Design and Democracy

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Course TypeCourse CodeNo. Of Credits
Foundation CoreSDE2SD4124

Semester and Year Offered: Semester 3 (Winter)

Course Coordinator and Team: Suchitra Balasubrahmanyan and Krishna Menon

Email of course coordinator:

Pre-requisites: None

Course Objectives/Description:

Over the last two decades participatory design (where design solutions to complex problems are developed through the participation of the communities who are directly affected) and co-design (where design solutions are co-created with equal authorship between designers and communities) have emerged as important departures from earlier modes where designers worked in a top-down prescriptive manner, often holding decision-making power over the users of their designs. While these approaches are termed “human-centred” or “user-centred” their premise is too often patronising, loaded in favour of the “client” who might be the State or corporate entities seeking to influence their publics, with design being drawn into strengthening the market or nation-state. At the other end, the motive force for social design initiatives is often associated with altruism, philanthropy or charity – idealistic and well-meaning at best and superficial and unsustainable at worst. This course builds understanding of students that the foundations of emancipatory social design practice are democratic values and meaningful participation of all members of society in decision-making processes, moving from user-centredness to user-rights and invites students to engage with the question: what is the ultimate ‘value’ that design creates.

Course Outcomes:

On successful completion of this course students will be able to:

  1. Develop a critical framework whereby they can see why democratic values need to be strengthened in social design practices
  2. Analyse where meaningful participation of the marginalised is compromised and how
  3. Critically assess public systems and services for their adherence to democratic values and propose social design alternatives

Brief description of modules/ Main modules:

Module 1 (4 weeks)

Through simple readings from political theory, this module discusses the evolution of democracy as a concept, the various criticisms leveled against the concept and contemporary perspectives and debates on collective decision-making. The topics covered would be: The Concept of Democracy; Direct participatory Democracy; Liberal Democracy; Objections to Democracy; Perspectives on Democracy (Socialist view, Feminist view, Deliberative view) and Indian debates on democracy. The key debates covered would be: Democracy and Difference; Democracy and Development; concluding with a discussion of the structures of power in society and their impact on the possibility of collective decision making.The final discussion above would lead to an exploration of the evolution of the form and substance of citizenship (and its component parts – rights, responsibilities and participation) as shaped by socio-economic and political forces. The topics covered would be: The Meaning of Citizenship; The Historical Development of Citizenship; Capitalism, Liberalism and Universal Citizenship; Feminism and Citizenship; Differentiated and Multicultural Citizenship; Civic Virtue and Good Citizenship; Globalisation, World Citizenship and Human Rights.

Module 2 (4 weeks)

This module will introduce students to writings by design practitioners and scholars of design that explore the intersections between design, democracy and citizenship examine key approaches in design through the frameworks of democracy and citizenship: Affirmative Design (design approaches which conform to existing cultural, social, technical and economic expectations); Participatory Design and Co-design (design approaches that seek the participation of communities affected by the problems sought to be solved through design processes); and Speculative/Critical Design (design approaches that foreground the ethics of design practice, reveals potentially hidden agendas and values, and explores alternative design values).

Module 3 (5 weeks)

In order to see how the concepts and approaches explored in the earlier modules play out in actual design projects, the third module would consist of case studies, from the subcontinent and further afield, which explore the ways that design thinking and design practice have played a role in the artifacts, institutions and processes of democracy and citizenship. Focusing on collective action through design, this module also investigates the way design can draw people together referring both to the way publics arise out of design intervention and to the generative action publics take—how they “do design” as they mobilize and act in the world. This double lens offers a new view of how design and a diverse set of design practices circulate in sites of collective action.

Module 4 (3 weeks)

The concluding module will offer space for students to explore a contemporary design practice of their interest or a contemporary subject where design approaches may be productively introduced, using the conceptual frameworks of democracy and citizenship emerging from the readings and case studies discussed in the preceding modules.

Assessment Details with weights:


Weightage in %

Assignment 1 on Module 1


Assignment 2 on Module 2


Assignment 3 on Module 3 and 4


Semester-end Jury



Reading List:

Module 1

Faulks, Keith. “Citizenship” in Blakeley, Georgina and Valerie Bryson. Contemporary Political Concepts: A Critical Introduction. London: Pluto Press. 2002. p. 73-89.

Roy, Anupama. “Citizenship” in Bhargava, Rajeev and Ashok Acharya (Eds.). Political Theory: An Introduction. Delhi: Pearson Longman. 2008. p. 130-47.

Srinivasan, Janaki. “Democracy” in Bhargava, Rajeev and Ashok Acharya (Eds.). Political Theory: An Introduction. Delhi: Pearson Longman. 2008. p. 106-29.

Module 2

Bonsiepe, Gui. Design and Democracy. Design Issues: Volume 22, Number 2 Spring 2006. p. 27-34

DiSalvo, Carl. Design and the Construction of Publics. Design Issues: Volume 25, Number 1 Winter 2009. p. 48-63

Dong, Andy. The Policy of Design: A Capabilities Approach. Design Issues: Volume 24, Number 4 Autumn 2008. p. 76-87

Bardzell, Jeffrey and ShaowenBardzell. “What is ‘Critical’ about Critical Design?” in CHI ’13 Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2013. p. 3297-3306.

Bowen, Simon. Critical Theory and Participatory Design. CHI 2010 Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.2010., April 10–15, 2010, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

Sanders, Elizabeth & Pieter Jan Stappers.Co-creation and the new landscapes of design.CoDesign-International Journal of CoCreation in Design and the Arts. Volume 4, 2008 -Issue 1.p. 5-18

Module 3

The Materiality of Elections- Design of Party Symbols, Electoral Rolls, Electronic Voting Machines

Digital Platforms and the Arab Spring The Design of the Sabarmati Riverfront in Ahmedabad and Citizens’ Rights

Moholla Clinics in Delhi – Systems Design Perspectives Film Manthan.131 mins.

Module 4

Examples of subjects that might be explored: Smart Cities/Villages Digital Societal Platforms such as Air B&B, Uber

Apps for Women’s safety in metros Privacy (Aadhar Card) Urban Farming Urban Commons Corporate/Political parties Branding

Additional Reference:

  • Supplementary Readings Module 1 Jayal, NirajaGopal.Citizenship and its Discontents: An Indian History. Ranikhet: Permanent Black. 2013. p. 254-71. (“The Future of the Civic Community”)
  • Roy, Anupama. Mapping Citizenship in India. New Delhi:OUP. 2010. p. 161-77. (“Cities, Residual Citizenship and Social Citizenship”) Supplementary Readings Module 2
  • Margolin, Viktor. Design and Democracy in a Troubled World. Lecture at the Carnegie Mellon University, 2012. ( accessed 26 October 2017).
  • Merritt, Samantha &Stolterman, Erik.Cultural hybridity in participatory design.ACM International Conference Proceeding Series. 2012. Supplementary Readings Module 3
  • Turèl, Thijs and Henk-Jan van Alphen. Democracy by Design: Food for Thought. Alliander NV, The Netherlands. 2016. ( content/uploads/ Democracy-by-Design-discussion-paper.pdf accessed 20 October 2017)
  • Turner, Naomi (Ed). Designing Democracy: How designers are changing democratic spaces and processes. London: Design Commission. 2015. Field visit Indian Parliament/Parliament Museum Films What is Democracy.92 mins. Critical Productions 2013.