An Election Result As Participatory Design

May 21, 2009 § 1 Comment

Is the result of an election a design?

I’ve been pondering this quite heavily for the past week or so since I took a couple days to travel to Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design graduate thesis presentations. What got me thinking about this was Kyle Vice’s thesis project where he created a website/program where people could vote on a series of posters and the winning poster was to be projected on a huge wall on campus. To achieve this, he designed and built software and various web applications for people to use to vote on the posters. Location-wise, he envisioned placing kiosks in public places as well as voting through a traditional website or iPhone app.

What this (very cool) project got me wondering is this: Is voting, and its ensuing results, a form of design? Specifically, is it participatory design? Now, in his project, the only thing people were voting on was a poster to be displayed, and no one person had any ability to massively affect the group’s collective choice outside of their own vote, but it begs the question: Does collective input equal “design”? Certainly each poster was designed, the software to manage the posters was designed, the interface and user experience was designed, even the physical means by which to vote was designed, but what about the process of choosing a design? Again, is that design?

Honestly, I’m not sure. Without getting into arguments about collective (un)consciousness, one could easily argue that we have elections all the time that hardly anyone would consider the outcome of as a “design”. However, in a sense, we are choosing a design in an election. How? In the case of a politician, he has ideas—or designs—on how best to run a community or society. A politician also has a carefully crafted persona that one could easily argue is a design. (It’s a design because there’s normally a carefully considered end-goal—no matter how unconscious—and measured actions to meet that end goal.) And then, voters vote based on that politician’s design of how to deal with various competing interests.

But, is the result of an election a design? Or is it the process that is designed to facilitate an acceptable outcome the “design”? Think of it this way: Is President Obama a design? Was President Bush? Clinton? Certainly their policies are designed and, in a sense, we choose a certain design to present ourselves both back to the U.S. and to the rest of world. But, we didn’t design them to do anything just like we wouldn’t say we designed a poster result through a blind voting process.

Or would we?

You might be wondering why I’m even bringing this up if I am so unsure one way or another. (I wonder myself.) I bring it up because this debate is a possible line in the sand in the debate about what is design and what isn’t design. It seems to me that you can design for something—a process, service, information, persuasion, experience—all for a higher cause of enabling action, learning, belief, emotion, or thought, but the end result of these designs, is, in itself, not a design. It’s not a design in the same way that a car driver is not a design, he is merely enabled to make certain choices, have a feeling about a car, and live his life how he sees fit.

In short, there is no reflection and where there is no reflection, there is no design, there is merely action enabled.

But, going back to the poster voters: if you give those poster voters a voice, a means to organize and wage campaigns to influence what poster gets on the ballot, then that begins to bear the mark of design.

How so? In the happiest accident of feedback loops (and one I didn’t realize until I got here), where design is driven by audience, the audience demand drives new designs until they don’t have to reflect any more and are contentedly enabled again. And so, in some strange way, a result of an election seems to be a design. But only if we are allowed to participate in the feedback loop. Which sometimes happens. And sometimes doesn’t (which is both good and bad).

Weird. This brings up so many questions.

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