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How to represent contradictions

Contradictions are social tensions that accumulate in the history of a society. When they reach the peak, conflicts come to the surface and society has to take action to change what is feeding the contradiction. In simple words, it is necessary to attack the root of the problem.

There are design approaches that try to solve the root problem, but, in participatory design, contradictions are understood in a different way than problems. Contradictions are inherent to any society and they prevail even if  problems are solved. They cannot be solved per se, but they can be transformed into another contradiction, in a similar way that a technical trade-off can make a problem into another problem.

The aim of participatory design is not to solve contradictions, but to make participants aware of them and to help them develop strategies and tactics to deal with the contradiction. Representing the contradiction is the first step in developing those tactics and strategies.

The following are some techniques and formats I came across during my PhD research to represent contradictions.

Iconic images

The most simple example of representing a contradiction is Rene Magritte’s The treachery of images. The image is a pipe but the tagline says “this is not a pipe”. The painting is great because it makes explicit the contradiction of any painting: it is real but it is not reality.

The treachery of images (This is not a pipe) - Rene Magritte

Short fictional video

Video narratives are great to show how contradictions are ingrained in the everyday life. The video put the viewer in the position of perceiving the contradiction while the characters experience them. In the following video the character takes a surprising action, considering the high-tech surrounding. Despite all the efforts in developing e-books, we still prefer reading old-fashion paper books.

Forum theatre

Forum theatre is a participatory performance in which a group of actors enact an everyday situation. When the contradiction manifests in the situation, the performance is interrupted and the audience is invited to discuss what is going on and to join the performance. The point is understand the situation from the perspective of each character.

Image theatre

A more analytical version of the forum theatre is the image theatre, in which the body of the actors stand still in a certain position. The meaning of the positions are discussed and changes are made by modeling the actor’s body. The actors are not professionals and they come from the audience itself.

Board games

Games can represent contradictions in the interactions between people. By taking a role in the game, the person can fell the constraints imposed by the contradiction in his own behavior. The contradiction cannot be simply removed or ignored because this would imply removing a person out of the game. The example below is the board game I designed to make people aware of the contradiction between self interests and common interests.

Low-tech visualizations

Low-tech visualization is a method I created to gather behavioral data from potential users. The designer provides a template with the materials, but it is up to the users to input the data and make up the visualization. In the example bellow, a healthcare facility is represented with the walking paths of patients and nurses. The contradiction lies in the goal of the facility to be a place for sharing knowledge and at the same time a place for fast-paced profitable work.


Lego Serious Play

There is a method to use Lego to facilitate dialogue. Instead of speaking right away, a person is invited to first reflect silently on the issue while she builds a model with the little blocks. When the model is done, the person describes what it means . The model can represent contradictions through metaphors. In the example below there are some contradictions found in education, but not all the examples represent contradictions.


Pawel Kuczynski cartoons have drawn the attention of the internet to the contradictions of our times. His images look at first nice illustrations of everyday activities, but there is always an element that does not fit. After some reflection, it is possible to realize the criticism he is making through the image.


Comic strips

The advantage of comic strip for representing contradictions is that the reading order does not need to be fixed from left to right, leaving it open for understanding how different perspectives collide. Comic strips provides a quick overview of the context where the story takes place. The example is from a magnificent book I have in Dutch about the contradictions you have to face at school, from which I have translated two pages. What I like the most is that it never gives the right answer, leaving up for the reader to make up his mind.


Data visualization

Data visualization can represent contradictions in a quantitative manner. It is difficult sometimes to understand why the contradictions are there, but it is possible to draw attention to the size of the problem. Bibviz is an interactive visualization that connects different passages of the Bible dealing with the same topic. When these passages are put together, contradictions arise.


Controversy mapping

The method consists of collecting news material about a controversy and presenting it in a format that does not take one side. Data visualizations are typically part of controversy maps. The example is a website about abortion in the US.


Dialogue mapping

Dialogue mapping is a technique originally created to document what people discuss during a meeting. The arguments raised by different people are stored as nodes in a network, categorized according to its function in the debate: raising a new issue, pointing out the pros and cons, and making decisions. The example is from an article I wrote about the design of a medical imaging center. I tried to map contradictions in different levels of tension. I used the software CompendiumNG to do that.


Activity system

The activity system is a model used to identify contradictions in one activity and in the relationships with other activities. Each triangle is an activity system. It is the most advanced tool I know to represent contradictions; however, it is sometimes difficult to understand for those who are not familiar with the underlying theory. The example below is from an article I wrote about the design of a medical imaging center.


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