January 2017

Photo: my attempt at giving structure to the research process with post-it notes.

Post-it Perfect? The Illusion of the Neon-Coloured Sticker

The post-it note has become the symbol of creativity par excellence. If you look into any office nowadays, you'll find at least one wall covered with these bright stickers. Any practice to do with participation, service design, branding, community engagement, user experience and public consultation makes use of - or even fundamentally relies on - post-its.

Now the truth is, post-it notes fall off. Instantly. And I know this, because my own attempt at giving structure to my research with post-its ended up on the floor. The original ones might last a bit longer, but inevitably your grand ideas will swirl down like leaves in the autumn.

There is, of course, a larger problem with the current trend to design every participatory activity with post-its. We 'like' to 'post' things online, but what actual impact do real-life posts make? Does is truly make a meeting more participatory? The goal is engagement, yet what do you do once everyone has contributed a keyword on a post-it? How do you proceed in order to make sense of all those stickers on the wall? And how do you deal with complex issues that don't fit on a 3 x 3 inch of paper?

I believe that the answer lies in good facilitation, because as the Chinese saying goes, if the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way. The idea that post-its will automatically engage an audience and bring in creativity does not apply if there is no coherent strategy for the meeting. This is where a skilled facilitator comes in, taking the time and effort to think carefully through the process of how participation will be encouraged, continued and used - in the end it's not about demonstrating walls full of post-its, but about proactively using those ideas that emerged from the process.

Finallly, post-its are only useful in one small part of the participatory process: brainstorming. After this stage there are many further steps that need to be taken, such as negotiating positions and collaborating on potential solutions. Post-its can only do some aspects of these different exercises, and other props or tools might be more useful for other tasks. Hence, it is necessary to have a 'toolbox' handy in order to bring out the best from all participants. As a visual facilitator, I have my own toolkit which is the large sheet of paper and colourful markers. These have proved to be flexible enough to do a diversity of exercises while inviting everyone, from beginning till end, to contribute their ideas.

For the February blog post, I will write more about the concept of the toolbox.


December 2016

Photo: Upon entering the CIID final exhibition, no name tags but stickers instead!

Interaction Design's Mantra: Effective, Efficient and Effortless

I recently visited the students' final show at The Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CIID), a small but intriguing exhibition demonstrating the way in which young people learn to design our lives. Indeed, the prototypes range from educational games for children to providing platforms for critical debate in everyday life. Yet, why do all projects involve an app?

The tendency to design interaction through apps - the contemporary paradox of more but less - is reflected in the genius - yet questionable - idea of the entry stickers. Upon entering CIID, you can choose from four stickers instead of getting a conventional name tag: education, hiring, graduated or curious. Opting for the latter, I instinctively know that no one will bother me while I stroll around the space. Had I been keen on a chat with the students, I should have opted, obviously, for the 'hiring' label. If I wanted to have a drink and laugh, I probably should have taken the 'graduated' one.

Stickers like these show the goal of effortless, efficient and effective interaction with people one encounters - please don't waste time with names, let's get down to business. Just like the apps, we know what we need, and we want to get it quickly. Our lives are increasingly designed with this in mind, let's face it and be prepared for it. It becomes less a choice, more a standard way of living. There is no time for fluffiness, let alone introductions to ask what one needs and can offer. And though I am critical of all this, especially those omnipotent apps that funnel us towards a social crisis, I certainly do like those stickers!

What's next, a post-it note on our foreheads? More about that in January!


November 2016

Photo: 'Them' (2007), Artur Zmijewski, Documenta 12, courtesy Documenta GmbH

Conflict or Contradiction? Dealing with Difference in Dialogue

There is a fine line between instigating conflict and revealing contradictions in a Visual Agency session. But before addressing the differences between these two approaches, why is disagreement necessary at all? It is easy to maintain consensus within a conversation by manoeuvring around difficult topics, yet the outcome of such discussions will subsequently remain superficial and as expected, thus without surprises and without significant change. There might have been a sharing of ideas and experience, and there might have been active listening, but the outcome is based on comfort and complacency. Yet, in sessions where something was stirred up through critical questions, a space opened up for self-reflection. Such reflection arises from a more distanced comparison of one’s own views with those of others. This process brings up unexpected insights, and might lead to a deeper transformation.

Yet, creating a conflict does not necessarily lead to meaningful insights. The project ‘Them’ (2007) by Artur Żmijewski illustrates this well. For this project, Żmijewski organised several workshops with participants from four groups in Warsaw with conflicting views: members of the nationalist All Polish Youth, a Catholic women's group, a group of young Jewish liberals, and a group of socialists. During the workshops, each group was asked to create a poster that symbolises their beliefs and vision of Poland. In the next stage, the participants discussed each other’s different views and were able to make changes to other group's posters. The first actions involved writing over other posters and cutting parts out, eventually ending up in more aggressive behaviour such as burning the work and throwing it out of the window. After the final workshop, there is not much left of the posters, and the participants have attacked each other physically. T-shirts with the group's logos are cut up, and people's private spaces have been invaded. By creating this situation, Żmijewski was intentionally testing the relationships between the participants, thereby challenging their beliefs and opinions. Yet, it is questionable whether any deeper change took place within the participants place as a result of the workshop. It is up to the viewer to reflect on this social experiment, a contemplation of human behaviour for which there was no space in the workshop.

What sets the method of Visual Agency apart is that, rather than inciting antagonism, the approach aims to reveal contradictions. These are not just contradictions between participants, but also discrepancies within the verbal and visual arguments of the participant. This is where the parallel use of verbal and visual ideas becomes significant, as it offers two types of expression. What cannot be expressed in words, can be expressed through images or even through body language, which is an inherent part of human interaction. Rational thinking gives way for a more intuitive thinking process that reveals our norms and values, as well as needs and beliefs. The juxtaposition between the verbal and the visual shows such contradictions, because the two layers do not always match up. In one Visual Agency session, this became apparent when an architecture student explained (towards the end of the session, and in response to our discussion) that his wish was to provide good public space for the community, but his style of painting and between-the-lines comments revealed that his real goal remains to become a great, famous architect, whose architecture is admired by the community. It is this revealing of contradictions that makes self-reflection possible, which is the groundwork for a further transformation of how one thinks and acts.


October 2016

Photo: own documentation of a Home Visit Europe session in Copenhagen on 17.09.2015

Socio-Political Games: A New Approach to Theatre

Fifteen strangers meet in a random apartment to exchange and draw personal stories, to discuss the politics driving Europe, and to do funny tasks printed on the spot by a small undefinable machine. This is the essence of Home Visit Europe, a theatre play that is actually a performance that is in fact a socio-political game.

Participants are invited to discuss, debate, collaborate and compete in order to win a slice of the cake (collaborative groups end up sharing). Brought to the table are issues concerning Europe, such as nationality, democracy and solidarity. Whereas the outcome is purely statistical, one leaves with a sense of having participated in something very unique. It is not so much the gathering with strangers and the topical discussion, but the way in which this encounter is facilitated by a diversity of low and high-tech tools. The hand-drawn map of Europe covering the table serves to trace people's stories of migration, to draw particular experiences that have affected our identities, and to imagine new borders in a time of crisis within Europe.

In the meanwhile, the beeping machine spews out questions and challenges to the group. Towards the end, the mini-screens enable teams to compete for a slice of the cake. It's good to finish on a sweet note what was otherwise a scene of conflict and curiosity into other people's thinking and acting. What did I take away from participating in this highly original approach to stimulating discussions between strangers? The right merging of low and high-tech tools can facilitate the exchange of questions and answers between strangers, thereby facilitating an in-depth discussion which everyone is comfortable engaging in. But above all, an app alone cannot do this (as is so often argued nowadays) - the key is the initiative to bring diverse people around the table. And here is the challenge for our times: how to get strangers to meet for a critical discussion on contemporary issues that affect us all, and that we all have a role to play in?

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