celebrated designer. Paola Antonelli observes, “It’s about what people have done for centuries…forget the signature.”5

In The Practice of Everyday Life, theorist Michel de Certeau underscores the ways people individualize mass culture through reappropriation, displacing emphasis from the producer or object onto the consumer.6 He was writing in 1984 but as de Certeau alludes, a condition had emerged in the cultural countercurrents of the 1960s: a crack had surfaced in the modernist vision of a top-down approach. It was clear that the needs and desires of the user had become an increasingly central concern in the organization of daily life.


Participation’s Problematic


“Collaboration is the answer, but what is the question?”–Hans Ulrich Obrist.7


One of the defining texts on participation lies within the world of art. Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics promotes an art that is concerned with inter-human relations and social contexts rather than private, independent space.8 The text elaborates on participatory practices in the context of the art world and, interestingly, spurred one of the most critical perspectives on participation by New York-based art historian Claire Bishop. Her trenchant realization that participatory culture is perhaps more insidious than most let on is particularly important to critical discussions about collaboration between user and designer. These systems of co-creation are still integrally tied to systems of commerce, and may therefore be somewhat less democratic and freeing than the zeitgeist insinuates.

The shifting function of the user from a state of passivity to one of engagement does deliver new promises for the social role of design. Most often among them are notions of inclusion, authorship, and decision-making—where the user and practitioner are brought closer to level playing fields. But before marching forth with these ideals, it is imperative to plainly map out some of the problematic areas that arise when considering participatory practices within design. Issues inherent in participation have been traced in other disciplines, notably art and more recently architecture,9 but not widely published in the field of industrial design. 10 In this thesis, I attempt to illuminate the most salient problems facing the contemporary design industry in relation to participation, in order to establish a critical framework and to expose the potential of a user’s multifaceted engagement with design.

The term “participation” itself too frequently goes unquestioned—it seems to suggest that its application is innately for the common good, and tends to be synonymous with terms like “democratic.” 11 Therefore, the first concern is to confront the very words “participation” and “democratic,” which have become catchall descriptors obscuring the more nuanced meanings sheathed behind them. Carole Pateman, a British political theorist and feminist, writing in 1970, gave this impression:

During the last few years of the 1960s, the word ‘participation’ became part of the popular vocabulary. This took place under the demands for new areas of participation to be opened up. It is rather ironical that the idea of participation should have become so popular, for among political theorists and political sociologists the widely accepted theory of democracy (so widely accepted that one might call it the orthodox doctrine) is one in which the concept of participation has only the most minimal role.12


Critics of the rhetoric of participation are few and far between, which may be one significant reason the term “participation” has yet to find an apt, non-generic definition.13 Regardless, it is the general acceptance of participation as a better way of doing things that is both its strength and weakness. The strength is that it encourages all parties to engage in the creative outcome or product, and knowledge is more readily available. The weakness is that this engagement can be uncritical and destabilizing, often to the discipline’s own detriment.

Despite problems in the oversimplified dialectic of inclusion versus exclusion, top-down versus bottom-up, authorial versus collective, examples from the field begin to highlight moments of hope for participation in design. Can we forego the fashionable rhetoric? Is there an achievable promise for user participation? This thesis offers a sharp challenge to unquestioning advocates of participation, but my hope is that it also provides an awakening to the possibilities of engagement. What is necessary is a different understanding of participation—one that is realistic in acknowledging imbalances, but also more fully articulates what participation means in contemporary product design.

  1. See, in particular, the critical theories developed at the Frankfurt School for more information.
  2. Peter Lang and William Menking, Superstudio: Life Without Objects (Milan: Skira, 2003), 25.
  3. Paola Antonelli, in discussion with the author, February 14, 2013.
  4. Curatorial Exhibition Files, Exh. #752. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
  5. Paola Antonelli, in discussion with the author, February 14, 2013.
  6. Michel de Certeau, The Pratice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
  7. Hans Ulrich Obrist, cited in Hal Foster, “Chat Rooms,” in London Review of Books, December 4, 2004, 21-22.
  8. Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (France: Les Presses Du Reel, 1998).
  9. Literature on art and participation is particularly extensive. Some of the key texts are: Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (France: Les Presses Du Reel, 1998); Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (New York: Verso, 2012); Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
  10. By “not widely published” I mean in a cohesive, critical sense. There have been countless articles, journal entries, books and other literature related to notions of participatory design, design methodologies involving users, and hacking and open-systems design, but none that take industrial design or product design head-on.
  11. This expanded field currently goes by a variety of names: collaborative design, co-creation, participatory design, et cetera.
  12. Carole Pateman, Participation and Democratic Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 1.
  13. For a critical perspective on participation in the field of art (relational aesthetics) please see the works by Claire Bishop.