Design as Democratic Inquiry
Putting Experimental Civics into Practice
Through practices of collaborative imagination and making, or "doing design otherwise,” design experiments can contribute to keeping local democracies vibrant.
In this counterpoint to the grand narratives of design punditry, Carl DiSalvo presents what he calls “doing design otherwise.” Arguing that democracy requires constant renewal and care, he shows how designers can supply novel contributions to local democracy by drawing together theory and practice, making and reflection. The relentless pursuit of innovation, uncritical embrace of the new and novel, and treatment of all things as design problems, says DiSalvo, can lead to cultural imperialism. In Design as Democratic Inquiry, he recounts a series of projects that exemplify engaged design in practice. These experiments in practice-based research are grounded in collaborations with communities and institutions.
The projects DiSalvo describes took place from 2014 to 2019 in Atlanta. Rather than presume that government, industry—or academia—should determine the outcome, the designers began with the recognition that the residents and local organizations were already creative and resourceful. DiSalvo uses the projects to show how design might work as a mode of inquiry. Resisting heroic stories of design and innovation, he argues for embracing design as fragile, contingent, partial, and compromised. In particular, he explores how design might be leveraged to facilitate a more diverse civic imagination. A fundamental tenet of design is that the world is made, and therefore it could be made differently. A key concept is that democracy requires constant renewal and care. Thus, designing becomes a way to care, together, for our collective future.
“The vision of design that DiSalvo outlines is experimental, problem-making over problem-solving, and oriented towards caring for our collective futures. This rich and humble book gave me hope for both the future of design and the future of democracy.”
Catherine D'Ignazio, Assistant Professor, MIT, and Director, Data + Feminism Lab, MIT; coauthor of Data Feminism
“The public and activist roles of design matter today more than ever. Through vivid and reflexive examples of civic design—situated within the politically resonant context of Atlanta—this book is sure to inspire scholars and designers alike.”
Ramia Mazé, Professor, University of the Arts London
“DiSalvo asks us to rethink design and democracy, showing how imagination and experimentation could be central to our lives and bringing a subtle political eye to many years' work with communities.”
Ann Light, Professor of Interaction Design, Social Change, and Sustainability, Malmö University; Professor of Design and Creative Technology, University of Sussex
“In accessible, story-driven prose, DiSalvo weaves firsthand observations together with sharp theoretical insight to bring the importance of attending to lived experience and the conditions of civic life to new audiences within and beyond design.”
Daniela Rosner, Associate Professor, Human Centered Design and Engineering, University of Washington
The open access edition of this book was made possible by generous funding and support from MIT Press Direct to Open