Scandinavian Approaches to Participatory Design: Simply a tradition or a coherent philosophy of design?

By | April 10, 2021

“Scandinavian participatory design approaches emphasise change and development, not only technological change and systems development, but change and development of people, organisations, and practices, occurring in changing socio-historical contexts.” Gregory, J. (2003). Scandinavian approaches to participatory design. International Journal of Engineering Education, 19(1), 62-74.

Long ago, an essay I wrote on “Why is design important?” went viral via Core77 after I published it on my old blog. My very first words were:

Design is first and foremost a philosophy, based on a system of values, which seeks to solve problems. What are we creating? Why and for whom? Are we correctly framing the problem to be solved? These are the questions to which the answers are then manifested tangibly in the form of a new product, service or business model.

I then went on to write a paean on human centered design, particularly the methods based strategic planning approach particular to Chicago’s Institute of Design, part of the Illinois Institute of Technology where I was once Director of Graduate Admissions. I believe Judith Gregory joined as faculty soon after my departure to the West Coast, and I note that she’s relocated to the same state of warmer climes now. But that’s a digression.

I bring this up because one of the things I did early in my role at ID-IIT was map the top graduate design programs by their philosophy of design. That is, it was my belief that each school had its own flavour of design and without clear communication of these differences, we’d face a common problem of students feeling the school wasn’t a fit for them in the way design was theorized, taught, and practiced.

An example would be Cranbrook’s graduate program focusing on studio based hands on explorations of one’s own creative directions versus the methods focused rigorously analytical MDes program at ID which emphasized design planning, strategy, and systematically applying insights from user research for corporate innovation. Students better off in one sort of program would be either feel stifled or afloat in fantasy land if they found themselves in the other school.

As head of student services, I’d had enough such students crying into their beers about feeling out of place but the program had already eaten half a mortgage worth of student loans. That led me to do the comparative analysis and mapping as part of the programme marketing and recruitment communication strategy. And, the phrase “philosophy of design” seemed best suited to capture the essence of these differences between Stanford and RISD, Cranbrook and Carnegie Mellon, ID-IIT and ArtCenter College of Art and Design.

Clearly, at ID-IIT, we weren’t going in the “explore your creativity” direction here and it was best we brought this up with prospective students in the first instance when they came for their tours and whatnot. I was looking at the Admissions process as a systems design challenge because what the heck, I had access to the best faculty minds to draw upon whilst I wandered around figuring stuff out.

Long story short, the more I read about what is called “the Scandinavian tradition” of participatory design, the more I’m wondering whether its actually a philosophy of design spanning the Nordic countries based on a system of common values centered on democratic participation, worker’s rights, centering of voice and agency of the end-users in the decision making process regarding their systems and tools, and the right of access to such tools that enable making sense of complexity and uncertainty i.e skills enhancement, knowledge creation and redistribution, among other empowering goodness?

How long can you call it a tradition? Why do they call it a tradition? Is it because calling it a philosophy would place the academics in the painful position of umpteen theoretical papers justifying the use of one word, a problem I hadn’t faced as a program administrator or blogger? So I thought I’d throw it out here and if someone comes across it, if they ever do a search outside of Google Scholar’s paywalled gardens, then maybe I’d get an answer in reply.

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