Cooperative communication: proposals for a participative communication design

Whatever you choose to do don’t try to do it alone.
We are all designers now.

John Thackara

A behavioural change, epochal I would say, is needed in all areas, from politics to art, placed as extreme poles of a generic globalized culture. Its strength will be a new attention for human dignity and human rights a model that will have humanity as prime value. In the economic field Noreena Hertz calls it capitalism coop: political paradigm based on the values of collaboration and collective interest that can develop in this period of crisis of the free market doctrine, when the necessary capital to promote the new is running out.1
In architecture the prefix eco is often used, for example the ecomuseum planned by a team of professionals in collaboration with the inhabitants of the area in which the building will be made: towards museum democratization, the participation of the institutions we call museums, in the construction of new citizenship typologies and formation of new citizens.2

Two strong trends made the word ‘participation’ become a basic word in design: experience design, and co-design, designing in collaboration. Both of them focus on the human being and his needs, they belong to what one can define as human centered design. Richard Buchanan explains how design cannot be only the discipline interested in the aesthetics of cultural life but how instead it is responsible for bringing the highest values of a country into concrete reality, for the transformation of abstract ideas into specific form.3
It is the communicative artefact design that gives an answer to man’s needs and wishes, that helps him expressing ideas and exchanging information. Buchanan thinks it is important to give voice to the revolution that is taking place all over the world, that wants to give back to the definition of design quality moral and intellectual values in addition to the aesthetic and functional ones.
Also Jorge Frascara focuses on design new qualitative value: aesthetic perspective must be supported by an interest in communication and in social meaning. The interests of new graphic design must concern the impact the communication of the massage has on the community, how this is affected by it and the impact on the environment.

The artefact quality will be measured respect to the change it produces on public behaviour. In this article, about the nature of graphic design, Frascara underlines the importance of the temporal aspect of the communicative artefact fruition: reading and seeing are activities that occur in space and time, despite the fact that the designer works in two dimensions or anyway in sequences of two-dimensional pieces, fruition will take place in time.
The artefact assessment therefore cannot be made at the end of its design process but only after being exposed to the public,in order to have the time to assess its effects on the community.
As with the playwright (the most common image in communication literature NdT) or the composer, the designer produces artefacts (play or score) that come into full existence only when the dialogue with the audience takes place. 4

The term experience design wants exactly to stress design fruition experience. Experience design studies the temporal dimension in which the user interacts with the product and tries to involve the user himself in the artefact design. Experience is seen as a moment between past and future, between memory and imagination, it lasts a moment and it is strictly conditioned by the two zones around it. The designer therefore has to consult the user in his design in order to let him describe his world, the place where the product will create the experience.

Ronald Jones’s point of view is interesting, he likes to describe himself as an interdiscipinologist: in this type of design he sees the only escape for European economy collapsing under the low cost finished products of the eastern market. For Europe the only way to keep the market under control is to manipulate an re-invent processes basing them on new technologies and featuring interdisciplinary flexibility. This field has already been investigated by entertainment industry that succeeded in commercializing the experience.

Co-design brings the participative aspect in the design process, the audience is asked to collaborate with the designer not simply questioned on the matter. It is a matter of designing in a social context; democratizing the design process will stimulate a more aware audience able to protect itself from manipulations by media. Communication design is only a small microcosm in society that is important in the transmission of culture in all media channels. If today the designer’s role is closer to cultural production, his responsibility towards the community is even bigger. Sharing it with the community itself could allow the whole discipline to go beyond the meritocracy that characterizes the whole cultural process, by introducing for the first time a participative democratic character. Today’s society is based on a representation system that doesn’t mirror the population’s needs any longer. As Joseph Beuys stated, in one of his lectures in 1972, that any type of revolution must start from culture, and changing the rest will came afterwards: acting in the delegation system, according to Beuys, people give up their right to political co-administration and self-determination, and therefore to democracy. Without entering the political-economical field but remaining in the cultural one, one has to recognize that for a democratic behaviour a collective collaboration for knowledge is necessary.

From persuasion to experience
The aim of visual communication can be seen as persuading an audience to adopt new behaviours through a two-dimensional artefact. The designer will have to know the existing behaviours; if he does not share the same culture with the audience, before the artefact production he will have to make a linguistic and behavioural study of the audience he wants to reach. This will occur if the right specificity of the public is recognized, if the interest is on the public present and past; no misunderstandings will occur if in the design method the user is not seen as a reader; but as a dynamic participant of the process.

Ann Tyler elaborates a first categorization of design aims: inducing action, educating, creating an experience.5 In persuading the public to act, the designer creates a two-dimensional representation of the experience, with the promise that if one goes to a determinate place one will feel in a determinate way. The examples can be those of advertising posters of an exhibition, of a journey to new country, or investing in a new company. The chosen images will have to specify what the experience offers: investing just in that company will make me a participant of its values, the values represented in the chosen image. The educational intent is often visible thanks to some rhetorical artifices that try to make the communicative information true, not questionable. It is about data, numbers, diagrams, analysis and an omniscent tone without any subjective or emotional tone.

The artefacts of this category are often in the shape of informative brochures or company budgets, but also those company logos studied to identify the company’s values with the aesthetic quality of the logo itself, belong to this category. As Ann Tyler points out, experience is one of the less frequent goals of visual communication, it consists in proposing or simply establishing the existence of new values that the user may decide to share or not. One can speak of experience of aesthetic values, as the experimentalism on the signifier of the alphabetic signs, and experience of social values, the manifestation of a value the audience is asked to carry out. This last experience defines the role of the public and makes it participant in the communication process. At the base of all these possible aims there is always a particular attention for the message receiver, that can lead to his participation and interaction with the project.

After explaining these new design methodologies, it seems useful to sketch out a kind of categorization of artefacts and designers that move in this participative and interactive direction.

A first category could include those projects whose final artefacts create a physical or cognitive interaction with the user. Another participative typology includes graphic design that relates the artefact to the place where it is shown to the user, and create interaction on time. Then the communicative artefacts that can create a relationship among the users. A special category could be the one that relates the public to production process of the artefact or of the information the artefact has in itself.
You can find a complete categorization description in the Cooperative communication Categorization proposal article.

  1. Cfr. Noreena Hertz, Goodbye Gucci. It’s the age of co-op capitalism, in “The Times”, February 25, 2009.
  2. Cfr. Maurizio Maggi (ed.), Museo e cittadinanza, Istituto di Ricerche Economico-Sociali del Piemonte, Torino 2005.
  3. Richard Buchanan, Human Dignity and Human Rights: Thoughts on the Principles of Human-Centered Design, in “Design Issues”, n.3, vol. 17, Summer 2001.
  4. Jorge Frascara, Graphic Design: Fine Art or Social Science? in AA.VV. Design Studies. Theory and research in graphic design, Princeton Architectural Press, New York 2006.
  5. Cfr. Ann C. Tyler, Shaping Belief: The Role of the Audience in Visual Communication in AA.VV. Design Studies, op.cit.