Helena hansson, Hdk valand

one screwdriver or ten hammers?

Helena Hansson has extensive experience in design processes in which user participation and prototypes play an important role—what is sometimes called participatory design. As a teacher and researcher at HDK-Valand, and with a background in industrial design and strategic design, she has worked on several development projects in strategic craft development in Sweden, and in Kenya. she has, among many other things, explored the designer’s role with craftsmanship as a design method—co-craft—and frugal design. We met to talk about the lessons learned from leading design processes in widely different contexts, the role of the prototype as a tool in an inclusive design process, and the role of the designer in the process.

  1. Evaluate the prototype as a result.
  2. Take a few steps back as a designer—let citizens test and design.
  3. Start from the local materials and prior knowledge.

A large part of your research involves exploring the role of designers in the work for sustainable development. Relationship building has been an important aspect in that work and you have started from, so-called, frugal design—what is it?

The word ‘frugal’ means simple, thrifty. Frugal design can be described as the art of doing more with less for many, together. An important part of the frugal principle is to use local materials and raw materials. The method as well as the tools must start from the people who are there and their prior knowledge. When a frugal design process begins, we start with thinking about where we are, who works there, and what kind of assets and conditions exist on the site. In a project in Kenya, we started, as designers often do, by using post it notes when making our prototypes, but it did not work. We also noticed that language was a barrier for people to participate. Instead of discussing verbally, we tested using ropemaking as a method, and together with the participants we made machines and tools that allowed everyone to participate with similar conditions. Another example from my work in Linnarhult, in north-east Gothenburg, was when we built a combined stage and outdoor cinema, and only had one screwdriver available, but ten hammers. Then we chose to nail instead of screw, so that ten people could join instead of one!

Working in this way goes against my entire design background in industrial design where you have to find general solutions that work everywhere. With frugal design, we do just the opposite. We start from the context and then the general solutions come as a modification. You have to start from the local in order to get people involved, create recognition, a willingness to be involved, and to make it easier to feel ownership in the process.

A cornerstone of frugal design is that citizens are involved in creating, building, and shaping the process, but what is the designer’s role in such a process?

The designer’s role is to design a process in which many people can participate, and where others than the designer are given space to plan and design the result. We do not lead the process in the classical sense, but have more of a supporting and weaving function. I cooperate with local organizations and the process involves artisans and craftsmen, who in turn lead the process, such as Karl Hallberg, who works with the Sloydtrukk concept. It is a mobile craft workshop based in Fengersfors, Dalsland, teaching craft techniques to children and young people, among others, offering them the opportunity to realize their ideas. In this case, we started from the common desire to make a stage and outdoor cinema. One of the young people, who is a trained engineer, drew up what the scene would look like and then Karl Hallberg/Sloydtrukk developed a method where the idea could be realized through co-creative activities. As the site is rich in clay, Sloydtrukk chose pilework as the method. Special tools were designed that allowed many to participate and promoted cooperation, such as a double saw and a piling mechanism that required at least eight people. Through collaborative work as a design method, we made use of materials and human assets of the site, and created a process in which many people could participate, despite their lack of specific craftsmanship skills.

How do you arise interest at the beginning of the process? How do you get those you want to reach to want to be involved?

It often turns out that the people we want to reach do not always have the time when we do. Many of the people we want to reach work or study during the day. Should they be compensated for taking a day off, or should we move our process to weekends or evenings? Placing the prototyping in a place where the people you want to reach already are and where they feel comfortable, is one way to arise interest and lower the threshold for participation. As the sociologist Richard Sennett (2012) writes, the win-win effect is central in a collaborative process. A public outdoor kitchen, for example, can be an important meeting place where people can gather, talk, and cook together. So, maybe this is where you should start prototyping?

What opportunities do you see in letting sketching and prototyping take a bigger place in the design of streets?

I would argue that you can re-evaluate the prototype and the sketching process as the actual result. In my research, I have learned to accept the temporary and procedural, that a design is never finished, it is always a prototype. If something is to be truly sustainable, it must be able to be in constant change. You may have to work on understanding how to value the prototype as a kind of democratic tool, a common learning object that builds abilities and triggers new processes. I also think you have to create space for joint reflection, and that we dare to talk about when things go wrong. We must dare to think that the error is part of the process. We are not looking for perfection. We humans are not perfect, so maybe the things around us also must have some faults for us to feel at home? We want it to be ‘good enough.’ That in itself opens up for more people to be able to join!

Expert interview: Ewa Westermark, gehl

About NYC Plaza project, how Gehl works with the design process and big opportunitites in smaller municipalities.

Expert interview: Love edenborg and Ulrika palm, sALAR

About how you can challenge the planning processes to manage change sooner.