Experience Design 2: Personas and Archetypes

I’ve been thinking about the last blog post I wrote about landscape design as experience design all week. It’s been kind of a theme, the Creative Somerville Series speaker this week, Katarzyna Balug also touched on the topic: Her dual training as an artist and urban planner has led her to develop some really interesting perspectives on how creating temporary play installations can actually open up new possibilities for community engagement and dreams about the future.

It brought to mind another project I did in school while in a studio from the planning department. The site we were working on was a severely environmentally degraded plot of land in a very poor part of Mexico City. My studio partner, Laura Gilmore, a planner focused on transportation and streetscape and I proposed a jobs incubator program that would focus on environmental products and services.

Using “Personas” in Design
We wanted our project to not just meet the needs of multiple populations, but to actually weave those needs together, developing new ‘mutualisms’ that tied together the different populations of the area in growing through supporting the other.

personas diagram

We developed a diagram with ‘personas’ of the kinds of people who would use the incubation hub, what they would get out of it, and most importantly, how they would encounter and work with each other.

Diagramming ‘personas’ or archetypes, is, I’m sure, a common enough drawing in planning, or in product or information design, but I think, just like storyboarding, it is underused in architecture and design.

The problem is, that the way public space design is often taught, students are taught to think of “the public” in a monolithic, unquestioning way, and that way often defaults to a standard white, middle class perspective on who that community is.

I don’t believe in such a thing as “the community.” I do believe in communities. As Kate Balug said in her talk on Wednesday, there are multiple communities and groups in every place, sometimes overlapping, sometimes not. The construction of personas, especially when they are backed up by qualitative research and interviews with people, are a way of putting the focus back on the specific wants and needs of those communities, and taking it off the generic person we’ve all installed in our mind’s eye as the ‘average’ user.

Product and Process
What’s great about using personas, is that focusing on the “who” more specifically, and understanding the jobs they’re trying to get done in their lives, opens a designer up to thinking about not just the end product of a design intervention, but the process by which you get there. MASS Design Group is the firm that comes to mind that does this the best, they specifically made design decisions on their Butaro Hospital in Rwanda that would allow them to employ and train locals. They’ve even developed an in-house diagram to think through the impacts of design decisions they make upstream, to look for further opportunities to empower people through the process.

As the landscape designer in this studio project, a major job of mine was to develop formal expressions of the building and landscape interface. That concept of ‘weaving’ multiple identities and a focus on work, turned into an idea of flexible workspaces, open to the street, with integrated wetland channels, which handled the ecological ‘work’ of processing rain on the site, and created a unique public space experience.

Original Streetscape Concept Sketch
Original Streetscape Concept Sketch
Final Streetscape Design
Final Streetscape Design

When I teach, I talk about continually moving your design perspective from the systems level, to the human level and back–whether you’re designing a landscape, a business, or anything. Each perspective is a powerful way of thinking, but they each have their blind spots. Often people are better working intuitively on one level, and not the other. With practice in other ways of working, through specific drawing and research exercises to bulk out your other “muscle” I think you can learn to move fluidly and constantly between these ways of thinking. That’s what you need to produce things, places and experiences that succeed, and that people love.


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