In the last two weeks a particular quality of community projects and spaces which seem to be working particularly well, has became clear to me: being unfinished as built in quality to engage people.This is counterintuitive to the way we have think about services or our public spaces. They are built around things being in order, sorted out, and meticulously planned out. (Social) Designers are very much consciously aware of this. They have all kind of possibilities of designing in, mostly unaware to us, a particular and desired kind of behaviour. Dan Lockton’s set of card ‘Design with intent’ offers 101 examples of things designers can do to influence our behaviour through design. His set of cards can be found here. Leaving things unfinished isn’t part of his extensive repertoire.
Thinking about changing people behavior through design has recently got a big push through the work of Thaler and Sunnstein on nudging. Their concept of a choice architecture deals with the same thing. Through this design thinking has been introduced to both a more general public and to a much wider variety of domains.
One thing we should remember is that people don’t always use the way things are intended. They deviate from the way things were meant to be used. A nice example in public space is offered by this picture (on the highly recommendable blog Urban Bricolage by Eric Hooge, a collection of people tinkering with urban space)
The caption of this picture reads:
“A desire path (also known as a desire line or social trail) is a path developed by erosion caused by animal or human footfall. The path usually represents the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination. The width and amount of erosion of the line represents the amount of demand. Desire paths can usually be found as shortcuts where constructed pathways take a circuitous route.”
This deviating behavior already points to an openness in every design for users to explore particular ways of using it. But this deviant behavior is mostly seen, especially from the perspective from the designer or the planned world, as undesirable. But what if this openness is exactly what helps define a good public space or community project? And is keeping things unfinished as a design choice a way of designing in this openness? To explore this first two examples which made me realize ‘being unfinished’ might be a particular quality you could use and could help us explain their value and what it offers different from services.
The first time this became clear to me was while visiting the Arcola Theater during a study trip organized by Inspiring Cities. During this visit Ben Todd gave a talk explaining how the theatre came about and how it operates. There were many interesting things happening at this place, but one remark stuck with me ‘we try to keep the project unfinished to make people feel able to relate to it’. By keeping things open, you give people the opportunity to not only act as a user, a client or a customer. You give them the possibility to appropriate things, make them (part of) their own. From a user you are given the opportunity to co-own something. This doesn’t mean that you do not offer anything. It’s not about offering nothing; it’s about keeping a particular openness for people to relate to objects or spaces in a different manner than consumer mode.
The second recent encounter with the value of being unfinished occurred to me while visiting socialspaces.be at the Media, Arts and Design Acadamy in Genk. One of their researchers, Ben Hagenaars told about a former project of his, Animation Vegetation. In this project he has created 3D jute dolls filled with soil and grass to drop in the public space. Inspired by the graffiti movement, the dolls aim to generate more green spaces in public spaces. What makes this project interesting is that Ben has put a tutorial on his website which enables everyone to make their own. So he gives away a template to intervene in public spaces, thus enabling others to do something with it. Again this is a nice example of the added value of leaving something unfinished.
Leaving things unfinished invites people to engage with things in a deeper, more personal manner. It is an invitation to appropriate something, to make it your own, to add value and meaning to it. Moreover it hands over responsibility, ownership and control to people. It asks them to make something, not out of nothing, but at least make something happen. They can add their skills, knowledge, experiences and dreams. By keeping it unfinished people who join in later can still add something.
So where does this leave us. Should we just do nothing and leave it up to people to fill in all those things which we leave intentionally unfinished. No, that would be pushing it. Instead we should be looking at ways in which we could strategically built in the unfinished. To help me articulate this and finish off this post, I want to refer to a text by Joop de Boer en Jeroen Beekmans. They run a website 'The Pop-Up City' collecting examples of temporary and flexible Interventions in urban space. In the recently published book ‘The spontaneous city’ by Urhahn Design, they have written a text in which they argue that in a sense spontaneity is overrated, or maybe it’s too optimistic a view on how to work with and on cities. Instead they argue that we should not expect things to happen spontaneous by nature, we should try and induce spontaneous action in people. They call it ‘Artificial Spontaneity’. Although a good party has a spontaneous feel to it, it requires a lot of preparation. What this implies for designers is thus that is not about ‘the spontaneity of the intervention, but about giving rise to the spontaneous social interaction’. Leaving things unfinished is one way of creating such artificial spontaneity. I leave it at that, maybe unfinished, but ready for you to take it further wherever you want to.