Design to Engage

Challenge— Englewood (south side Chicago) has a reputation for being one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the city. Residents stay safe by keeping to themselves – avoiding conversation and even simple eye contact with others. In spite of these conditions, a small, hyper-motivated group of residents are determined to change the dynamics of their neighbourhood from the inside out. Unfortunately, lack of participation at their events is a reoccurring problem. Over eight months, this project explored new ways to entice residents to get more involved with their community.

Process— As a high profile neighbourhood, Englewood attracts many offers to help from people who think their approach can solve the violence. Too often, these attempts fail to recognize the factors that make Englewood’s situation uniquely challenging. Sensitive to the insider / outsider dynamics at play, my team devoted the first four months of our work to immersive research and participation in Englewood, building relationships with locals by volunteering at their events. When we finally partnered with Asiaha Butler (president of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood) and her collaborator Latesha Dickerson (also an Englewood resident), we only asked to work with them – the exact details of our project and its intended deliverables were left open to discussion and discovery.

Insights— Engagement is a system. Instead of focusing on only one type of engagement, it’s necessary to meet people where they’re at and give them options to participate with varying degrees of effort and commitment. This is how we can build a bridge between the hyper-motivated and apathetic or uninvolved.

Developing true co-design relationships is a two-way street that takes time. We cannot underestimate the risk that local partners take by allowing designers to leverage their social capital when reaching out to others in the community. Despite knowing from the start that we wanted to work with Asiaha, my team took time to demonstrate our long-term commitment to Englewood before asking her to collaborate. Making it clear to our partners how and why they stand to gain just as much as we do by working together is crucial in setting the stage for incredible co-design experiences.

“Solution”— Leveraging our contextual learnings from the first half of our project, we prototyped a mix of activities designed to observe the community’s willingness to talk to each other in different physical and social environments. At Asiaha and Latesha’s request, we then held a workshop on design methods for  ~20 Englewood residents, sharing our design process and specific learnings about engagement in the neighbourhood. The workshop focused on things like open-ended vs. closed questions and low-cost prototyping, as well as a set of guiding principles that we developed for making community activities more compelling and accessible for a broader range of people. If you’d like to read more about our prototypes and guiding principles, feel free to take a look at this in-depth case study.

Credits— Working on a big team of six, I conducted expert interviews, helped the team articulate design in layman’s terms, worked to develop the project’s narrative, hand lettered chalk boards, mixed buckets of cement (!!!), oversaw the communication design, facilitated a workshop for local residents, and championed the social media touch points throughout. All this AND we survived the IRB process. It’s been a privilege to work with Diego Bernardo,  Maggee Bond, Asiaha Butler, Latesha Dickerson, Amanda Geppert, Alisa Weinstein, and Helen Wills.