Dewey suggests that a public is formed when people become aware of how something affects them collectively, which gives them a reason to recognize each other and come together [7]. From this perspective, the public is both a product of social or political action and a ground for further action. Therefore, the mode of expression, whether it is a conversation, an online chat, a painting or a book, is central for the forming of publics. Following Latour [13], this means that not only humans are forming publics but also artifacts such as art objects or communication technologies. Similarly, drawing on Marilyn Strathern’s ethnographic work on gender [17], Haraway stresses the importance of the situatedness and materiality of the design space through the notion of “speculative fabulation” [11].

Binder et al suggests that these design spaces are agonistic public spaces, connecting it to the “thing” in ancient Nordic and Germanic culture, where disputes were dealt with and political discussions took place [3]. From this perspective, design processes are socio-material collectives that accommodate conflicts and handles controversies. These agonistic public spaces are far from the idea of participatory design as spaces for deliberative processes, but rather as spaces for agonistic pluralism [14].

The role of design as provocation – creating awareness for societal issues and as part of political processes – have been explored since the 1990’s [8]. Concepts such as critical design [10, 2] and reflective design [16], describe an ambition to use design and the design process as a means to problematize the design objective and question broader socio-technical and cultural configurations. Similarly, speculative design [10], critical making  [15], and design fiction [6], view the design process as a way to rethink norms and values and imagine alternative interpretations and possibilities. Adversarial design emphasizes the agonistic space brought together in the design process as a way to reformulate political issues [8]. These design approaches share the idea of design as a way to create a public space, initiating discussion around an issue.

Comparably, art as a way to engage a public into being, has a history within the field of participatory art [4]. Kester proposes the term “dialogical aesthetics” to describe art that is rooted in a historical and social context where the art is viewed as a platform for discussion rather than the expression of someone’s experiences [12]. Today, participatory and artistic methods are recognized in design, but this comes with challenges. Participation is a norm foremost in a western socio-cultural value system [18]. Participatory processes take time and reveal conflicting interests and values. Participatory design may not be so much about designing things, as about “infrastructuring”, designing the social infrastructure of the participation [5]. From this perspective, the designer is required to make a long-term commitment to the publics that they contributed to developing through their design processes.

When the design becomes less tangible and more of a process, the designer/artist/researcher also embodies the design. This is why it is interesting to look more closely at how “design” is appropriated and reformulated, and how designers and researchers create legitimacy for these practices [11]. For example, the more performative and speculative appropriations of public space in DIY design such as “guerilla gardening” or “street art” can be questioned for being expressions of a hegemonic discourse rather than underdog activities [9]. Participatory art can similarly be more exclusive than inclusive compared to more traditional art forms [4, 12].


  1. Bardzell, S. (2014). Utopias of Participation: Design, Criticality, and Emancipation. Keynote Address at the 2014 Participatory Design Conference. Windhoek, Namibia.
  2. Bardzell, J., and Bardzell, S. (2013). What is “critical” about critical design? of CHI’2013. ACM: New York. 3297-3306.
  3. Binder T, Michelis G De, Ehn P, et al. (eds) (2011) Design things. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  4. Bishop C (2012) Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London, New York: Verso.
  5. Björgvinsson E, Ehn P and Hillgren P (2010) Participatory design and ‘democratizing innovation’. In PDC ’10 The 11th Biennial Participatory Design Conference.
  6. Bleecker J (2009) Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction. Near Future Laboratory, (March, 49.
  7. Dewey J (2012) The public and its problems: An essay in political inquiry. Penn State Press.
  8. DiSalvo C (2012) Adversarial Design. MIT Press.
  9. Douglas GCC (2014) Do-It-Yourself Urban Design: The Social Practice of Informal ‘Improvement’ Through Unauthorized Alteration. City & Community, 13(1), 5–25.
  10. Dunne A and Raby F (2013) Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. MIT Press.
  11. Haraway, Donna. (2011). SF: Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, String Figures, So Far. Acceptance speech for Pilgrim Award, July, 7, 280.
  12. Kester G (2004) Conversation pieces: Community and communication in modern art. University of California Press.
  13. Latour B (2005) Reassembling the social: an introduction to actor-network-theory, Clarendon lectures in management studies, Oxford University Press.
  14. Mouffe, Chantal. 1999. “Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism?” Social Research 66(3): 745–58.
  15. Ratto, Matt. (2011). Critical making: Conceptual and material studies in technology and social life. The Information Society, 27(4), 252-260.
  16. Sengers P, Boehner K, David S, et al. (2005) Reflective design. Proceedings of the 4th decennial conference on Critical computing between sense and sensibility – CC ’05, New York, New York, USA: ACM Press
  17. Strathern, Marilyn. The Gender of the Gift. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988.
  18. Winschiers-Theophilus, Heike, Nicola J Bidwell, and Edwin Blake. 2010. “Being Participated – A Community Approach.” In Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Participatory Design Conference.