I chose to review the Process Lab 'Citizen Design' exhibit the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, primarily because in that it is unique in that it is one of the few exhibits I’ve seen that is interactive. It breaks the conventions of a typical ‘exhibition’ by not simply allowing the viewer to passively look upon the items within it, but engaging the viewer in actively prompting their participation. This installation gives visitors firsthand experience with methods designers use to improve their communities.
Through a series of questions and choices the viewer is asked to record what they and their community care about, define an issue that matters, and propose design tactics that could make a difference. As a student of design, I was intrigued, and decided to partake in the process myself.
The lab is divided into a 5-step process, which traces a chronological circle around the room. At the outset you are presented with Step 1, to the left of the entrance, which dominates the entire west wall. It informs the participant that they are about to embark upon a design process which instigates change through a method of collaboration and community involvement.
On this wall there are rolls of stickers each with a different ‘value’ proposition. Examples of this include creativity, resilience, health, equity, history, recreation ect. This values are essentially tools for understanding what you as an individual with the potential to incite change want to address through design.
I picked the ‘Education’ value.
In Step 2, in the center of the room, the participant is presented with a series of questions. These are essentially real-world issues that you might wish to tackle by carrying it through in the design process and brainstorm solutions for. Examples of questions include: “How might we expand access to technology?”, “How might we improve healthcare access for neighborhoods?” or “Make vacant of blighted properties useful and desirable?”
The question I eventually selected, I thought, was appropriate given my chosen value: “How might we encourage more people to read?"
Step 3 is to then identify design tactics. You are presented with a series of ‘tactic cards’, each with a different solution, which might be applied to any of the aforementioned problems in Step 2.
You could either sift through the cards, consider your question and value and make a careful and informed selection, or you could, alternatively, close your eyes or look away and randomly select two cards. I decided to do the latter, in the thinking that fresh ideas could arise from combining two unexpected design tactics. Not-to-mention, the role of a designer in contemporary society is to come up with creative solutions to problems and the best way to do this, I believe, is to consider every possible outcome, as abstract as it may be. I was up for the challenge.
So with my question “How might we encourage more people to read?” and value ‘Education’ in mind, the first tactic card I ended up selecting was the ‘Co-Working Space’ card. It read: “Less space. Less commitment. More room for growth.” The second card I selected was the ‘Classroom’ card. It read: “Learning can happen anywhere.” Juxtaposing these cards together, I began to see a creative solution unfold. Considering the question at hand, which concerned literacy, a co-working space that also takes place in a classroom setting, I realized, could potentially make for more intimate meetings that advocate literacy and discussion and is conducive to learning.
The exhibit instructions asks that you note down and sketch your idea on the back of the question sheet, which a perfect segue into Step 4, recording, documenting and reflecting back on the design process.
Step 4 takes place on the western wall of the exhibit. Here, the viewer is presented with a holistic chart of all the possible choices presented throughout Steps 1-3. With the interactive pen they presented at the outset of the exhibit, they ask you to save your choices. The exhibit outlines that I would be able to retrieve my results online using the code on my admission ticket. Here I would be able to see everything I’ve collected and created.
Step 5 involves placing your solution in the context of the real world, and also in the context of other participants input and choices. It asks you to place your design where you think it belongs. For example, on top of a roof, adjacent to a vacant lot, or on a farm.
Finally, the exhibit presents you with an info graphic that is a cumulation of your scores in relation to everyone who participated in the project. This piece of data visualization served to give your solution context.
Overall, I felt this exhibit was one of the most engaging I’ve seen so far. This process is similar to how designers work when they collaborate with communities to address complex challenges. As a design student, this exercise gave me a better sense of how I might apply this process of creative problem solving in more everyday scenarios and daily practices, personal work and so on. It was a great learning experience about the power that design has, not to mention a strong motivator to go out into the world and seize every opportunity to make change by engaging with your community. No matter who you are or where you live, together we can be change makers and contribute as a citizen designer.