Generative & Participatory Design

Participatory Design as a term has come to mean many different situations of design process and design thinking that share some common traits. Chief among these is that end-users particularly, as well as other stakeholders contribute in some meaningful way to the final – or more accurately – used design. With the advent of digital design culture and designers working with both code and coders directly participatory design strategies have been extended to include areas of generative design. This is where user input in the form of data (i.e. movement, location etc.) or content (i.e. text, image etc.) is taken into a system of generative design, then, processed and mixed in a pre-determined way according to a designed algorithm. Generative designers do this for a variety of reasons and benefits dependent on the situation at hand. When describing this in their book about participatory design and user–generated content the design educators Helen Armstrong and Zvezdana Stojmirovic (Armstrong, 2011 p.121) describe this particular situation:

“Designers develop algorithmic structures, users feed those structures with content, and out of the process emerges something entirely new and sometimes unforeseen.”

What is described here is not fully the traditional model of participatory design, i.e. of stakeholder engagement etc. but it alludes to what the practice of generative design can bring to participatory design, i.e. mass-collaboration and the generation of potentially highly personal or formally varied design outcomes. There seems to be two distinct types of participation, one extends a more traditional model i.e. stakeholders using digital systems to contribute content for inclusion where they can potentially re-mix and edit and thus are genuinely participating willfully in the design act. Where as the second type of participation is not as consensual or structured on the users side. For example Armstrong and Stojmirovic cite the interactive designer Johnathan Harris’ ‘We Feel Fine’ project that aggregates blog posts and displays them in various ways that explore the purported happiness of participants in different data visualizations. This situation leads to a kind-of de-facto participation that is more and more common in our highly networked environment and one that is highly attractive to generative designers, as this kind of user activity is readily feedable into the algorithmic structures mentioned above. It is worth asking what this somewhat denuded second type of participation offers the designer apart from a ready stream of data, what is the medium specific value? Armstrong and Stojmirovic (Armstrong, 2011 p.117) also discuss this indirectly when saying:

“It is the unpredictable nature of the content and its constant reference to the larger culture that draws the user into the experience.”

What stands out for me in this sentence is “its constant reference to the larger culture” and I think that this is the gold for the generative designer. The consumption of design just like the creation of design is a more and more communal act and I think there is an innate desire from people (i.e. designers, commissioners of design and users of design) that design reflects the world it inhabits in a material way. In the ephemeral world of networked digital design, connectedness can be thought of as a material property of design and one that has value and can be explored and used and more importantly a property that commissioners of design want embodied for them in their design and communications.

Armstrong and Stojmirovic also interview the designer, academic and director of the Walker Art Center Design Studio Andrew Blauvelt (Armstrong, 2011 p.101) about how these new material concerns of designers are shaping design practice:

“Perhaps I think the role of the Designer is a Designer. But instead of designing a fixed, final thing they are more likely to be designing things people use to create or design other things. Designing Design. Designing Systems. Designing Processes.”

Again here you can feel the weight of connectedness and evolution as things that that have become fundamental material concerns for designers. This in some way explains the explosion in frameworks for designers i.e. API’s for all kinds of data around peoples interaction online and content sharing etc. These frameworks made possible by digital technologies provide ways for designers to mix and re-mix parts of our collective experience in a live and fluid way into design systems, processes and outcomes.


Helen Armstrong, 2011. Participate: Designing with User-Generated Content. Edition. Princeton Architectural Press.