Design synthesis: working with volunteers

In a way, my project at Chawton was an example of Research though Design (RtD), so among the papers I have been pointed to for my corrections is another example, which is interesting for the historic house museums that I have spent a good part of my life working with. The paper is: CLAISSE, C. , DULAKE, N. & PETRELLI, D.. 2019. Research Through Design. Digital Heritage International Congress. Research Through Design.

This paper explores to co-creation process that fed into an Interactive Tablaux project at Bishops House museum in Sheffield. The research was multiphase and involved volunteers at every stage. First of all, by the designer becoming a volunteer and working alongside them. Then but then gifting of a Creative Package to ten volunteers. The package featured six activities or “Design Probes” to encourage the volunteers’ input. The probes started of straightforward but got more creative in sequence. “For example, Best wishes (probe 1)
invited them to write about their experience at the House by sending us back a postcard; My dream exhibition (probe 3) featured a map and personalised sketchbook to share their favourite stories and museum
objects; Seed wish (probe 5) used the metaphor of growth to prompt their imagination about future scenarios for the museum.”

Although the output of the design was inspiring the researcher found it challenging to move to “the phase of ideation.” However the response to the first design probe moved the work on somewhat – the researcher synthesised a visual volunteer manifesto (which took the form of a sort of wordcloud) from the the volunteers responses. This shed light on the personal, emotional and social dimensions of volunteering, and proved to be a catalyst for discussion. The outputs of probe three became a three dimensional model, mapping the volunteers favourite spot and things in three dimensions. Such models are often made far later in the creative process, when a proposal for a final exhibition is being visualised.

The Creative Package was followed by a series of workshop with volunteers – the first one speculating on what a day in the life of previous inhabitants might have looked like – which produced as an output a number of imagined portmanteaux characters. Conversations were recorded, but not transcribed. Instead the researcher draw in response to the recoded conversation. “drawing made more sense than producing a written transcription as the sketches captured the complexity and non-linear aspects of participants’ conversation. Their unfinished quality presented the characters in a state of becoming, revealing the negotiations and compromises participants made during the co- creation workshop.”

From these drawings the researcher produced a storyboard consisting of three to five illustrated scenes for each character, which were used in the subsequent workshop, with a smaller group fo volunteers to refine the stories and check accuracy. This gave substance to the characters and defined their personality. Finally the personas were shared with the curator of social history to select appropriate objects from the collection to pair with each character.

Each stage of co-creation had a virtual output, the Design Synthesis which both recorded the output of the preceding stage and prompted the development of the subsequent one. The authors of the paper reflect on design synthesis as a tool for making sense of co-creation, bringing the richness together and nurturing collective creativity. They quote the volunteer organiser saying “What I found really interesting is how volunteers’ ideas were determining the format and outcome of the project. They [the volunteers] could really see the contributions they have made in the end result.” One of the volunteers said “It’s lovely the way you [the designer] have involved the volunteers, used our ideas and made us part of it.”

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