Making Things Better

  • Brian S. Dixon
Part of the Design Research Foundations book series (DERF)


In this chapter I shift the focus from questions of epistemology/methodology and turn, instead, to consider the social and political aspects of Dewey’s philosophy and their relation to design practice and research. The chapter opens with an exploration of how Dewey’s work has been drawn upon in participatory design discourse, looking in particular how individuals such as Pelle Ehn, Christopher Le Dantec and Carl DiSalvo as well as a number of related science and technology theorists have appropriated his ‘publics’ concept. From this presentation, I then turn my attention, again, to his original writings, with his stance in relation to democracy and ethics, as well as his melioristic perspective (i.e., the belief that human action can lead to positive change) all being highlighted in turn. The chapter draws to a close with a discussion of how these concepts can be related to contemporary understandings of the democratic/ethical within design practice and research. I conclude with the proposal that Dewey’s work might provide socially/politically motivated design practice and research with a value-based philosophic grounding that gives articulation to some pre-existing concerns.


Participatory design Political design Democracy Design ethics Meliorism 

Everything, so the argument goes, is political. Design is no exception. In a very straightforward sense, politics form and inform all design activities. When designing a product, a service, or an experience, designers can be seen to be making a series of micro-level political decisions regarding who will be included, who will be excluded, who will benefit and who will lose out. Then, on a larger scale, it must also be remembered that the design industry operates within the context of a particular economic model. In a very general sense, this model determines the type of projects that can be supported and the type of projects that cannot be supported. Thus, some needs and wants will be met (e.g., the desire for luxury hand-bags) while others will be ignored (e.g., certain healthcare and accommodation needs). Equally, some practices or ways of working will be valorized (e.g., entrepreneurialism), while others dismissed as misguided or naïve (e.g., sustainability drives).

While designers have not always been conscious of their political role, there has, over recent decades, been a growing awareness of the discipline’s wider social and cultural impact, both actual and potential. Many practitioners would now be able to offer thoughts on whether or not design can ‘make a difference’, ‘play a role’ or ‘change things’. Equally, those taking a positive view would likely also be ready to suggest ways in which such measures could be enacted.

To certain degree, this growing awareness can be related to the emergence of an increasingly prominent socially and ethically minded discourse within the field. Over the years, there has, of course, been many manifestos issued—calls by designers for other designers to step up and seek out more appropriate, worthy channels in which to apply their in-demand skills (e.g., the “First Things First Manifesto” of 19691). Alongside these efforts, Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World (1971), stands out as an early, historical example of a vision for a new, ethical direction in design. His suggestion that designers seek to routinely apportion time to deserving causes has continued to resonate with practitioners through the decades. Indeed, the drive to harness design for the social good continues to this day, with more recent work focusing on issues such as ecological sustainability (e.g., Walker 2010; Escobar 2018) and designing for positive behavioral change (e.g., Lockton, Harrison and Stanton 2010).

With regard to design research involving practice, projects tend to be grounded by ideas of improvement and transformation; many would align with John Zimmerman and Jodi Forlizzi’s ‘real world’ motivational contexts (2008), rather than anything that might be described as overtly ‘philosophical’. This can be seen in such examples as the ‘design for social innovation’ work of Ezio Manzini (see e.g., 2015), or the work of the Danish Design School’s CODE research unit in ‘rehearsing the future’ through civic projects which propose fresh approaches in areas such as waste collection and urban renewal (see Halse et al. 2010, and In Focus Box 1.1). Even if the aim is not to bring about political or social change, it will likely still incorporate the idea of improvement of some form; for example, Joep Frens’s doctoral work on enriching the interactive features of a camera (2006).

Of these latter references, it is perhaps Manzini’s ‘design for social innovation’ work, which stands out as the most prolific and impactful recent example of an approach to design which aims to ‘make things better’. On his view, we are presently witnessing an historically important moment of transition where social innovation is coming to replace technological-industrial innovation as the key driver of human change (Manzini 2015, p. 26). Within this context, Manzini claims to detect an increasing push towards sustainability, with design for social innovation finding form in the ‘social conversation’ that opens up around ‘what to do and how to do it’ (i.e., how to achieve sustainability). While everyone (i.e., every citizen) is capable of contributing to this conversation, design professionals have a special role to play in helping guide and shape what is said (p. 63). Here, by balancing ‘the need to put forward ideas’ and the need to gather ideas (p. 70), it is proposed that they may ‘activate, sustain and orientate processes of social change toward sustainability’ (p. 62).

Manzini’s work will be briefly touched upon again later in the chapter. Beyond Manzini, however, there is another important strand of work that must be picked up on here, as yet not mentioned—participatory design. In terms of specific approaches, participatory design has, more than any other area of practice, come to define the scope and possibilities of a politically-orientated, socially and ethically grounded mode of designing. Arising in the context of a series of trade union-initiated projects undertaken in Scandinavian workplaces in the 1970s and 80s, participatory design was originally shaped by a desire to improve people’s working conditions through a human-centered approach to the design of technological systems (e.g., information technology systems). Over the intervening decades, the movement’s adherents have largely transferred their focus from industrial settings to the wider civic arena. Here, designers and researchers have explored the possibilities of positioning collaborative design techniques as a means of creative decision-making and as a strategy for bringing about the positive transformation of social contexts (see e.g., Bjögvinsson et al. 2012). In many ways, this shift remains ongoing, with the question of how to best frame and position the contemporary participatory design movement’s political orientation and social and ethical grounding still a matter of some debate (see e.g., Bødker and Kyng 2018).

Through this latter reference to participatory design we are led back, once again, to the relationship between John Dewey’s philosophy and design research involving practice. As we will come to see below, within the last decade, a link has been drawn between contemporary participatory design research and Dewey’s work on democracy through what is referred to as his ‘publics’ concept. It is an emergent link; as yet, not fully consolidated, but a link nonetheless.

Honing in on this, the present chapter has two key aims. In the first instance, I look to present a brief outline of the participatory design-Dewey link and explore some of its wider theoretical associations. The second aim of the chapter, is to extend on this by considering how the broader scope of Dewey’s work—incorporating his perspectives on democracy, education and, more generally, ethics—could potentially provide socially/politically motivated design and design research involving practice with a value-based philosophic grounding. In essence, begin to offer a mapping of the principles by which aiming to make things better through design might align.

Setting the Stage: The Origin and Evolution of Participatory Design

Participatory design stands out as a special case in the broader scheme of design practices—both historical and contemporary—on the basis that its adherents, participatory designers, commonly seek to frame and pursue a political agenda in and through design. Ultimately, their concern lies with facilitating a democratic process—ensuring that those who will eventually use a particular design are involved in that design’s development and refinement.

As has been noted, this stance can be traced to the movement’s origins in a series of Scandinavian research projects initiated by trade unions in partnership with computer and social scientists. Here, the general orientation of the work was Marxist-inspired—workers and their unions were understood to stand in opposition to management-led agendas (see Ehn 2017). Thus, in the projects, unions set out to challenge organizational initiatives aimed at improving efficiency through the introduction of technology. Early work—such as UTOPIA, looking at changes in the printing industry, and Florence, looking at a nursing information and communication system—explored how, in the context of this wave of technological change, workers might retain agency and reasonable working conditions (see Kensing and Greenbaum 2013, pp. 28–29). Over time, the approach came to be referred to as the ‘critical’ Scandinavian model—a way of considering the question of technology and work, led by the ideal of enabling inclusive, democratic workplaces (Bansler 1989, p. 15).

Despite its early successes, this ideal was confronted by a number of challenges as the decades advanced. For example, though interest in participatory design spread to the United States in the 1980s, it was found that the notion of workplace democracy did not transfer to an American corporate context (e.g., Greenbaum 1990). Through the 1990s, the dominant global economic model shifted—neo-liberal economics replaced the postwar Keynesian consensus2—which inevitably led to changes in participatory design practices. Trade unions were no longer automatic project partners (Kyng 2010, p. 53) and the movement’s political focus gave way to a set of more individualistic ethical concerns (Bjerknes and Bratteteig 1995).

By the late 2000s, the political drive had become so diluted that commentators were situating participatory design within a broader suite of co-creative practices operating across a diverse range of contexts, often beyond the workplace (e.g., Sanders and Stappers 2008). Novel collaborative techniques, including ‘co-design’ (see e.g., Steen 2011) and ‘empathic design’ (see e.g., Mattelmäki et al. 2014), were beginning to gain popularity and, unlike participatory design, these approaches did not imply any political commitments on the part of the designers. At the same time, some had begun to relate democracy, technology and ‘use’ together in ways, which diverged markedly from the original ‘critical’ Scandinavian approach (e.g., von Hippel 2005).3

In response to this fracturing, several contributors put forward proposals calling for a realignment of the underlying aims and commitments of participatory design. First, in the initial period of reflection, there were calls for the field to return to, and re-examine, its political roots. Here, Eevi Beck (2002), argued that democracy had ‘lost its evocative power and become somewhat discredited as a general ideal’ (p. 82). By way of alternative, she advocated in favour of a new form of political awareness, focusing on patterns of dominance, power, marginality and exclusion (p. 88). Dan Shapiro (2005) proposed that participatory design’s ability to tackle social and political challenges might be of benefit in the procurement and development of large-scale systems in the public sector. In contrast, Morten Kyng (2010) argued that relinquishing an explicit political commitment would allow participatory design researchers to better contribute to the future development of the expanding information and communication technology sector.

Second, there has been a successive wave of calls for a renewed action-oriented methodology. Mostly, recently, in a 2018 special issue of the Transactions of Human Computer Interaction (TOCHI) journal, a number of proposals and statements have been put forward regarding possible future directions for the field, with a particular emphasis being placed, again, on the political dimension. In their introduction to the issue guest editors Bannon et al. (2018) identify, what they perceive to be, some key areas of concern in contemporary participatory design. First, there is ‘a desire to gather Participatory Design back in, to reform it, pull it together somehow’. Another concern relates to scale. While small projects are sometimes preferred, the group suggest that many contemporary issues (e.g., those relating to the digital economy) require that projects must take on a wider remit. Then, finally, it is noted that new ways of recognizing and evaluating research—ways which move beyond conventional approaches to reviewing—may be required in participatory design in order that as many design cases and perspectives as possible be enfolded within discourse (pp. 1:5–1:6).

In another important article from the same issue, Bødker and Kyng (2018) propose that, as a consequence of the rise of aggressive corporate interests and the apparent inability of governments/institutions to act against them, a new participatory design is required. On their view, such a participatory design would be framed around what the pair refer to as ‘high technological ambition’, with a strong emphasis being placed on the production of working prototypes and powerful alliances which extend beyond the immediate project context. Further, linking to Bannon et al., Bødker and Kyng’s new participatory design demands a commitment to scale (i.e., the ability to extend and expand an outcome). Alongside this, the pair also insist that their new participatory design requires an ability to recognize success and failure and must be undertaken as a form of action research (pp. 4:19–4:20). The latter aspect is seen to allow for an ability to address new needs as and when these are identified4 (p. 4:25).

Though, as will be clear from the above contributions, the (re)orientation of contemporary participatory design is by no means defined, there are nonetheless areas of relative definition in evidence. In particular, over the last decade, a key strand of activity has emerged around the framing of relatively small-scale programs of civic intervention.

This work, exemplified by the likes of Malmö Living Labs in Sweden, contrasts sharply with the technology-at-scale perspectives set out above (e.g., Bødker and Kyng 2018). At the same time, it also contrasts sharply with the original industrial-technological inquiries of the early days. Participants are no longer workers but citizens, predominantly drawn from marginalised groups. There is no one ‘site’ or group as such, but many sites and many groups. Nonetheless, these differences aside, as before, the ultimate aim of these projects is to initiate and frame sustainable political action.

Third and finally, alongside the above there has also been recent efforts to shape out a renewed philosophical positioning for the field. Here, moving beyond their traditional Marxist roots, participatory design researchers and theorists have tended to draw on the perspectives of science and technology studies (STS)—a branch of sociology focusing on complex interactions/intersections of people and things which manifest through scientific and technological practices/processes.

In this, many have found value in the rich and (sometimes) challenging texts of French sociologist Bruno Latour. Latour’s key offerings include his actor network theory (see e.g., Latour 2005) and his contextualization of the Heideggerian concept of ‘thinging’. Actor network theory offers a framework which seeks to trace or map ‘the social’ in terms of relationships; relationships as they exist between people but also relationships as they exist between people and the objects that surround them.

The concept of ‘thinging’ references Heidegger’s claim that in traditional northern European societies the word ‘thing’ was used to refer to the process of communal or regional convening (see Heidegger 1971, p. 172). On this account, ‘things’ are to be understood as collectives in which concerns are raised and issues debated. In appropriating the concept, Latour suggests that there may be value in conceiving of a form of ‘thinging’ wherein a multiplicity of actors, both human and non-human (people and objects), are figuratively brought together around an issue in which they are implicated or, on some level, feel compelled to address (see e.g., Latour 2005).

Closely related to Latour’s work, is that of the British-Dutch sociologist Noortje Marres. Marres draws directly on Dewey in her articulation of a socio-material politics, which she refers to as ‘material participation’. In line with Latour’s Heideggerian thinging, human and non-humans, people and objects, are seen as being drawn together in relation to issues (see e.g., Marres 2012). Intriguingly, Marres references Dewey’s work in her discussion of how issues become matters of public concern. In particular, she draws attention to the key arguments of his 1927 text The Public and its Problems, which sees him outline his views on how ‘publics’ are formed and constituted. This Deweyan referencing has, in turn, inspired Latour. He claims that the Deweyan public concept offers a particularly compelling articulation of how controversial issues can initiate and enliven political discourse among otherwise disaffected groups of citizens (see e.g., Latour 2007).

Bringing the whole together in 2005, Latour and Peter Weibel produced an exhibition entitled Making Things Public, held at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe. The public of the title was a direct reference to Dewey’s concept, while the word things pointed back to the Heideggerian notion of things-as-parliaments. The work exhibited represented a variety of attempts to consider how issues could be made public and alternative forms of political discourse enabled.

Following on from the exhibition and its subsequent publication (i.e., Latour and Weibel 2005), both concepts—i.e., publics and things-as-parliaments—have been drawn upon by participatory design theorists in their efforts to articulate the socio-material complexity of a politically-motivated collaborative design process. Here, the large-scale, participatory design project is recast as a discursive coming together of all manner of entities and existences (see e.g., Ehn 2008; Telier et al. 2011; Binder et al. 2015).

Before considering this work further, it will be useful to first turn directly to Dewey’s own writings on the subject of publics. In doing so, we will, for now, refer solely to The Public and its Problems. This will allow us to gain a sense of how Dewey introduces the publics concept and, equally, the broader, contextual meaning it carries within his work.

The Public and its Problems: Dewey’s Concept of the Public

The Public and its Problems was first published in 1927 as a response to the public servant and political theorist Walter Lippman’s earlier text The Phantom Public (Lippman 1925). The Phantom Public set out a pessimistic view of democracy in the United States of the day, challenging the notion that there was such a thing as a collective ‘public’ or ‘omnipresent citizen’ capable of rational political judgement. Such an idea, Lippman claimed, was nothing more than a construct, a theoretical fiction with no applicability in the real world. Contemporary industrial societies, he argued, were simply too complex to be understood by ordinary citizens. In any case, ordinary citizens were too preoccupied by their own everyday individualistic concerns to be able to form a view on the nature of this or that political problem, the possible form of this or that social policy.

Rather than expect a public to make difficult political decisions, Lippman envisaged that those who were directly involved in managing and overseeing a program of public work—a group he termed insiders—would be responsible for the direction and formation of social policy. In this scenario, there was little if any role for the public. They might be consulted during times of crisis; that is, presented with selection of candidates proposing alternatives responses to a given problem or challenge. Otherwise they would simply stand back and allow the insiders to get on with running day-to-day affairs competently and efficiently. Ultimately, this was a vision for government by experts—a government for the people but not by the people.

In The Public and its Problems, Dewey sympathizes with Lippman’s view but does not, in the end, concur. Rather than being a theoretical fiction, he believes that public participation in the political process is both possible and desirable.

Opening the text, he traced a notional, idealized outline of how a public might form. Here, he begins by focusing in on the idea that ‘[c]onjoint, combined, associated action is a universal trait of the behavior of things’. Through such behavior, human groups come to frame ‘purposes, plans, measures and means to secure consequences which are liked and eliminate those which are found obnoxious’ (LW 2, p. 257). Over time, the consequences of one group’s activities will likely come to impact, in some way, on the lives and livelihoods of another group. For example, if one community of hunters were to pursue an animal to extinction, then other nearby communities would be denied the opportunity to hunt that same animal in the future. Or, to choose a more contemporary example, if an industry in one part of the world were to produce an airborne pollutant, then this pollutant will likely spread far beyond the original site of its production, causing environmental damage many thousands of kilometers away.

Dewey argues that, over time, such negative consequences will likely provoke a reaction on the part of those who must endure the ill-effects. He suggests that, if a group is sufficiently motivated, they will move to exert ‘practical influence’ or ‘control’ over the original actions which brought about/are bringing about the negative consequences, e.g., the process of industrial production causing airborne pollution. Dewey goes on to suggest that such groups are ‘organized and made effective’ through official representation, whether in the form of legislators, executives or judges. In other words, he believes that publics consolidate when they invest particular individuals with the authority to speak for their shared interests. He concludes his outline with the proposal that, historically, this vision of political organization—in other words, his definition of the formation of publics—might be seen to as the source of governments and, ultimately, the political state (ibid).

While this idealized outline may render the publics concept accessible, it cannot be seen to provide a map to the present. As Dewey goes on to makes clear through the remainder of The Public and its Problems, in the context of the present (i.e., the United States of the 1920s), matters of political organization and public participation were both chaotic and overwhelmingly complex. Large portions of the text are dedicated to examining how modern day cultural and technological experience—that is, the doings and undergoings of life as lived in the early twentieth century—had come prevent or, at very least, hinder the development and maintenance of coherent political forms.

Rather than being non-existent, he argued that the would-be publics of the present had been eclipsed. This was attributed to a number of issues. For one, due to the ‘machine age’, there were too many publics, with each seeking to uphold their own limited concerns. Equally, the issues they faced were too expansive and all-encompassing to be readily appreciated (ibid, p. 314). Alongside this, following Lippman, Dewey believed that the would-be public was distracted by the attractions of mass media and popular culture. Technologies such as the ‘movie, radio, cheap reading matter’ meant that ‘the political elements in the constitution of the human being, those having to do with citizenship, are crowed to one side’ (ibid, p. 321). With each of these issues, would-be members of a larger scale public were unable to identify one another, let alone organize into a coherent group.

It seems likely that many would have sympathy with this diagnosis in the context of our own contemporary political situation. In the age of social media networks and online news there are many more publics than existed in Dewey’s day, with no realignment, as yet, on the horizon. The fragmented media has further fragmented our publics. Alongside this, where Dewey refers to technologies such as movies, radios and cheap books, we might just as easily refer to streaming services, lifestyle podcasts and ebooks. It seems that, in our time, just as in Dewey’s, one may easily draw a relatively straightforward connection between the large-scale media consumption and a general lack of political and social engagement.

On Dewey’s analysis, such issues could only be solved by means of communication. Based on his appraisal of his then-contemporary political scene, he identified three specific areas to address. In the first instance, he suggested that there was a mismatch between the ‘aims, desires and purposes created by the machine age’ and those of the past. New symbols were necessary in order to give form to the ‘ideas and absence of ideas in connection with which technological factors operate’ (ibid, p. 323).

The second area related to social inquiry. Here, Dewey proposed a bold new experimental research program, bringing experts and citizens together to explore policy initiatives and institutional reform.5 No policy decision or act of reform would be absolute or final in itself. The role of the public would be to ‘judge the bearing of knowledge supplied by others’ (ibid, p. 365).

Finally, the third area related to the communication of such research, as well as the role of news and journalism more generally. In order to judge new social knowledge, Dewey believed that the public needed access to the results of social inquiry, with the news potentially acting as one channel through which such access might be granted.6

There is a role clear role for design in relation to each of the above recommendations. Symbolism, understood in terms of language and meaning, is, as we discussed in the last chapter, central to design activity. However, rather than help us to tackle the complexity of the ‘machine age’, we now urgently need a new symbolism to help us apprehend the sometimes-overwhelming developments of our digital age. Allowing us, for example, to begin to consider and appropriate the possible meanings and likely impact of areas such as AI and nanotechnology. This might emerge through a critical design approach, but equally it might emerge also through a focused inquiry dedicated to investigating how we represent the potential of such technologies to bring about existential transformation.

Moving on to the next recommendation, there is also a potential role for design in the process framing of policy initiatives and institutional reform. Here, it is possible to point to, for example, the work of the UK’s Policy Lab. Based in Westminster, the lab applies design methods as a means of exploring and testing possible responses to pressing national challenges (see e.g. Kimbell and Bailey 2017). We also this see evidenced in the policy design work of Christian Bason (see e.g., Bason 2016), who, along with Thomas Prehn, co-led Denmark’s MindLab. This unit that was originally set up to explore digital reform in the Danish civil service but would eventually move into area of civic problem-solving (see e.g., Carstensen and Bason 2012).

Then there is the communication of the results of social inquiry via the media. As with the communication of research findings discussed in the last chapter (see Chap. 4), Dewey believed that art—in the broadest sense of the word, inclusive of design—held the potential to better present such results to the public. In fact, this is now an emergent area of research in and of itself. In the last number of decades, extensive work has been undertaken exploring the communication of scientific findings in general, with particular consideration being given to the role of that media can play within this process (see e.g., Bucchi 2002). Concurrently, a great deal of work has also been undertaken in relation to the design of scientific exhibitions (see e.g., Macdonald and Basu 2007). Nonetheless, a gap remains with regard to how the design of media platforms (i.e., news and journalism) might best connect citizens to the results of social inquiry, at least in the way that Dewey intended.

Whether or not contemporary design or design research involving practice should take up these challenges in the way that Dewey intended is open to question. It was certainly his belief that, with these three factors attended to, large-scale industrial democracies such as the United States could see a revitalization of the political public, with citizens informing policy and shaping institutional change. As many commentators have pointed out, Dewey did not expect that such an ideal vision would be realized in full, but rather that it might guide efforts to improve upon the existing situation.

In Focus Box 5.1, Tanja Rosenqvist: The Design of Urban Sanitation Governance in Indonesia

Tanja Rosenqvist’s Experiencing Everyday Sanitation (see Rosenqvist 2018a) project focused on the governance of sanitation services in Indonesia. Historically, in this context, sanitation had been perceived as a private issue and not a matter of public concern, with a majority of schemes operating under a community-management model. Consequently, the system suffered from a lack of oversight, coordination and investment and, as a result of urban expansion, was becoming increasingly unsustainable. Recognizing the need for radical reform, Rosenqvist set out to explore to how ‘designerly disruptions’ might allow for the identification of alternative governance strategies. Following Latour-Marres, she links theoretically to Dewey’s work via the public concept, with design again being presented as the means by which her public is ‘sparked’ into being (Rosenqvist 2018b, p. 52). Beyond this latter positioning, her project is labelled ‘transdisciplinary’, with further links being drawn to the areas of international development and governance.

Methodologically, the project was grounded in a series of case studies undertaken in a medium-sized city of one million people. Rosenqvist held workshops which brought together a mix of local stakeholders including representatives from community-based organizations (CBOs) overseeing schemes, the local government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These workshops centered upon game-based activities, which sought on the one hand, to map out the current situation with regard to the management of sanitation and, on the other, to envisage how things might be otherwise. Through these activities the stakeholders were able to conceive of potential solutions to the challenges faced within the current system. Although no outright agreement was reached, a shift in perception was registered. Whereas previously stakeholders had struggled to see how local government might play a role in the management of sanitation systems, this was no longer the case. The possibility of government involvement was seen as both achievable and in some cases desirable (see Rosenqvist 2018b) (Figs. 5.1 and 5.2).
Fig. 5.1

A game designed by Rosenqvisit, allowing participants to visualize the relationships (actual and possible) between NGOs, local government and private stakeholders in the delivery of public services. (Image courtesy Tanja Rosenqvist)

Fig. 5.2

A game designed to Rosenqvist, allowing participants to explore how public services are and could be delivered and governed. (Image courtesy Tanja Rosenqvist)

For Rosenqvist, there were three key project outcomes. The first was repositioning of the meaning of sanitation—shifting from a waste-based perspective to a human-centered one. The second was a typology of ‘designerly strategies for questioning and rethinking societal governance’ as defined within her workshops. The third, arising out of these latter strategies, was the conceptualization of a wholly new area within design termed governance design, which would effectively position design as a means through which the challenges of governance can be explored.

Rosenqvist’s project offers us an initial sense of how Dewey’s publics concept can be meaningfully applied within design. An issue, in this case, urban sanitation, has become so problematic that it needs attention. A public—i.e., representatives of the CBOs, local government and the NGOs—is formed around it. Design allows this public to recognize itself and, equally, to come to terms with the issue at hand. By participating in the games and mapping out the situation, they are able to understand and appreciate its dimensions and, most importantly, come to acknowledge that local government has a role to play in the management of sanitation systems. Here, we have direct impact, in context. Design has gone some way to making things better.

In the broader context of the field of design as a whole, Rosenqvist’s work traces out a means for overcoming large-scale, systematic challenges; making things better for communities by focusing on the structuring of roles and responsibilities at a macro-level—allowing all parties to play a part. In this, her work comes into alignment with Dewey’s ideal of creative democracy, discussed below. Here, as we will see, the idea is that communal discourse—for example, the consideration of issues such public sanitation—should inform and shape government agendas (e.g., via policy or renewed institutional approaches) as a matter of course.

Making Things Public: Dewey’s Concept of the Public in Participatory Design

As was noted above, with the growing popularity of STS theory, the Marres-Latour presentation of Dewey’s publics concept has steadily become enfolded in the participatory design discourse. Among the more prolific contributors, three key theorists stand out—Pelle Ehn, Christopher Le Dantec and Carl DiSalvo. Each has made direct reference to the concept in their research, linking it to the real-world contexts of practice and drawing out its relevance for design.

Ehn, writing with various colleagues, references the concept in relation to work undertaken at Malmö University’s Living Labs. Drawing together a diverse range of actors, the labs aimed to offer citizens a space to explore questions and possibilities in open-ended experimental interventions (see e.g., Bjögvinsson et al. 2010; 2012). In one example, a lab investigated how a hip-hop group from a disadvantaged area in the city might be supported through the development of a bespoke technological platform. Here, a peripheral public is being offered a means to forge links with other publics and the broader community at large.

Similar to Ehn, Le Dantec and DiSalvo have both explored the publics concept in the context of community-based participatory design (e.g., Le Dantec and DiSalvo 2013; Le Dantec 2016; DiSalvo 2009). In referencing the concept, they investigate how design may play a role in the constitution of publics and, equally, how, once constituted, publics can be supported in their efforts achieve desired goals. In one project example, the pair worked with a group of participants to collectively look at the possibility of developing a sensor-based community radio program to promote the sites and attractions of a deindustrialized township (Le Dantec and DiSalvo 2013, p. 253). In this context, the public may be understood as a small-scale, politically active community, a group that a particular design intervention has mobilized in positive action.

Across such examples, design—in particular, participatory design—is presented as a mode of engaging, interacting and experimenting which aims towards devising a response to issues that conventional politics and conventional institutions have failed to address. Following the words of Latour, it becomes the means by which each new issue acquires its own ‘protocol’ or mode of response (2007, p. 819).

While this recent participatory design literature profitably applies the publics concept and usefully positions Dewey in the context of contemporary theory, it is possible to argue that it does not fully represent the context in which Dewey grounds the original concept. We are not offered any sense of his views on democracy, or education, or ethics, which form its background. Consequently, at present, design and design research involving practice lack a sense of Dewey’s broader vision, of what he was advocating. In short, the publics concept may fill a gap in argumentative or conceptual resources but it is not, and at present cannot be, fully appreciated in its own right.

The argument I wish to take up here, in the remainder of this chapter, is that Dewey’s broader body of socio-political work—linked to but extending beyond the publics concept—aligns well with the motivational stance of both design and design research involving practice; that is, the general belief system or orientation that designers and designer-researchers attach to their work. In order to flesh this out, the following sections will aim to offer an insight Dewey’s socio-political perspective and, from this, draw a link back to design and design research involving practice.

Deweyan Democracy: Democracy as a Way of Life

In the history of twentieth century political philosophy, Dewey stands out as a vocal, articulate and determined champion for the democracy, particularly, of course, in the context of the United States. As was illustrated through the case of Walter Lippman, Dewey’s contemporaries were not generally enamored with democracy. Indeed, it had become politically ‘unfashionable’ (Narayan 2016, p. 15). Across the world, old certainties were crumbling. The emergence of USSR offered a live and seemingly successful example of communist government. In Europe, one after another, fascist states were established in Italy, Germany and eventually in Spain. Combined, these events appeared to suggest that liberal democracy’s future was by no means secure.

In spite of this background reality, Dewey’s democratic faith remained undiminished. This is perhaps attributable to how he contextualized and understood democracy. He did not frame its value in terms of universal suffrage (i.e., full voting rights for all citizens above a certain age), the freedom of speech or the formal institutions of government (e.g., parliament). Rather, for Dewey, the heart of democracy was to be found in, what he termed the ‘democratic way of life’.

The democratic way of life places emphasis on the person-to-person interactions which give form to communities and link together different (and differing) groups in a complex weave. This is a vision of democracy grounded in the dialogue and fine-grained negotiations of the everyday. What matters here are the connections people have and create, as well as the act of connecting. Locating this concept, Dewey writes that

I am inclined to believe that heart and guarantee of democracy is in the free gathering of neighbors on the street corner to discuss back and forth what is read in the uncensored news of the day, and in the gathering of friends in the living rooms of houses and apartments to converse freely with one another. (LW 14, p. 226)

In taking this view, Dewey does not understand democracy as a special form of government, or even a special quality of everyday life but, rather, it is seen as ‘the idea of community life itself’ (LW 2, p. 328). In other words, the principles of democracy and community are one. According to Robert Westbrook, this was underscored by a belief that democracy called upon all parties to ‘to build communities in which the necessary opportunities and resources are available for every individual’ allowing for their full participation in every area of life (Westbrook 1991, xv).

Sitting behind this is an understanding of the relationship between the individual and society, society and the individual which diverges markedly from conventional accounts. Dewey rejected all accounts which placed an undue emphasis on one or the other. The individual, he held, was not truly individual but rather could be seen to form an ‘association’. Through our social position, each one of us is connected to a variety of groups, whether grounded in business, a school, a church group and so on. These relationships are maintained in and through free and flexible cooperation and communication. The great advantage of such interaction is that, in interacting, individuals and groups are afforded the opportunity to grow and develop (LW 2, pp. 327–328).

It is worth briefly noting that we see this latter trait (i.e., the growth of individuals/groups) very much in evidence in participatory design projects where collectives are formed around a particular issue. A compelling example emerges in Le Dantec and DiSalvo’s (2013) community radio project outlined above, where the group, in their coming together, were able to develop a novel approach to responding to the challenge of post-industrial decline.

In foregrounding the democratic way of life as the linchpin of democracy, Dewey envisaged an ideal political scenario that he referred to as ‘creative democracy’. In a creative democracy, there would be no separation between everyday community interactions and the broader, formal super-structure of the state (see LW 14, pp. 224–230). New publics would have the opportunity to interact with old publics, contributing to the formation of social policy and institutional reform. The state would be become an ongoing experiment, continually being reframed to reflect the needs of its citizens. At the core of the whole would be conference, consultation, negotiation and persuasion (LW 11, p. 56). This ideal was underpinned by a belief in human nature, in humanity’s equality and natural intelligence (LW 14, pp. 226–227). More significantly however, it was underwritten by a belief in the transformative potential of education.

In Focus Box 5.2, Sissel Olander: Labs Without Walls as Democratic Experiments

Olander is a member of CODE, the Centre for Co-Design Research at the Royal Danish Academy of the Arts in Copenhagen (see In Focus Box 1.1). In a project undertaken in the context of the northern Copenhagen suburb of Vanløse, she explored the potential of an ‘experimental research device’ termed Network Lab.

The work was inspired both by the actor network theory of Bruno Latour (see above) and Dewey’s philosophy—in particular, his publics concept (see above) as well as his basic democracy theory. As with Peter Dalsgaard (see In Focus Box 3.2), Olander does not attempt to literally translate Dewey’s work into practice, but rather uses the material as a point of reference with which ground her project activities. Dewey is seen to offer a way of thinking about issue-formation in the public domain. Further, she embraces what she describes as Dewey’s ‘experimental commitment’ and ‘his efforts to turn the problem of the public into a practical participatory question’ (ibid, p. 149). Though Olander does not explicitly refer to the concept of creative democracy (see above), the Network Lab can be read as a clear attempt to directly link citizens with the institutions of government.

In terms of its practical realization, the Network Lab was not a physical space but rather a set of event-based, design-led interventions where various local officials—e.g., cultural workers and librarians—are drawn into contact with local citizens. The aim was to bring people together around issue-formation with a view to building understanding and assembling new networks; in Olander’s words, institutional platforms and political formats. The events ranged from large-scale workshops to small-scale one-to-one meetings. In each, design tactics and tools are used to open up articulations of the present as well as possible futures (Olander 2015, p. 19).

The link to creative democracy is perhaps best exemplified in one of the project’s key events, hosted in collaboration with the local council, where the aim was to open up a meaningful dialogue with local citizens. Two key features of the event are worth highlighting outright. First, in preparing for the event, successful efforts were made to recruit as diverse a sample as possible by reaching out directly to groups who did not normally interact with the local authorities. Second, the event activities themselves were grounded in imaginative thought and deliberation (a key aspect of Dewey’s recommended strategy for ethical action, as we will see below).

Launching proceedings on the day, the design team encouraged participants to form groups by identifying shared a shared issue to focus on. Here, for example, some grouped around the future of a historic theater. Others considered on the music scene in a local social housing estate. Once the groups had identified their issue, they were then asked to engage in a scenario building exercise using dolls as props—referred as ‘doll scenarios’. The process of scenario building was supported by a series of additional workshop materials designed to ‘engage participants with many different backgrounds and stakes and agendas’. One example was a set of cards which told the story of a successful local circus school that had recently been established. As well as telling the story of the school, the cards posed a series of ‘what if’ questions relating to participants’ scenarios. As a further support, imagery of local scenes was also used to ensure that participants were able to situate their proposals within familiar, everyday settings (Olander 2015, p. 223).

In the end, ten scenarios were developed, recorded and subsequently discussed in a post-workshop plenary. Within the discussion, one originally skeptical council member went so far as to suggest that, based on the event’s success, the council’s approach to citizen-engagement would need to change. He could see that a greater degree of citizen involvement was both necessary and desirable. Indeed, after the event, the council explored how each scenario might be implemented.

From Olander’s perspective, this iteration of the Network Lab constituted ‘a platform for speculation between representatives […] and citizens’ (ibid p. 227). She claims that it was a success because it balanced structure (e.g., the prompt of the circus school) with speculation (e.g., what if questions and scenario building) and blurred the lines between public and private concerns, i.e., people were able to discuss issues that concerned them as individual citizens collectively.

Ultimately, Olander’s work can be seen to go some way to giving form to Dewey’s creative democracy ideal. Through the Network Lab, citizens and local government are very clearly brought into an immediate dialogue. In this, design, or more particularly co-design, is positioned as a tool of democratic communication, a means of enabling interaction and discussion. Present concerns are explored alongside imaginative possibilities. Through this form of communication, change becomes possible—the gap between those who make decisions and those whom the decisions will affect is, at least temporarily, erased. The citizens are being given a chance to shape their own future.

Of course, one might reasonably argue that this is an isolated event with little long-term impact. There will be a degree of truth to such criticism. However, in the context of design research involving practice, there is also value in having this work as a reference. Here, it becomes an exemplar case which may inform future research efforts. Against it, we can ask further questions of the role of design in the context of democratic participation and, more particularly, about the meaning and value of Dewey’s concept of creative democracy for design research (Fig.5.3).
Fig. 5.3

A Vanløse workshop group in the process of scenario building. (Image courtesy Sissel Olander)

For Dewey, democracy, both as a way of life and politically, was to be understood as inextricably intertwined with education. This conviction relied, at least partially, on first-hand experience. Throughout his entire adult life, Dewey was directly involved in education at one level or another—first as a primary school teacher and then, after graduating from doctoral study, as an academic. Famously, he spent a number of years heading up the experimental Laboratory School at the University of Chicago and, though this ceased after his move to Columbia University in New York, he continued to write and lecture on educational matters through the decades that followed.

As a result, some of his most prolific texts refer to education, including Democracy and Education (MW 9; first published in 1916), Education and Experience (see LW 13, pp. 1–62; first published in 1938), and The School and Society (see MW 1, pp. 1–110; first published in 1899). As the various linkings of the titles suggest, each aims to draw some form of explicit relationship between the political, the social and the pedagogic. For Dewey, each of these subject areas implied the others and their interrelation.7 On his view, a robust and vibrant education system was to be understood as one of the foundation stones of a robust and vibrant democracy—the two went hand in hand.

Education offered societies an alternative to instilling an unthinking allegiance to some form of ‘external authority’ (i.e., a dictator or an absolute monarch) and, instead, allowed for the cultivation of a ‘voluntary disposition and interest’ among citizens (MW 9, p. 93). Here, the pedagogic would help guarantee the political and social, with the curriculum and school activities being positioned as central within the whole.

Over his many educational works, Dewey outlined a vision in which students would no longer be introduced to an endless series of more or less useful facts on this or that subject. Instead, they would be instructed in learning how to learn or, as Dewey himself put it, how to think.8 The experience would be framed in democratic terms. This would involve students acquiring an ability to conduct inquiry, engage in debate and deliberation, as well as pass judgement on the results of others’ inquiries (see LW 8, pp. 105–352). The concept of judgement in this context is crucial. As with his suggestions regarding the revitalization of the public, Dewey wanted students to be able to examine evidence and interpret the positions of others. He wrote that through ‘judging, confused data is cleared up, and seemingly incoherent and disconnected facts are brought together’ (ibid, p. 216).

Alongside supporting students in learning how to learn, the school would also facilitate the transition from a child’s early years all the way up to their initiation as fully-emancipated members of society. Here, Dewey envisaged a scenario where, through an immersive course of learning, students would gradually come to understand the workings of the community, taking on greater and greater levels of responsibility over time. This would require a new form of curriculum, one which evolved over time and was ‘organized about the idea of social life as indeed a life, a moving changing thing’ (LW 9, p. 165). In keeping with this scenario, the school, in its interactions with society, would also endeavor to become a model for the ideal society, a ‘projection in type of the society we would like to realize’ (MW 9, p. 326).

The entirety of the vision was held together through the concept of growth, another key term in the Deweyan scheme. Growth, in Dewey’s usage, is to be understood in both singular (individual) and plural (group) terms.9 On an individual level, the proper management of growth signifies that the ‘function of intelligence’ is invoked to its ‘maximum possibility’ (MW 9, p. 56).10 At the group level, this is seen to ripple outwards through the ‘conjoint communicated experience’ that the democratic way of life enables (ibid, p. 93). Taking the broad view, then, in the context of the democratic society, the school, with its opening up of responsibility, enables the individual student to grow, which, in turn, allows society as a whole to grow. In short, both are seen to progress side by side, along a twin track.

Having outlined Dewey’s democratic perspective we are now in a position to move on to examine his ethical stance, that is, how he deals with questions of human conduct and right and wrong. As we will see, for Dewey, democracy directly relates to ethics; again, a consideration of one calls up the other. In addition to this, his ethical stance also draws in the imagination and, more generally, notions of the future—two key concerns for design.

Dewey’s Ethics or Deliberating the Future or the Deweyan Imagination Part Two11

Taking a broad view, it is possible to suggest that two key perspectives dominate contemporary ethical theory. On the one hand, there is consequentialism which holds that the rightness (or wrongness) of a person’s actions can be judged in relation to their eventual outcomes. On the other, there is the deontological perspective which takes the view that a person’s actions can be judged on basis of the intentions guiding their actions, or the particular rule they were operating in relation to. In simplistic terms, those taking the latter view (i.e., the deontologists), would argue that motivations matter more than consequences. Those holding the former view (i.e., the consequentialists) would say the opposite, that consequences matter more than motivations. Kant, with his categorical imperative, would fall into the deontologist camp. Then on the other side, Bentham’s utilitarianism, with its call for the maximization of societal good, exemplifies consequentialism.12

While aligning with certain aspects of both positions, Dewey’s ethical stance offers a somewhat different perspective. He did not believe there was a separate sphere of experience, set apart from all other forms of experience, that could be referred to as exclusively moral. Nor did he believe that it was possible to codify right and wrong without reference to circumstances.

For Dewey, everything depends on context. Indeed, following contemporary ethical terminology, he would be labelled a ‘contextualist’. On this basis, habit and convention—i.e., what we know will likely work and what our society deems acceptable—are understood to function as sufficient moral guideposts in most situations. However, inevitably, habit and convention will fail. A situation will arise that does not conform to our taken-for-granted standards or ill-defined rules of thumb. When this occurs, Dewey argued, ‘the sole alternative to caprice and random action’ was reflection.

Reflection requires that time and dedicated thought—what Dewey terms an ‘intellectual factor’ (LW 7, p. 185)—be directed towards the possible course of future action(s). The notion of the future is crucial here. Reflection is said to occur when individuals ‘seriously ask by what purposes they should direct their conduct’ and ‘what it is which makes their purposes good’ (ibid, p. 184). In the context of ethics, it is characterized as being ‘identical with formation of ends’ (LW 7, p. 185). As we form ends, particular consequences will be ‘foreseen’ (ibid, p. 186). Once foreseen, these consequences will guide what we do, as well as how and when we do it. Our activities come to constitute an inquiry aiming towards a certain outcome.

This offers design research involving practice a vision of an internalized ethics, an ethics which sits nested inside of design’s necessary processes of decision-making. Following Dewey, we might say that, in simple terms, an internalized ethical process would unfold as follows. Engaged in their project context, the designer-researcher would encounter an ethical challenge, one that does not conform to convention. On the basis of this encounter, they would enter into a process of reflection and, in doing so, seek to address the challenge by taking a future-focus and working to frame a desirable ‘end’. Within the context of design research involving practice, this, in turn, would become and inquiry within an inquiry, guiding the direction of the whole and, in the process, transforming an otherwise neutral operation into an ethically-bound activity.

To a degree, such a vision has already found expression in the participatory design literature. Here, referencing the work of Dewey and others, Robertson and Wanger (2013) have set out a series of ethical principles for participatory design based on reflection and iteration in the design process. On their account, participatory design is about envisioning future use (p. 79). Against this, they argue that designer-researchers should question the dynamics of decision-making, in-project learning, researchers’ perception of participants, participant evaluations and, crucially, whether the process allows for a ‘justified loss or change of design focus’ (p. 82). In relation to the latter, they offer the example of how a technology-focused project may uncover problems that require non-technological solutions.

Returning to Dewey, we can say that the question of how this is addressed draws in the activity of judgement. As with pedagogy, judgement is a fundamental feature of his ethical scheme. He approaches the matter socially, linking it to the activity of deliberation, which, again, points to a designerly perspective, in particular a participatory design or collaborative designerly perspective.

For Dewey, deliberation involves ‘confirmation and revision, by personal observation of consequences and cross-referencing of their qualities and scope’ (LW 7, p. 272), ‘an imaginative rehearsal of various courses of conduct’ (ibid, p. 275, italics added). This introduces us to another side of the Deweyan imagination, wherein the imagination is seen to fulfill a very specific role, allowing us to envisage things that may happen and evaluate these possibilities.

We give way, in our mind, to some impulse; we try, in our mind, some plan. Following its career through various steps, we find ourselves in imagination in the presence of the consequences that would follow: and we then like and approve, dislike and disapprove, these consequences, we find the original impulse or plan good or bad. (LW7, p. 275, italics in original)

We are told that the advantage of such an approach is that

it is retrievable, whereas overt consequences remain. They cannot be recalled. Moreover, many trials may mentally be made in a short time. (Ibid)

It likely be apparent that such a process suggests design. It is there in the simple imagining of consequences. At a base level, this is what designers do, what they are expert at. But, equally, and more importantly, it is there in abundance in the processes of ideation, of developing user stories and scenarios (see e.g., Carroll 2000), roadmapping and even prototyping. Techniques such as these allow us to foresee where things might go, what might happen and, further, allow us to check whether we like and approve, or dislike and disapprove the visions with which we are confronted.

In many ways, this latter account can be seen to connect to Manzini’s vision for design in the context of social innovation (2015). For Manzini, one of the key means by which designers can ‘make things happen’ in social innovation is by making ideas visible and tangible. In this, he recommends the scenario, or to be more specific the ‘design-orientating scenario’. Scenarios, he believes, allow for debate. Those involved in what he terms the ‘social conversation’ can ‘say what they like and don’t like’. Equally they can agree or disagree as to how particular ideas might be pursued in real terms (p. 129).

Here, returning to Dewey, we may bridge back to subject of democracy. Dewey directly related this ethical vision to democracy on the basis that democracy demands such negotiation/envisaging of possibilities in the way described above by Manzini. As far as he is concerned, to collectively deliberate over action, trialing all the various possibilities that a situation may throw up, is the only equitable method of managing the future. This provides a moral justification for democracy—it becomes a way of working together that aims at the ‘liberation of individuals on the one hand and the promotion of the common good on the other’ (LW 7, p. 349).

Dewey acknowledged that his approach—of ethics as democracy and democracy as ethics—was especially idealistic. It would involve ‘constant meeting and solving of problems’ (ibid, p. 350) and demand a ‘positive toleration which amounts to the sympathetic regard for the intelligence and personality of others, even if they hold views opposed to ours’ (ibid, p. 329). However, as with democracy proper it would yield ‘the fullest possible realization of human potentialities’ (LW 13, p. 154).

On this view, ethics becomes a negotiated imaginative inquiry, democratic in its constitution, open-ended in direction—a process that is always ongoing and happily never complete. It will not result in a set of rules but rather in a constantly evolving understanding of how we can live together well. So long as the commitment to tolerance holds, then newly emergent moral problems, the doubtful situations of life, can always be addressed through the asking of questions and seeking of answers. Though the answers may only lead to more questions, the hope it that they will be better. It will be clear enough that this is a designerly view. Good design, appropriate design, is open-ended. It too is always ongoing and happily never complete. It too relies on questions and answers and ultimately is underpinned by a hope it that things will be made better. This latter point leads us to Dewey’s melioristic perspective.

Bringing Democracy, Education and Ethics Together: Meliorism as a Radical Middle Position

Following on from the above material, there is every chance that Dewey might be read as a naïve optimist; that is, someone who holds an unquestioning belief in the inevitability (or, at least, high likelihood) of a positive outcome in relation to a given problem or problematic situation. For example, on the face of it, it would seem excessive to propose a wide-ranging program of social research in response to democracy’s ills. Equally, it could also be argued that a renewal of society’s methods and conditions of debate and discussion requires a degree of commitment which far exceeds any reasonable timeframe or investment of resources. Such proposals and suggestions were however, not pitched as inevitabilities. They were set forth as conditions which will likely support the desired outcome, i.e., in this case, a vibrant democracy.

The fact is that Dewey was not a naïve optimist. He openly rejected the opposing poles of optimism and pessimism and, instead, argued in favor of a melioristic outlook.

In simple terms, meliorism refers to the belief that the world can be made better through human effort. In holding such a belief, one is not insisting upon the view that betterment will necessarily be achieved, only that it is likely to be possible if an appropriate course of action is identified. As Dewey put it

Meliorism is the belief that the specific conditions which exist at one moment, be they comparatively bad or comparatively good, in any event may be bettered. It encourages intelligence to study the positive means of good and the obstructions to their realization, and to put forth endeavor for the improvement of conditions. It arouses confidence and a reasonable hopefulness as optimism does not. […] Too readily optimism makes the men who hold it callous and blind to the sufferings of the less fortunate, or ready to find the cause of [the] troubles of others in their personal viciousness. It thus cooperates with pessimism, in spite of the extreme nominal differences between the two, in benumbing sympathetic insight and intelligent effort in reform. (MW 12, pp. 181–182)

The central point to make here is that meliorism, when viewed in relation to Dewey’s broader philosophic scheme, can be seen to offer a compelling and, more importantly, a credible middle option set between optimism and pessimism. This, I believe, is a path that designers and designer-researchers must attempt to take. It allows us to circumvent the more debilitating forms of cynicism and doubt. At the same time, it also acts as a guard against the sort of unthinking hopefulness that promises bountiful and sustainable futures waiting just around the corner. More importantly still, it allows us to be ethically clear with regard to our practice; design may work but, equally, it may not—a point that will be picked up below and again later.

This rounds out our discussion of Dewey’s socio-political perspective. With the above account in place, we may reasonably ask what it all means for design and design research involving practice, in particular for socially/politically motivated work.

Design, the Melioristic Discipline: Taking on a Deweyan Perspective

This chapter opened with a brief reflection on design and design research involving practice’s tendency to aim towards positive change, to make a difference in the world and to add value. In this, focus was directed towards participatory design practice and its general democratic orientation. It was noted that, over the years, participatory design theorists have drawn linkages between the values of practice and Dewey’s work, with a recent emphasis being placed on the STS presentation of his publics concept. While it was acknowledged that this appropriation of the public concepts has enriched design discourse, it was argued that little work has been done exploring Dewey’s democratic vision, his related ethical stance and his melioristic outlook, all of which can be understood to sit behind the publics concept.

In broad terms, there are a number of reasons for the design and designer-researcher to pay more attention to these theories.

As a collective, they offer an intellectual outline of how political, social and cultural processes can be conceived in fair, equitable and hopeful terms. Further, the fact that democracy, education and ethics are not seen as separate in Dewey’s system draws attention to the interconnectedness of all action, as well as the pervasiveness of moral issues. It can also be argued that, by lining up these Deweyan reference points, the complexity of each domain becomes more navigable on the basis of the interrelations he has set out.

Beyond these reasons, there is an additional important point to be noted, one which has been alluded to above in relation to meliorism. Here, returning specifically to the suggestion that design and design research involving practice aim to make things better, I would argue that the above strands of Dewey’s work require that we augment the obviously naïve idea that making things better is something that designers and designer researchers can achieve with ease, as a matter of course. Indeed, there is an inherent danger that the rhetoric which attaches to design research involving practice may appear to promise guaranteed success and the sense that any design input will necessarily result in the positive transformation of a given situation.

Dewey would reject such an assumption outright. For him, the good does not produce itself, nor can the route to its achievement be prescribed in advance—there is no one way, no sure way of bringing about positive transformation. As a whole, the process is to be understood as inherently complex. Indeed, if we follow the connecting threads of his democratic, pedagogic and ethical positions we can see that many things are required in order that a sustained, long-term good can be brought about for the widest possible number of people.

Beyond this broad outline, there are some specific aspects of Dewey’s democratic, pedagogic and ethical work that are worth attending to in the context of design and design research involving practice.

The first aspect relates directly to his understanding of democracy. As we have seen, Dewey centered democracy in every day interactions—conversations on street corners and in living rooms—the practice of democracy-as-a-way-of-life as he called it. Again, as was alluded to above in relation to the growth of individuals and groups, I would contend that, at a foundational level, socially and politically orientated design parallels this perspective. Surveying the wide-ranging evolution of these areas over recent decades, it is clear that practitioners have cultivated an ability to enter everyday settings and open up a highly effective dialogue, querying possible courses of action and exploring the likely impact.

Participatory design, at least the participatory design of Ehn, DiSalvo and Le Dantec, locates itself in everyday settings; not necessarily on the street corner or in living rooms but certainly, historically, in the workplace and, more recently, in the civic arena. It originated as a form of democratic action and continues, in part, to operate at this level. Indeed, some participatory design theorists have gone so far as to argue that, in its civic-intervention mold, the field may be understood as a program of small-scale democratic experiments which one after another trigger small but meaningful political events (Binder et al. 2015). In some instances, it is claimed that such work can even extend to influencing civic and regional authorities (see e.g., Huybrechts et al. 2017).

Viewed from this angle, participatory design might reasonably be positioned as an approach to achieving Dewey’s ideal of ‘creative democracy’ (see above), which envisages an upwards flow from citizens to the development of policy and institutional reform. Indeed, approached in this way, it may become possible to address some of the proposals set out by Bødker and Kyng (2018) and Bannon et al. (2018)—in particular those to do with scale, as, here, the necessity of scaling is a given. Further, by working to forge connections across the citizen-institution divide, participatory design might be better placed to find a niche in which to explore the Bødker-Kyng agenda of large-scale technological ambition. On this front, it seems that, only in mobilizing the resources of the state, might any challenge to the current dominance of global technology firms become possible. Equally, it also seems that only the state could facilitate the level of prototyping and public involvement that such an agenda necessitates.

However, even if it is accepted that participatory design can be conceived of and approached in this manner, the issue of how to bridge the citizen-institution divide and to manage the upward flow from citizen to policy formation/institutional reform remains. Here, Dewey can offer the field some guidance. We have seen how he argued for a broad program of social inquiry, for returning the results to the citizens and ensuring that citizens where able to criticize and judge these results. In the longer-term, of course, he argues that this can only be enabled through education, with students’ being initiated in learning how to learn and in becoming, integrated well-rounded citizens. This is ultimately the keystone of his democratic vision.

On the face of it, it would seem that concerns relating to the structure of the education system, or the development of criticality and strong judgement hold little immediate relevance to design and design research involving practice. However, while designers and designer-researchers are unlikely enter schools or begin designing curricula (though of course they may), there are ways that they can seek to engage the young. If appropriately pursued, this could lead to individual and collective growth, opening up a sense of positive freedom among disadvantaged and otherwise marginalized groups.13 The possibility of learning occurring in participatory design has been picked up many (see e.g., Bratteteig 2004). Indeed, Robertson and Wenger pointedly highlight the need to support mutual learning within their list of ethical principles for participatory design (2013, p. 82). Looking beyond discussions of mutual learning however, it does not appear as though a concern for fostering criticality and an ability to cast judgement amongst participants has, as yet, emerged as a strong theme in the field. Thus, following Dewey, we might reasonably suggest that there is the potential for participatory and collaborative designer-researchers to explore these aspects through the tools and techniques they deploy in research settings.

A recent contribution from the eminent participatory design theorist Elizabeth Sanders (2017) points to such a possibility. Here, in reflecting on her extensive experience of working in participatory design over many years, Sanders sketches out a future vision for the field of design, which she titles ‘collective dreaming’. In the space of collective dreaming, she proposes that everyone will have the opportunity to engage in developing ‘imaginary scenarios’, whether real or virtual, about futures that could be. Though this is design-by-the-people there is still a role for expert designers. On Sanders’s view—a view which is very much in keeping with Manzini’s design for social innovation—they will be called upon to respond on two fronts. First, they will be expected to design ‘tools and materials for non-designers to express themselves creatively and collectively’. Second, they will also be asked to contribute to making sense of, and shaping, what emerges from this expression (p. 221). Though criticality and judgement are not explicitly addressed in her discussion, I would argue that, for the scenarios to have any value at all, such faculties would need to be foregrounded within the process (i.e., within the accompanying tools, materials and facilitation). The reality is that if individuals were not supported in working to understand the likely impact and consequences of their ‘dreaming’, of what possibility would be better or worse—both for themselves, as well as the group—then their dreaming would remain just that, dreaming or, worse, deliver unforeseen negative futures.

This leads us to the ethical dimension of practice and research. As we already have seen above, for Dewey, deciding on the proper course of action—what to do or what not to do—was best explored through inquiry, particularly in doubtful, uncertain situations (as in Chap. 3). Here, we discussed how this offers design research involving practice a vision of an internalized ethics, an inquiry within the inquiry. It is however up to designer-researchers to ensure that they consciously work to identify such issues and that, at all times, their inquiries are flexible enough to accommodate a reorientation and a revised course of action, as outlined by Robertson and Wanger (2013).

It was also noted at this point that Dewey insists on the requirement that possible courses of action be explored through deliberation, the imaginative rehearsal of the actions yet to be undertaken. As in last chapter, we here see Dewey move to reposition the imagination as a significant and meaningful intellectual process. Extending its bounds far beyond fancy and whim, it is said to allow for de-risked ethical experimentation, the trialing of particular approaches without having to suffer any adverse consequences.

As was noted here in relation to the work of Manzini, we see that Dewey and design connect strongly at this point in the relation to envisioning and foreseeing the future, providing the material against which we might approve or disapprove of particular options or futures. Of course, we see this recurring again through our reference to Sanders’s vision of collective dreaming.

Complementing the above, it is also worth highlighting that Marc Steen (2015; 2013) has discussed how collaborative design in general holds an inherent alignment with the ethical aspect of Dewey’s vision. Here, he has argued convincingly that, as modes of practicing and conducting research, such approaches can be positioned as forms of ‘moral inquiry’, wherein participants explore problems together. The ‘ethics of codesign occur’ he writes ‘when participants use their capacities for perception and engage with visualizations of the problem… or when they use their capacities for conception and engage in creative activities’ (ibid, pp. 406–407). Steen places particular emphasis on Dewey’s interrelation of inquiry and imagination. In the context of collaborative design, these are repositioned as collective pursuits, becoming processes of ‘joint inquiry and imagination’ (ibid p. 405; also see Steen 2013). Collaborative modes of design, then become a literal and discreet realization of Dewey’s ethics in action.

Beyond ethics, the last factor, and the organizing principle for the whole is the powerful and compelling concept of meliorism. This is where Dewey really adds value. As was made clear, meliorism urges us to acknowledge that neither blind optimism nor flat pessimism will do—the designer and designer-researcher must aim to strike a reasonable balance between unquestioning hope and complete despair. The design process may here be positioned as the method through which the world can be remade for the better. Whether focusing exclusively on practical concerns or aiming towards knowledge production, this process cannot be seen as offering guaranteed success. Rather, properly conceived, it functions as an open-ended inquiry which may or may be not achieve its desired outcome. While we cannot predict success, it is only in trying—moving forward and back between experimentation and observation—that we will have any sense of whether or not this or that approach will work, whether or not this or that design strategy will likely make things better. We see this principle well expressed in Manzini’s vision of design for social innovation (2015). He perceives the possibility that such an approach may facilitate a transition to a more sustainable civilization but, equally, he recognizes that this is by no means guaranteed (see e.g., pp. 203–204).

Linking up the full argument, then, we may come to see design and design research involving practice as enablers of democracy as a way of life; as processes allowing for personal growth; as two inherently ethical-minded practices; and, ultimately, as a means of achieving positive change and collective growth slowly and carefully—the melioristic discipline.

A Practical Case 5.0: A Participatory Design HCI Project with Young Forced Migrants

As we have seen, over the last two decades participatory design has been applied to predominantly civic settings. In line with this reorientation, a recent study by Duarte and colleagues (see Duarte et al. 2018) has explored the application of participatory design in an HCI project undertaken with young forced migrants (YFM) in Münster in Germany. Examining this case here will allow us consider the how the above Deweyan themes of democracy, education, ethics and, to a degree, meliorism can be seen to thread through and intersect within contemporary participatory design practice.

Focusing on the development of a digital mobile tool, the project aimed to support the YFMs’ integration process—a highly complex and challenging issue in and of itself. Initially the team envisaged that the tool would provide spatial information, helping users to gain a familiarity with their adopted city’s geography. However, through the research, this was gradually augmented as, from the YFMs’ perspective, more social functionality, such as the possibility of making local connections and gaining access to language classes was considered desirable.

Participants included both YFMs, between 16–18 years old, and local students from Münster. The project involved five workshops, ‘hands on activity’, a field trip and a final ‘data processing’ activity. The work was grouped into three separate stages. Stage one, which extended over the first two workshops, focused on brainstorming. Here, the goal was to gain a deep understanding of the YFMs’ challenges and needs (ibid, p. 3:15). Stage two, extending over the third and fourth workshops as well as the field trip, focused on collaboration. Here, teams of FYMs and local students explored both the services that YGMs might require access to as well as how this access might be facilitated. Finally, stage three, incorporating both the ‘hands-on activity’ and the fifth workshop, focused on co-designing. Here, using exploratory design techniques, initial wireframes of the tool were produced.

At the end of the study, participants were surveyed and the results were jointly explored in the final data-processing activity. While several challenges were identified in relation to areas such as communication and the limited time-span of the project (see pp. 3:22–3:25), many positive aspects were also drawn out: YFMs had been highly engaged in the project, with facilitators observing strong collaborative dynamics among some groups in the workshop sessions; the participatory approach to the research14 had allowed for iteration and adaption of the study’s goals, questions and practices; and the YFMs were able to see potential in the proposed application (p. 3:26).

Returning to Dewey’s perspectives on democracy, education, and ethics and their relationship to design outlined above, it is possible to highlight a number of points of correspondence. In the first instance, we see how, in this case of participatory design, there are clear overlaps between the democratic, the pedagogic and the ethical. In terms of democracy, all activities were framed around open and equitable decision-making processes. Wherever possible, efforts were made to balance perspectives. For example, multiple approaches to communicating ideas were explored, ensuring that those who were not comfortable speaking aloud were not put at a disadvantage. Later, when surveyed, the YFMs reported that had felt their voices were heard (p. 3:29).

With regards to the pedagogic, all activities were framed around the promotion of mutual learning. Here, the sharing of ideas in workshops becomes an exchange of perspectives from which either side might benefit. Learning is seen to occur in the forward and back between two otherwise separate groups. Additionally, through their involvement in the wireframing activities, the YFMs were seen to acquire a new design skill, one which they had not previously been exposed to. These latter aspects also indicate a sense of individual and collective growth among a disadvantaged and marginalized group (i.e., the YFMs)—there is a definite sense of empowerment in evidence.

Also, in terms of the pedagogic, it also worth noting that project activities were undertaken as part of the school curriculum. As such, the coming together of the YFMs and the local pupils was enacted in an educational context. Here, we see close alignment with Dewey’s vision of the school as a microcosm of the wider society.

In terms the ethical, we can observe an overarching commitment to reflection and imagination being demonstrated throughout the process. As was noted above, the research goals questions and practices were all iterated and adapted as future possibilities were envisaged and deliberated in the workshop settings and beyond. This approach can be seen to have resulted in a new design direction for the digital mobile tool (i.e., through the inclusion of enhanced social functionality). As such, we can say that the project (or inquiry) was flexible enough to accommodate a reorientation/revised course of action arising from the decision-making of its constituent members. To echo Marc Steen (2015), they were able to successfully solve problems together.

On another note, it is worth highlighting that we cannot claim that above study exemplifies Dewey’s ideal of creative democracy in direct terms. There is no upward flow from citizens to government in evidence; there is no sense that the project might inform policy or lead to institutional reform. That is not to say however that there is no possibility of this happening. The fact that the project was integrated within the school curriculum points to the possibility of change at an institutional level. Equally, with increasing numbers of YFMs entering Europe, the project will have had wide applicability across the region—its reporting allows for transferability. This in turn may lead to future impact.

Beyond the above, I take the view that this case presents us with a clear example of a melioristic design research project. It foregrounds a particularly vulnerable group (i.e., YFMs), seeks to gain an understanding of their situation and, against this, explores how a digital product might be designed to improve that situation. The team is seeking to make things better. However, they are also measured in claiming success and do not shy away from discussing their project’s limitations. As was briefly indicated above, they highlight the communication difficulties and the project’s limited time-span. They also note the ambiguity of local participants’ levels of engagement and challenges regarding data management. The researchers do not claim that any special transformation, only a transform. A proposal for a digital tool now exists when previously the idea had not been considered. Two communities have come together, whereas otherwise they might not have had any contact. In this, communication has taken place and one will understand the other a little better than before. As Dewey would likely argue, that, in itself, is an outcome worth working towards.


  1. 1.

    The First Things First Manifesto was originally written by graphic designer Ken Garland and, subsequently, signed by another twenty-one other designers. In the manifesto, Garland called on designers to seek out opportunities to apply their skills in non–commercial, more socially–orientated contexts. For an overview and discussion of its relevancy beyond its initial presentation, see Poynor (1999).

  2. 2.

    An overview of the economic policies of the mid to late–twentieth century is beyond the scope of the present text, it will be sufficient to note that, in the West, through the 1950s, 60s and early 70s there was a general consensus that state intervention in the economy was both necessary and positive. From the early 1980s onwards, with the election of Margret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Regan in the United States, this consensus was gradually undermined. Both of these politicians held the firm belief that state intervention was unnecessary and, indeed, damaging—a view which is now termed ‘neo–liberalism’. For an overview of this historic shift see Kotz (2015).

  3. 3.

    In the mid–2000s, von Hippel (2005) argued that increased access to information and technology meant that elite groups of ‘lead users’ might now participate in the production process. He referred to this development as a ‘democratization of innovation’.

  4. 4.

    An ability which participatory design as design-only is seen to lack.

  5. 5.

    At regular intervals through his works, Dewey bemoans what he sees as the poor state of social inquiry. This subject receives extensive treatment in The Public and its Problems but is also given a dedicated chapter in Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (see LW 12, pp. 481–505).

  6. 6.

    Another key challenge for a reformed news, lay with presentation, i.e., how it was packaged. ‘A technical high-brow presentation’ he suggested, ‘would appeal only to those technically high-brow; it would not be news for the masses’. The need was for presentations/publications which appealed on a deeper level. Art was capable of breaking through the ‘plane of conventionalized and routine consciousness’ (ibid, p. 349). By disrupting everyday consciousness—news as it was commonly experienced—the well-crafted, well-considered presentation of social research would aid the formation of sound opinion and judgement. It would ensure that, when the time came, the public could make an informed political contribution.

  7. 7.

    It is interesting to observe, for example, that the role of education is discussed more than once in The Public and its Problems (LW 2, pp. 235–372) and the ‘method of democracy’ is such a forceful theme in his Ethics co–written with Tufts (LW 7).

  8. 8.

    How We Think (LW8, pp. 105–352) is the title of one of Dewey’s most famous works.

  9. 9.

    It is important to note that, as we will see below, growth was as much a moral concept for Dewey as it was educational or democratic.

  10. 10.

    In Democracy and Education, Dewey dedicates an entire chapter (Chap. 4) to the theme of education and growth (see MW 9, pp. 46–58).

  11. 11.

    In some ways, this section links to another section The Deweyan Imagination: Part One, Meanings and Nature in Chap. 4, where aspects of Dewey’s understanding of ‘the imagination’ are first introduced.

  12. 12.

    Becker and Becker (2001) offer a helpful encyclopedic overview of the manifold dimensions of contemporary ethical thought. Additionally, Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics (1998/1967) sets out an accessible, if conservative, history of Western philosophy’s ethical advances.

  13. 13.

    Marianne McAra’s doctoral work (2017) presents a powerful example of how small-scale participatory design projects can effect positive change in young people’s lives.

  14. 14.

    As well as a participatory design project, the study was also framed as participatory research project with the YFMs taking on the role of co-researchers at various stages.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Brian S. Dixon
    • 1
  1. 1.Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social SciencesUlster UniversityBelfastUK

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