Pass the message: incorporating citizen design in contemporary design curriculum

Published:  September 4, 2015
Nicki Wragg

Remember the old childhood game Chinese Whispers, where a word or phrase is quietly passed round a group of participants from one ear to the next? The original word or phrase is inevitably skewed, taking on new meaning and often causing surprise or hilarity when compared to the original.

Something similar is happening in communication design, particularly in the brand space.


In a networked world, you can watch a brand message evolve as people comment, post, upload, tweet and email. Anyone has the opportunity to affect a brand’s values and attributes, which has both positive and negative consequences for brands, companies and designers.

This is old news. Communication designers well recognise the impact convergence and networked technologies have had on how they practise design, but only recently have they started to leverage public participation and the collective psyche to develop communications that are more relevant and empowering to their audience.

With the rise of citizen participation, a contemporary design curriculum needs to develop students’ awareness of users’ needs and requirements, of the networks specific users populate, and of the contexts in which users are engaging with information. Rather than falling back on the myth of intuitive practice, or the tradition of the designer (or designer-plus-client) as the arbiter of the audience, young designers need to be guided to truly understand their audience and not just through anecdotal or second-hand information from marketers or clients.

It always takes time to grasp the potential of emerging technologies and translate this into new ways of thinking and acting. Take the adoption of user-centred design, which has been common in the field of human-computer interaction for over a decade. Human-computer interaction introduced graphic designers to the principles of user-centred design through work that focused on how people interact with the computer or with each other via computer. Despite the value of user-centred design in understanding the motivations and situations of the user to inform the design process, it is not widespread in graphic design practice. In 2002, Michael Beirut said, “Surround it with as much theory as you like, but graphic design is made by people and for the people.” This understanding is exactly what I seek to instil in my budding design students.

Illustration by Daniel H Gray

Illustration by Daniel H Gray

Since the emergence of the web in the 1990s, there has been discussion about the changes to graphic design, including commentary on the growing sophistication of the user. To date, however, there has been little discussion as to how design practice has changed in response to increased user sophistication.

Traditionally, designers have relied heavily on their self-perceived sensitivity to social and cultural environments to inform their process. They build scenarios in which a user will receive information. They may have some data on a target audience, but this is usually abstract market research that may or may not be heeded. Now, when considering the users of communication, it is critical to think about the varied available options to connect with information. How do you want to connect with and engage people?

Twenty-five years ago, it was easy – with print, television and radio the only available communication platforms. Today, there is still word and image to consider, but also user behaviour and cognition, three-dimensional space, connectivity and citizen contribution. What will the user do, where will they go, what words will they whisper, how will the message evolve? Will it go to plan or will the message change in the telling and the receiving?

These questions can be daunting for the designer who wants to control communication. The key is to trust emergence. To do so, designers need to have tangible knowledge of the user from the outset and to put user-centred design into practice. They need to understand how citizen contribution, harnessed early in the process through user-centred design, can be harnessed economically and efficiently to ensure the message is relevant, the communication richer. This approach offers a greater chance of a positive connection with your audience, rather than leaving it to chance like in a game of Chinese Whispers.

Today, the maxim ‘form follows function’ is questionable. Although the concept surrounding the message is important, form and function are intricately interwoven and cannot be separated from the context for communication or from the communication platform itself, which may be the main attractor.

As a design educator during the past decade, I have tried to instil the idea that anything is possible in a networked environment and that designers need to think beyond traditional modes to communicate. Including user-centred design in the curriculum equips students with knowledge they can adapt throughout their design work. I have seen some surprising results emerge when teaching user-centred design. In working with clients, students observed, questioned and surveyed users, revealing insightful issues regarding the nature of the designed message.

What can be problematic is that while we encourage students to use a research paradigm to explore communication design and user response, clients and the design industry are not always ready to adopt new ways of doing things, falling back to the default position of relying on intuition.

What is central for me is that students enter their design careers with a knowledge extending beyond stylistic trends, that they have the tools to be able to respond to how messages are told, retold and finish up. Having this knowledge helps student designers make sense of the chaos in our networked environments. Communications in the current context require crafting for specific media formats and reconfiguration for others. Understanding this allows designers to capitalise on any unintended consequences. Critically, teaching in a post-internet society makes it the educator’s responsibility to trust in emergence and embrace the reality of connectivity and its unpredictable outcomes.

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