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.


Election Design

October 31, 2008 § 5 Comments

As has been talked about much this election, many people are using “early voting” as a way to ensure their vote is cast and counted. This is an important trend that faces the larger issues of a democracy with 300 million people and 50 states, namely making sure the process of voting is fair for all involved.

Frankly, the notion of everyone voting on one day is archaic and needs to be re-thought. I’m not sure the form this should take, but given how important the perception of a fair election is, why not change from Election Day to Election Week? This way the polls could be open from 7:00 AM – 6:00 PM, Monday through Friday, allowing those who can’t get off work for whatever reason, have an emergency, are infirm, elderly, or those who experience mishaps at the polling station, the time to vote. Is the act of voting, and subsequently, Democracy, not important enough that we can’t agree to lower the bar for those who wish to vote?

Thinking About Thinking

August 29, 2008 § 1 Comment

How do you think? Think about it: How do you think?

Interesting that we can think about our own
thinking, yes?

That is designing.  


I wrote this recently as a backlash to the over-thinking and over-intellectualization of design, ridiculous as it may be. At first, I hedged a bit at posting it because I didn’t want to look like a giant toolbag, and then I hedged a bit more because it occurred to me that I’m going to over-intellectualize it myself in the following paragraphs, but I decided I would go ahead and put it out there, make an argument for it and see what happens.

I’ve debated whether “thinking about thinking” is merely reflecting, but I’ve decided that it isn’t. We think how we do sometimes out of habit, sometimes out of blindness to alternative thought patterns, and one might be predisposed to think of thought as a fixed enterprise, but that’s not true. Thought is action. Sometimes it’s passive action, sometimes active action, but it is action. And how we think affects our perspective, our outward physical action, how others treat us, and our greater interaction with the environment. 

As an example, in the movie “X” starring Denzel Washington as the Civil Rights activist Malcolm X, there’s a moment where he’s in the jail library studying the Koran (I believe). At this point, Malcolm X has not yet gone through his personal evolution into the Civil Rights leader he will later become. And as Malcolm is reading, he has an epiphany, looks up and says to someone in the library, “You mean I can change the way I think?” 

And through that epiphany, he starts a transformation to who he would later become. By reflecting, reshaping, and ultimately redesigning his life by thinking about how he thinks and making a change in order to have a more meaningful interaction with his environment.  

You could argue that there must be a step after “thinking about thinking”, where one takes action on whether to change his or her previous thought pattern, and this may be true. I’m not sure, but that may be true. If so, you could simply add one small phrase to keep it simple and elegant:


How do you think? Think about it: How do you think?

Interesting that we can think about our own thinking, yes?

Make a choice.

That is designing.  


Thoughts, anyone?

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