for them with stakeholders who wield
resources and decision-making power.
Sideways thinking. The
communication process around
designing technologies and media
that engage the public and various
stakeholders on an issue is not always
linear. Civic designers leverage
creative, affective methods—humor,
play, provocation, novelty, spectacle,
and beauty—borrowed from the arts
that can create non-linear approaches
to exploring civic voice, agency, and
participation. Creating these types
of experiences involves “sideways”
thinking, making metaphors and
creating symbols that help to activate
people’s civic imaginations and spark
their creative contributions.
Design and prototyping. Civic
designers need a wide range of design
and prototyping skills to help craft
solutions that appropriately respond to
a problem, a context, and an audience.
In this sense, civic designers need
more design breadth than depth since
they must be able to choose from
a range of technologies and media
rather than being experts in one
type of design (i.e., to avoid being the
hammer in search of a nail). In order
to arrive at the appropriate medium,
civic designers are deep experts in
collaborative prototyping methods
such as sketches, paper prototypes,
and wireframes. Once the co-design
process has identified the appropriate
end product, the civic designer pulls in
fellow designers with medium-specific
expertise into the production and
Measuring value. There is increased
pressure to articulate evidence of
the effectiveness of civic media
interventions. However, as the work of
civic design is often about process and
collective imagination, it is difficult
to apply traditional metrics to assess
value. The value of a civic media object
may be in the sense of community
it creates, the ability for people to
engage in meaningful dialogue, or
the creation of feelings of personal
or collective efficacy. Unlike other
design interventions, value may not be
located in increased numbers or cost
savings. Civic designers should employ
co-design methods, specifically PAR,
early in a design process, so that the
value of an intervention is informed
by the stakeholders themselves.
When measuring value, the designer
is measuring the ability of the
intervention to achieve the outcomes
expressed by users, not the outcomes
that fit into existing quality metrics.
Accordingly, civic designers need to be
creative in the way they represent value
back to users and to other stakeholders,
such as funders. If numbers don’t talk,
the designers have to tell the story of
successes and failures in ways that
highlight the importance of process.
Civic design is a growing field. As
governments, NGOs, newspapers,
and activist groups are feeling
increased pressure to effectively
employ media and technology to
engage or mobilize constituents,
what used to be standard
communications or information
technology positions are demanding
different skill sets. These positions,
sometimes reframed as “innovation,”
require a level of creative problem
solving and critical thinking, as
well as comfort with participatory
methodologies, that didn’t exist before.
Civic designers will be at decision-making tables. Communications
is no longer an afterthought in the
civic space—it is not about doing
something and then telling people
that you did it. Communication is
civic work, and as such, civic designers
will be central to the programmatic
work of civic organizations.
The CMAP program at Emerson
College is building capacity for this
growing field. We are enthusiastic
about joining with other civic design
programs, and scholars and designers
in the field, to further articulate the
unique demands of civic design and the
kinds of creative pedagogies we need to
employ to support them.
1. Bødker, S. Third-wave HCI, 10 years
later—participation and sharing.
Interactions 22, 5 (Sept.-Oct. 2015), 24–31.
2. Gordon, E. and Mihailidis, P.
Introduction. In Civic Media: Technology,
Design, Practice. E. Gordon and P.
DOI: 10.1145/3041764 COPYRIGH T HELD BY AUTHORS. PUBLICATION RIGHTS LICENSED TO ACM. $15.00
Mihaildis, eds. MIT Press, 2016.
3. Lampe, C. Citizen interaction design:
Teaching HCI through service. Interactions
23, 6 (Nov.-Dec. 2016), 66–69. DOI:
4. The third course each semester is reserved
for an elective that students choose to
take from any other program at Emerson
College. They are encouraged to find a
course that provides depth to their specific
context, or that teaches a skill set that they
believe will help their design process.
5. Papert, S. and Harel, I. Constructionism.
Ablex Publishing Corp., 1991.
6. hooks, b. Teaching to Transgress:
Education as the Practice of Freedom.
Routledge, New York, 1994.
7. Ratto, M. Critical making: Conceptual and
material studies in technology and social
life. The Information Society 27, 4 (2011).
8. Jenkins, H., Shresthova, S., Gamber-Thompson, L., and Kligler-Vilenchik, N.
Superpowers to the people! How young
activists are tapping the civic imagination.
Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice.
E. Gordon, and P. Mihailidis, eds. MIT
Eric Gordon is a researcher/designer
interested in how organizations adopt and
support creative civic media practices. He
is the executive director of the Engagement
Lab and an associate professor at Emerson
College. He is also a faculty affiliate at the
Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society
at Harvard University.
Catherine D’Ignazio is an assistant
professor of civic media and data visualization
at Emerson College and a principal investigator
at the Engagement Lab. Her work focuses on
data literacy, feminist and critical technology
practices, and civic art. She is also a research
affiliate at the MI T Center for Civic Media.
Gabriel Mugar is a research associate
at the Emerson College Engagement Lab.
His work at the Engagement Lab examines
civic media innovation in small groups and
community-based organizations. He received
his Ph.D. from the Syracuse University School
of Information Studies. He is also an affiliate
of the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet
Paul Mihailidis is an associate professor
in the School of Communication at Emerson
College, where he teaches and researches
how citizens become effective participants in
civic life. He is also principal investigator and
co-director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson
College, and director of the Salzburg Academy
on Media and Global Change.