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Sketching an expansive design definition

While writing my thesis, I make visual and textual sketches. Most of the times, these sketches are replaced later by a well-thought text, typically without the pictures. The sketches are removed because they cannot withstand scientific criticism, but they might be useful to communicate to a broader audience.

With that in mind, I’m publishing the sketches I made to define what I mean by expansive design, which is the title of my thesis.

Expansive design is not an approach or method I’m proposing, but a practice that already happens in organizations. It consists of anticipating the organizational development by designing space with the participation of people from the organization. Instead of using architectural space to control and restrict members from the bottom, expansive design brings people from different hierarchical levels and expertise to work out the contradictions that emerge in architectural space. Themes such as division of labor, work procedures, instruments, community identity, and shared objects are dealt with an expansive mindset that does not suffocate conflict, but spreads it out through the unknown.


Expansion hinges not only in spatial development but also on activity development. These two streams of development are typically considered separately, but my thesis will make the case for considering them together. The following are some characteristics I found in the expansive design practice.


Expansive design emerges in specific historical situations. Expansion is grounded on the existing conditions. Despite eventually being influenced by external sources and global trends, expansions are an important step in the development of an activity, space and organization.


Expansive design is an effort to change both activity and space. The division of labor and the derived knowledge disciplines split the object into two: activity and space. What pertains to activity is the matter of the client organization and what pertains to space is the matter of architects and engineers. However, these two pieces of the object must be put together at some point, even if that only happens after the building is occupied. This is when expansive design happens.


Expansive design unravels activity embedded into space and vice-versa. The process of expanding activity and space reveals the basic assumptions that drive their parallel development. Even a multi-purpose space is based on some assumptions about human activity. Also, activities are planned to take place somewhere, produce and use spatial resources.


Expansive design anticipates activity/spatial development by representation of future situations. The representation of future situations is not just an exploratory exercise. In fact, discussing the future is a way to change the present. The activity and the space are already changed by the representation process, even if in a minor scale than what is represented. This anticipation is already part of the future development, as a preparation for what is coming and also what is not coming. Eventually the represented situation might never be implemented as planned, but still it has some influence or value in the current situation.


Expansive design is concerned primarily with agency, the capacity to act. The motivation for expanding activity and space stems from the limitations to pursue one or multiple actions. People want to do more with space and space, in turn, shapes the next wants. It is a process of not only expanding the intended action so to speak, but defining what is going to be intended next.


Expansive design is non-linear. Even if someone organizes expansion in first considering activity and then space with the argument that space is more difficult to change later and that activity can adapt to any space, the issues of space will most likely pop-up during activity expansion when professional assistance for design is no longer available. It might also be the case that design sets a conflict-laden situation before the expansion of space is implemented due to the rejection of the plans. Within expansive design, there is no logical order to be followed. The emergent issues will have to be dealt, otherwise they might contribute to contraction instead of expansion.


Expansive design is bottom-up. Yet space and activity can be designed top-down there is not guarantee that expansion will actually happen. The space and activity so designed can be avoided. Expansive design happens by the horizontal coordination of seemingly unrelated events that change activity and space at the local level, changes that spread and becomes commonplace.


Expansive design is triggered out by conflicts and fueled by contradictions. Changes in space and activity are motivated by the refusal to abide to certain rules and configurations that do not work well for people. These rules and configurations have their protectors, who persuade others to just adapt to the current situation. The conflict between people who want change and people who doesn’t want change happen in many different levels, wherein one person can be against one thing and in favor of another. These conflicts stem from systemic contradictions inherent to the activities and the spaces into question. They cannot be simply removed for they are responsible for motivating change. The conflicts and contradictions inherent to activity and space are to be worked out during expansion, whether people want that or not. The anticipation of change brings to the surface the tensions that accumulated through time while the design was considered immutable or settled. Once the design is open again for reconsideration, a range of issues pops to the foreground. Working out these issues requires dealing with the struggle between the persons and organizations involved.


Expansive design deals with conflict in a playful way. Conflicts can be settled down by top-down decisions. In that case, the conflict is reduced by force and suffocated. This can happen too soon, before the parties are able to express themselves and manifest their discomfort. Another way of dealing with conflicts is by not taking them seriously. Jokes and pranks allow people to express their positions in a conflict without risking too much losing the other’s trust. The pretext of play allows people to withdraw comments once someone is personally offended or disengaged with the discussion. A sign that expansive design may be happening is when people are talking about heavy topics in a playful mood. Changes are about to happen.


Expansive design creates new social relations and spaces, which are not necessarily, better; they are different. It is difficult to rate changes in activity and space in terms of good or bad, better or worse. Since the relationship between activity and space is so particular to a certain situation, there is no reliable reference to make such a judgment. Expansion of activity and space is not oriented to the best possible design, but to the one that is possible in the situation. The contradictions will still be present after expansion, but in a different relationship.


Expansive design has the tendency to broaden and diversify practices and concepts, instead of eliminating, focusing and concentrating. Bottom-up processes are constantly generating a broad range of concepts and practices. From a top-down perspective, it is difficult to sort-out what should be spread or not across the organization, but from a bottom-up perspective the tendency to diversify allows for creating and testing out ideas quickly. Instead of arriving at a very compact, resolved design, expansive design arrives at very different designs that strangely enough coexist.

After sketching this, I’m now working in a more concise definition. I have to check everything to see if other academics already discussed some of these characteristics in other studies of design practice. This definition will be one of the main contributions of in my PhD thesis.

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