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It’s a familiar setting – Chart papers, post-its, groups of people, sketch pens. If not all, most of us have been through some kind of workshops in our lifetime. I remember in school we would have these team building sessions which in retrospect I can only imagine was some form of a workshop for our class to work through our interpersonal issues and resolve differences (if any). Wasn’t as much fun as I thought. We didn’t do much except maybe sat and listened to our facilitator’s lectures, looked at a few slides, nodded along and then went home. Needless to say these were just ways to fill time while the real work of correcting papers and filling out the report cards went on. Also this is an example of a bad workshop.
What is a workshop?
A workshop is essentially a space where a group of people come together and ‘work’ through a certain topic through a set of guided activities. There are lots of different kinds of workshops. There are writer’s workshops, theatre workshops, Management workshops, training workshops and so on. The idea is to gain some insight into the subject matter by anchoring discussions through a set of activities. The first time I got introduced to any real form of workshop was in Design school. There they took us through something that we call a design thinking process. By the end of the workshop you come up with something tangible, all the while your thinking has been guided by a predetermined set of activities. It’s fun.
The activities are timed so you have to think on your feet and you are always required to work in teams. The design thinking process that we were put through was somewhat derived from the Stanford d.school’s design thinking methodology that follows this particular trajectory Empathize-Define-Ideate-Prototype-Test. We were taught a lot how to think about the ‘user’. Since design is always about making products or services for the end user to solve some problem that they were facing, we must begin by putting ourselves into the shoes of the user in order to gain insight into what they may want. The workshops were always centered around ‘a’ problem and we had to work around that problem to come to some form of a solution. Now this would be easy if everyone involved in the system had the same problem and through one simple solution that problem would be solved.
Working through ‘a’ problem or through multiple perspectives?
Social problems are complex. And they are complex because there are many stakeholders involved in asking that particular question and each stakeholder has a unique perspective on the problem itself. Together all these elements may pose a daunting challenge as to where can one even begin? So then how do we bring together all these perspectives and truly design in an environment where not one but many solutions exist with varying trade-offs.
Workshops at the Fov playground
At Fields of View, we have crafted our own design methodology that helps us enter this problem space in a way that by the end of it we have a way forward to tame the beast (well maybe just parts of it). We unpack the several issues that are related to the topic. In our constitution project workshop we provided certain cue words to the participants to help them anchor their inquiry around a mammoth document such as the Indian Constitution. During our workshop participants tackled a plethora of ideas from the constitution through the timed activities and the constraints and objectives of creating a tool. Resisting the urge to look up an expert’s opinion, each participant brought to the table their own unique disciplinary perspectives and engaged in dialogue around the Constitution.
We cluster, break apart, discuss then cluster again and finally arrive at the exact problem space we are looking to tackle. We then proceed to map the actors (not users) in the problem ecosystem. We map their place in the system according to their Individual-Institutional, Formal-Informal, and influence characteristics. We then move on to chart out the relationship between the actors. Once these relationships are mapped we then move on to ideas and questions that will be worth exploring in the context of the problem space and the target audience.
The FoV workshop helps us not only in tackling the problem space and but also in data collection. We have conducted workshops with a variety of audiences such as Administrative services officials in Sri Lanka, Government officials working on land-use, water and waste in Chennai, Changemakers from Ashoka Youth venture, school children at the Maker Faire Bangalore. It is a tool that can also be used in gaining information from the target audience for the project. So if you remember that design thinking chronology that I had mentioned earlier, well it’s not always so sanitized in the real world.
All things visual
The workshops that we conduct (for ourselves and others) have a heavy visual component to it. Those guided activities that we talked about earlier, well the workshop assets as we call them, are manifestations of it. Infact all the content that is generated in the workshops is guided by visual cues on these large chart papers provided to the participants.
Just the other day, my colleague and I spent a considerable amount of time discussing and exchanging notes on why a certain sheet should or should not have arrows. Why it should be horizontally laid out and not vertically. Or why we should not put the word organisation in a circle. Now how does it even matter whether we put 3 connecting lines with arrows or not put any lines at all. We just need to give them specific instructions that’s all. Well, that’s precisely where some may get it wrong.
Let’s consider this scene: You have explained the activity, provided all the necessary instructions and now the activity has begun. You see now the participant is left alone to complete the task. Alone, in a world full of possibilities and her head full of ideas in the company of that sheet which says ‘activity mapping’ the mind can often go blank. And then suddenly in those moments of quiet doubt, those arrows that you had put in the sheet start gleaming almost with a soft halo around them. They subtly nudge the participant to put 3 activities down (one for each arrow). They feel relieved, they have filled the sheet with the required number of activities.
What has happened here? The visual cue of 3 arrows led the participant to put down only 3 ideas, whereas there could have been more or even less. Was that something that the arrow intended? No! In my experience of fixing alignments and setting type and making squares and circles and putting words into them, I have to constantly question what message is the visual giving out. Is it intending to do what the exercise requires or is it adding another layer of meaning to what the task intends to do. Is that meaning something we require? Those visuals must justify their purpose – whether it’s in anchoring a spectrum, listing under categories, illustrating directional relationships, such that if that participant is left alone with that same sheet again, the sheet does what it’s supposed to do, anchor responses in the way intended.
More on this later. For now, I have to go roll up those chart papers, put the sketch pens back into the boxes, and get back to fixing those wretched rags in the paragraph.