Generative (participatory) design

Peter JonesInnovation

Liz Sanders, now at, presents this mapping of Design Research approaches – in Design Research Quarterly (1:1). She distinguishes between Design-led and Research-led design, and Expert vs. Participatory. At MakeTools, Liz advocates Generative Design, led by participants as designers. Her article distinguishes generative design as:

Generative tools (Sanders, 2000; Sleeswijk Visser, Stappers, van der Lugt and Sanders, 2005) is a newer design-led bubble in the participatory design zone. It is characterized by the use of design thinking by all the stakeholders very early in the fuzzy front end of the design development process. The name ‘generative tools’ refers to the creation of a shared design language that designers/researchers and the stakeholders use to communicate visually and directly with each other. The design language is generative in the sense that with it, people can express an infinite number of ideas (e.g., dreams, insights, opportunities, etc.) through a limited set of stimulus items. Thus, the generative tools approach is a way to fill the fuzzy front end with the ideas, dreams and insights of the people who are to be served through design. The generative tools approach has been used across all the design domains, although the generative toolkits differ across the various domains. It should be noted that generative design research is not entirely design-led. Generative toolkits are created and developed based on a solid understanding of the context of use that has been ethnographically informed.

Structured Dialogic Design shares a similar “space” on her mapping of participatory, user-led design, but with very different methods and orientation to systems. Generative design is oriented toward products and services that people (users) might adopt in daily practice. SDD generates a space of design possibilities for complex systems and social projects, such as policy or democratic community projects, constructed from participants’ experience and ideas only. SDD adapts dialogue to generate and then qualify ideas, and progresses to organizing options fields and finally actionable plans.  A presentation is available online at