Inside a World Design Capital Co-Design workshop

World Design Capital participatory design workshop: Gatesville CBD and Landsdowne Civic Precinct, Rylands

A few week ago, I received a mail from World Design Capital calling on designers to volunteer at a number of participatory design workshops around the city. This call is one of the flagship World Design Capital and City of Cape Town initiatives, and revolves around the upgrade of specified city districts. Last week I attended my first session at the Rylands civic centre, where the Gatesville CBD and Lansdowne Civic Precinct were put up for consideration.


Myself and two brand design students from Vega “designing for change”

Let’s not beat around the bush shall we? – I am extremely hesitant to throw my support behind the (pantone 109-C) World Design Capital banner. Cape Town, as a designed city, was (and arguably is still) designed with the purposes of segregation, control and postcard prettiness – a giant concrete palimpsest.  Yet, I signed up – because 1.) I wanted to see how the WDC worked on the ground,  2.) I’ve settled on using participatory design methods in my own research, and this was a free trial run, 3.) I could be both participant and critic here, without having to negotiate subjectivity in my own workshops. Here follows a break down of the day, my personal reflections on these sessions, and some take-aways for anyone else looking to attempt any kind of participatory design methods.

Prior to attending the workshop we (the designers) were e-mailed a document which stipulated rules for the design process, as well as outlining attitudes towards the process. Especially warning us not to push or overpower others’ ideas: “Be aware of your own assumptions! You may realise that they are, in fact, quite skewed or disconnected. You risk unconsciously imposing your ideas on the group rather than formulating them by learning from the group.” This pre-document seemed promising – perhaps I was wrong to be so critical.

On the day, we were met at a sign-up table and given name tags, a participatory design methods guide, and some thank you gifts (a recycled notebook and pin). We were also given a number (which correlated with a specific table, which indicated your team and district, inside the venue). Once we all had coffee and settled into our seats, the proceedings started.

OVERVIEW (Session 1):

Members of the facilitation team gave us a run through of the day, and re-shuffled the participants a bit (as fewer people showed up than anticipated). Then they went through the basic information with us –

The Objectives: 

  •  To understand the history of the site and how it fits into the community
  • To create a deam of how this area could become something of which we are proud
  • To design a proposal of what we’d like to see in future

The Roles:

  • Facilitators: supervise the workshop, manage time and allow participants to produce a good result
  • Participants: solve different tasks, are in small groups that always change, are fully responsible for a good result
  • Designers: are just like everyone else for most of the day, coach their groups during model building, present and receive feedback on their group’s models

The Rules:

  • Speak freely and express your views
  • Make sure to also listen carefully to everyone else in your group and make sure everyone’s voice is heard
  • Don’t give in to the loudest voices but follow your inner voice
  • No blaming or shaming of people or groups – this workshop is about creating something together
  • The bigger goal is always more important than personal interest of a few people


Personal Reflections:  So far, so good. It was especially interesting to see how the workshop approached matters of intellectual property – “you accept that the ideas articulated and generated in this workshop will be considered public domain, ie. Anybody (whether they are part of this workshop or not) is welcome to pick up the ideas and make use of them, even in commercial ways.” A reasonable way to negotiate ownership of ideas, with the intent of not taking advantage of vulnerable groups, yes – BUT on the other hand, leveraging generated ideas into commercial or profitable products/manifestations is something that resource-abundant individuals can do with far more ease than their resource-constrained co-designers, who have very little leveraging power, even if the ideas are there…

SESSION 2: Introduction

We were introduced to the facilitation team – of whom 4 members had positioned themselves, standing on top of chairs, in the four corners of the room. As an introduction, these four showed different statements and asked that the participants moved themselves to these opposing statements based on how much they agreed with them. These statements articulated why people were there: “I am a designer”, “I am a resident”, “I am from government/council”, etc. After people had moved according to the statement, two of the facilitators asked those congregated underneath the respective “signs” why they had moved there.


Personal reflections: This gave a quick overview of intentions, expectations, roles and ideas of various co-designers first thing without needing to ask each person individually. I appreciated this snapshot of the group: I had a rough sense of who were designers, who were community members, who were council members, etc, as well as the motivations for attending. I was quite concerned that very few community members had shown up – not a single shop owner or trader from the area (in other words, the inhabitants/users of geographic location we were “re-designing”!) had attended: I was unsure whether this was because of late notifications, methods and efforts of communication or whether these shop owners couldn’t take a day off to come and play around in a co-design session. Perhaps all of the above…?

However, this immediately made me slightly dubious of this exercise – if the voices of the people who live, breathe and sleep Gatesville weren’t there to voice their opinions, what would that mean for the legitimacy and intended inclusiveness of this meeting? In the past I’ve heard complaints about the WDC purely using online means to recruit for their workshops/seminars/designy days – and today appeared to be no exception. The turnout was mostly people who came from outside the area. I couldn’t help but feel disappointment seep in – what was the purpose of today? Were we playing a game of design-design, to impose design “solutions” on people who didn’t even crack an invite? Later, we found out that one of the organizers had been running around the area trying to recruit locals who were hanging out in the CBD, she came back empty-handed and disappointed. This act became a testament to the team who had facilitated the workshop: they had the best intentions and worked immensely hard. However, it seemed as if  the larger organization was to blame – they simply hadn’t done enough to spread the word.

SESSION 3: Story time

We split into our table groups again and we were asked to nominate a speaker, a writer and a time-keeper for this session (and all of the following sessions). The time keeper made sure that the session was conducted one-time (each session had a strict time limit), the writer kept notes on the ideas from the group, and the speaker would have to represent the group in explaining to the larger group what we had come up with.

We were asked to talk about the area and recall stories from personal experience, history, etc. to tell the group. Then we had to identify the top two stories and write these down on pink pieces of cardboard. Our speaker then had to go and present these stories to the larger group. Stories in the area ranged from a personal interview conducted with one of the car-guards who lives in an alleyway in the CBD and earns around R250 a day; How the hall was a meeting place for resistance agents during apartheid; And tales of drag races which took place during nightly parties in the area.


Personal reflections:  These stories really brought the feel of the area to life, and it was something locals could explain to designers and bureaucrats who didn’t know the area as well. Yet, our group only had two people who knew the area somewhat. The addition of law-enforcement also meant that some of the stories had to be muzzled.

SESSION 4: Turning problems into Opportunities

Next we were supplied with a map of the area under consideration and were asked to identify some of the negative aspects of the area. Once these were identified, we were asked to frame these problems/negative statements into opportunities for development. For example: a negative framing might be “the area is dangerous” and positive opportunities might be “make the area safe”. Once we had identified a multitude of aspects, we were asked to vote on the top three and present these to the larger group once the time had run out. These statements were then pasted up onto the walls and placed in proximity to similar statements. Having this visualization of statements allows the larger group to gain a sense of others who feel the same/different.

Next, we were asked to vote for the negative statements we agreed most with, and identify the positive statements we attached the most value to. This was done with round stickers (one could place a maximum of two stickers on each statement, and each person had four “positive” and four “negative” stickers to give).

Once this had been done, we were given a new random number and re-grouped according to these numbers at new tables.


Personal reflections: When people are given an assignment together, they start moulding their opinions according to the group – breaking up and re-scrambling groups between each session is difficult, but fantastic for the process. Once you try and carry over knowledge from one group to the next, your team hits back critically, and you are forced to re-evaluate every concept multiple times with different people. Aspects that I fully supported at the start of the day, I became less convinced of as the day passed.

The flip-side of this cross-pollination between tables is that you can start identifying agendas. In this case, a local businessman had a strong building agenda for which he had already raised funds. Due to issues from the community and red-tape from the council, his plans had been delayed by years. His arguments were so well-rehearsed and compelling, and he had become such a project evangelist at each table he was assigned to, that his building project became a central point of contention at nearly each table session.

SESSION 5: Dreaming what could be

During the quick tea break, the team had brought out huge piles of magazines, glue, markers and scissors. As we congregated in our new groups, we were asked to send a “collector” to the table to fish magazines that matched our concepts identified in the previous sessions. We were asked to re-hash these concepts among our new group and then create a collage that represented the things we wanted to evoke/create in the area.

Our poster suggested a fruit market, a fish market, a playground, increased safety, walkways, a sense of community and so forth. These posters were held up and presented back to the group. These were then put up next to aerial and street-view maps of the two areas. This functioned as an effective communal mood-board.


Personal reflections: Although this part was one of the first ones that encouraged designers to take the lead, I felt slightly redundant. A veteran co-design volunteer (who had taken part in a number of the workshops already) had taken to rushing the process. I felt that this person’s goals were based on the short-term systematic completion of the process, as opposed to truly exploring the methodology, reflecting upon it, and making decisions that the whole group could agree with. Such feelings occurred throughout the day – I was intent on engaging with everyone, and making meaningful decisions, but time restraints and pushy designers often made this feel more like a race to the finish.

Another stomach drop happened when I overheard a quip from a person on “doing (their) part for charity” by attending the workshop. This discourse, strewn about the day, left me cold: I realize that during the co-design process you can consider personal ethics, and not doing any harm to your participants, but you cannot protect participants from exposure to each other. Having ignorant volunteers talking “down” to local residents as “charity cases” is just the tip of the iceberg to the kinds of interpersonal horrors that can prevail. And just reminded me why I was critical of WDC in the first place – “Design” in our city has always been aligned with the rich, the Indaba-attendees, the city hipsters, the gentrifiers and the glossy corporates. Design for change/good/sustainability/development/whatever runs the danger of being an elaborate charity project of the worst kind – where a coat of paint and a mural are considered adequate means to combat deeply rooted underlying systems of inequality, exclusion and oppression – like a pretty yellow plaster on an internally bleeding stab-wound.

SESSION 6: Design principles

After another re-scramble, we were asked to supply the larger group with three design principles. Based on our experiences throughout the day. Examples of these were – “All stakeholders need to be considered and informed”, “the designs should be aesthetically pleasing”, “The designs should benefit all”, and so forth. These were then presented back to the group and pasted up on the walls.


Personal reflections: I felt like this was a great way to get participants to step back and think around how the process of design should be approached. Everyone has what they perceive to be good ideas, but if you cannot generalize these back to some kind of universal truth, or at least something that the larger group can agree upon, you aren’t truly involved in a process of co-design. Yet again, a pushy designer (imported from Constantia) seemed adamant that my “design should be inclusive” suggestion should not be extended to the local homeless population. She, of the World Cup let-the-eat-cake-in-Blikkiesdorp persuasion, couldn’t believe when community members stood their ground firmly: that any intervention should aim to not displace these people: “We know them, they belong here just as much as the shoppers”, an elderly lady asserted “You can do that in the city, but not here with our people.” This indiscriminate extension of compassion truly moved me, and I was thankful that I could be privy to these interactions, despite cringe-worthy moments throughout the day.

SESSION 7: Model Building

Once again groups were rescrambled, and we were now asked, based upon our positive ideas for the neighbourhood, our moodboards, the design principles, and our knowledge of the area to construct the changes that we would like to see in the area. The tables were now covered with craft supplies – from plastic containers, to pipe cleaners, clay, glitter, you name it! Some members, without talking to the rest of the group, had made a scramble for the supplies and had started haphazardly constructing objects. I realized that this was going to be a circus, and asked that we go around the table – mention the ideas we had at previous tables and those we believed needed to be implemented. After going around the table we had a very definite idea of what we thought the place needed. After many tables switched, it seemed like there were very definite themes coming the fore – considerations and concerns shared by much of the larger group. Once we decided on our constructions different people started putting these together. And soon our model was coming along nicely.

IMG_4459 IMG_4528

Personal reflections: Although these processes are really well put together to evoke a systematic exploration of an idea across a large group of humans, sometimes people get lost in short-term systematic goals. Again, with this project, I felt like some of the members had gotten excited by the physical building activity and not stopped to consider the rest of the group. Often these people have a habit of steamrolling over shy or insecure participants. Another aspect that irked me was that some participants seemed to think that the whole day would not amount to very much: they had no regard for accurate sizes when it came to building items for the model, nor about accurately communicating ideas to other team members…

SESSION 7b: Model Building continued…

We were now encouraged to visit other people’s models. One person had to stay with the group’s model while the other dashed around and got a sense of what other teams had put together. After they had done the rounds, they were asked to place post-it notes with both positive (yellow) and negative (pink) comments on them for the creators of the model. You could also place comments on your own model.

WP_001293 WP_001294

Personal reflections: Walking around does quite a bit to make you reconsider the things that you had decided to create in your own model, and very quickly you identify aspects that you want to “steal” from other teams. The comments also help to communicate not only what people think are good or bad ideas, but also makes you re-evaluate redundant ideas.

 In Conclusion:
At the end of the day I walked away a bit confused about what we had accomplished. Yes, the workshop was efficiently run, and we sure did produce a LOT of content for analysis: from our collages, to written manifestos, photographs, video recordings…our day had been documented well. Yes, participatory design is an effective way of eliciting creative work from non-designers, and sparking conversation and collaboration. But what was going to happen to these beautifully rendered and packaged ideas? Especially in light of the fact that this was only one of fifty planned workshops…

Two weeks later I received this in my inbox:

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 2.40.34 PM Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 2.40.41 PM

At the end of the day this whole project would be passed on to yet another desk, and presented in front of another committee, and another group of decision makers.  Let’s hope this city doesn’t throw out the spoils of our labour when the World Design Capital title expires.



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