DIY DC: Co-designing an online directory and marketplace for public space creatives and makers
CLIENT DC Office of Planning
Public space drives health outcomes, especially during a global pandemic. However, big organizations, rather than individuals who are closer to community concerns and needs, are more able to implement changes to this public space. Unfortunately, this often results in prescriptive rather than community-based changes with negative effects on the health and wealth of existing residents.
I asked how can community-based artists and residents serving DC start and realize projects in a way that improves these health and wealth outcomes in their communities?
• I interviewed over 37 stakeholders in public space and art,
• I developed and implemented a summit on public space,
• and I created an online directory and marketplace platform for the DCOP.
• Product Roadmapping + Project Management
• User Research
• Presenting to Client
• Workshop Facilitation and Design
The mockup of our homepage for our product, DIY DC.
The Challenge in focus
The composition of public space has direct and indirect consequences on the health and well-being of city residents. Here are some examples:
"A study...found that parks serving primarily nonwhite populations are, on average, half the size of parks that serve majority-white populations, and are potentially five times more crowded." (NPR) This means less social distancing for communities of color during a pandemic.
"Hostile architecture" has proliferated across US cities. Benches with uncomfortable metal grommets reduce the affordances of things like benches and ledges, which affects skateboarders, the elderly, and homeless people. (NYT) This means architecture affects the mobility of seniors, reduces spaces for recreation, and reduces safe, accessible space to vulnerable people.
These public space projects are often initiated by organizations with large access to capital and institutional knowledge that the average resident or individual artist lacks. However, it's these small clusters of residents and community-based and -engaged artists that know what communities really want.
The impact of DIY projects in cities
Artists' and resident makers' projects tend to be less formal, more "DIY" in nature and spring from individuals in a grassroots or bottom-up way as opposed to a top-down prescriptive way. Here are some examples:
Sometimes these crowd-sourced projects, provide a therapeutic outlet during a time of crisis, in the case of the National Covid Memorial Wall in London.
Sometimes these projects address community concerns like the lack of internet access in small farming communities. In Spain, one man tired of waiting for a telecom giant to come to town created a community-owned internet network.
Sometimes these projects provide recreation and a place to create community. The City of Portland almost sold its Congress Square Park to developers. In protest, a grassroots organization sprung up to implement "lighter, quicker, cheaper" programming like art exhibits and food trucks, which transformed the "derelict" park to a "community meeting space" and stopped the sale of the park.
These interventions create spaces in which the existing community wants to live, work, play, learn, and heal. These projects are essential, not just in London, Spain and Portland, but also in places like DC, which is having a reckoning with the consequences of COVID and gentrification.
DCOP needed our help in realizing more DIY projects
During my first year in my Interaction Design master’s program, I served as a design consultant in a practicum featuring the Washington DC Office of Planning as a partner and client. The Office plans DC’s long-term growth in everything from infrastructure to cultural planning with a mission to ensure a positive future in which all District residents can thrive, regardless of income, race, age, or background.
Our client was interested in more of these agile grassroots projects springing up in public space. The question became, however, how does one facilitate that? What barriers exist that residents and artists attuned to neighborhood concerns already don't or struggle to launch these projects.
Discovery + Research
The interests at play
Our design team was new to the field of public space and urban planning, and it was important to learn the range of concerns and interests at play that facilitated and stalled grassroots public space projects.
Over six months, I conducted secondary research and interviews with up to 40 people from librarians to residents, architects to entrepreneurs, and activists to artists through quantitative research. I also developed and implemented the DIY DC Design Sprint, a virtual summit/discovery and ideation workshop. I shared what I learned and used simulations on agile public projects to learn about the barriers and opportunities in this work.
Above: Here are screenshots from the DIY DC Workshop which I planned and partly facilitated; Below: Ideation was important even to the workshop planning process! I storyboarded what the workshop experience could look like.
Here's what I learned
Regulations and Permitting: Regulations were frequently cited as an impediment to community-serving projects. The zoning and permitting process is extremely difficulty because of its complexity and the time required to complete it. Some projects rely on permitting "life hacks" to access sufficient but accessible permitting while some community projects circumvent them entirely for the sake of solving an urgent community want/need.
Funding: Artists building their networks cited difficulty tracking and securing funding for projects. One notably said that she maintained a massive spreadsheet cataloguing a myriad of funding opportunities she learned of primarily through word-of-mouth. She lacked a central repository related to this community-engaged work, especially in DC.
Housing affordability: I found that lack of affordability can affect sustainability of a project. It forces the stewards and owners out of the site and creates incredible, unavoidable friction.
Successes and Opportunities:
Libraries: Libraries have been described as great partners for other organizations. In our qualitative research they were sometimes referred to as the "conveners" in their communities and liaisons between communities (regardless of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic demographics) and the local government services and support.
Projects with Community Input: When a project is conceived with deep community input and involvement from the beginning, it is much more likely to enjoy the continued stewardship of residents.
And, and over and over, you see that the coolest [projects] are often the cheapest [projects]. The things that are more expensive, are often the result of big projects, and really deep pockets and committees and [they] overanalyze. It's like, 'What do we think the kids will like?' 'Oh, I hear the kids like these things, let's do that.'
But the actual cool things are done by the locals and the people who are willing to take a risk. They have the more creative ideas. Very often the lower budgets actually contribute to more interesting creative approaches. And so you have to reduce the barriers to entry.
Author in architecture and urban planning that I interviewed
Defining + Prototyping
Mapping the road ahead
I collected so much information over six months about nuanced issues in public space from so many individuals. It would have been easy to get overwhelmed.
To prevent that, I scheduled a product planning meeting with all of the designers to get alignment on...
The problem I wanted to solve
The persona I wanted to solve it for
The idea I was going to pursue in a prototype
The teams and tasks I needed to tackle the prototype by our final team meeting with our client , our "soft launch" date.
Above: Here are some of the templates I made that I worked on in the meeting. I made the templates in Adobe Illustrator and facilitated the virtual product planning meeting in Mural. We organized into teams and worked on what we were passionate about and/or skilled in.
To stay on track during the rest of the project, I facilitated weekly check-ins across teams who self-organized. I also created a flexible Ghant chart and sent around a weekly "Wall of Work" email to keep us agile and on task.
Sketching out our task flows
After deciding on a digital product for our personas, I worked on task flows with designer Zainab Balogun based on our team's research. Then, I passed these task flows along to the Prototyping team who converted them into wireframes, then high-fidelity, interactive mockups. (You can see the mockups in our marketing video below!)
Next Steps + Lessons Learned
Branding and marketing for DIY DC
DIY DC is a concept that is not yet fully launched. In conversations about our initial wireframes with the client, they wanted us to create a video that could be shared throughout the DC government, with businesses and community organizations, and with artistic/maker communities to drum up support, buy-in, and a potential user base.
With that charge, I worked with designers Michael Chergosky and Hera Koestantijo on a script for the following video. I even provided the narration. Check out the video below!
Above: Our marketing video for DIY DC
There's so many different ways that an audience, whether it be someone [in the DCOP], an individual artist, or the Commission of the Arts and Humanities - there's so many different ways that people would perceive this and take it and run with it, but I think it's all just so positive. It would be interesting to kind of run this by some of these different agency partners to get their reaction...You all delivered big time.
Joshua Silver, DCOP
Stewardship of the site
It's not enough to think about the product up to the launch. Since I suggested to our client that this be a user-driven product, it was equally important to consider who will maintain the site after we leave this project. Both the client and I had initial thoughts including the following. A conversation with these potential stewards could start with sharing our marketing video:
DC Office of the Chief Technology Officer
DC Libraries: libraries are extremely attuned to the needs of communities since they're based in each section of the city. Libraries convene people of different backgrounds and even have an embedded maker community. This would be a great partner either way.
Community-based arts organizations or DC tech startups: DC government has a precedent of funding organizations who can steward funds and run programming that aligns with their policy. There are many local arts organizations in DC who could run the site. One student at the Corcoran with an arts and media company expressed interest in this type of work as well.