Participatory Design has roots in 1960’s Scandinavian design projects involving trade union workers. It was actually called cooperative design and intended to involve all stakeholders in group exercises to collectively solve shared challenges – like the design of tools, work environments, and public spaces. It comes from a principle that the people who use a product, service, or space are best suited to design it or should at the least have voice for meaningful input. Typically designers, architects, and planners will engage a broad range of people in exercises that will help articulate needs, wants, and preferences. At Awake we talk about it in terms of designing with people, and not for them.
It’s important to note that designing with people does not mean we think all people are or should be designers. Apple and Sony have both made it clear that their greatest products came from needs people hadn’t yet articulated. Apple especially emphasizes that they don’t expect people to be able to articulate those needs, even if they knew they had them. This last point misses the mark a little. People are actually pretty decent at talking about what is important to them.
But in order to get there we have to find ways to ask questions that are relevant and make sense to those we are asking, not just ourselves. To get good answers you have to ask good questions. And often those questions aren’t direct. If you ask someone “do you want to carry your music around in your pocket?” you’ll get a lot of “sure!” Almost always when you ask people if they would like a new feature or service they will say yes. But if you ask people when was the last time you wish you had music and there was none around you will get richer and more informative responses that will help make better products.
In our case, because we are trying to create a space we hope will be enjoyed by the people who live in Detroit as well as the people who are visiting us, we think it’s important to get as many involved as possible in the creative process.
This kind of involvement is usually reserved for public projects, like Detroit Works and factors less into ‘private design’ like a hotel. There are lots of reasons for this. Involving people takes more time, can be messy, and can get expensive when you start factoring in delays to market. The long-term benefits of participatory design, however, are more promising. We will be working with DCDC to create a 6-9 month participatory design program for this project because we believe the end result will be better. We see two strategic advantages to doing it this way.
Community builds through shared experience. We meet new people, exchange ideas, and create lasting bonds when we work on something together. As neighborhoods collapse and schools close, we’ve seen our gathering places shut their doors and our loved ones leave. Detroit very much needs new places to come together, places that are going to stick around, places to help us re-weave the very fabric of what this city is about. We aren’t just creating a hotel. We are creating a space for people to come together and build, and then work and gather in for years to come. We are adding to the fabric of a new Detroit. The business reason: Rich communities not only feel better for those that live in them, they also are better at attracting visitors.
Participating turns our ideas and preferences into something real for everyone to enjoy. When people take part in the creation of a space they become a real and tangible part of the story, and they develop a sense of personal ownership in the success of the project. When they see their contribution is valued they will want to come back, they will want to share it with their friends and people they love. They will be proud of what they have contributed. And they should be! They will also recommend it to the people they know. Large chain hotels count on corporate relationships to book a percentage of their rooms (at discounted prices). Referrals, though a factor, are less important for them. A smaller, unique hotel like this one will rely on recommendations and repeat visits. The business reason: Getting people involved is an important step to critical referrals.
We believe it’s important to take our time and involve lots of people because we take the long view of sustainable growth. This isn’t about get rich quick and sell. A project like this needs the support of the people it hopes to serve, and in turn strives to provide real and lasting value to them.