Communication Currents

World Café Process Transforms Science Center Community into Co-designers

August 1, 2014
General Communication Studies

How might we understand the needs of a science center’s many diverse communities in designing an innovative learning space? How might we design a collaborative communication process to design a physical space in a science center (or anywhere, for that matter)?

These are some of the questions we explored jointly with the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa, FL, as MOSI undertook the redesign of a public library space into what museum officials chose to call the “Idea Zone.” Located in a prominent position off the main lobby of the four-storied MOSI, the library had been a key feature of the science center, both conceptually and physically. In addition to science and technology-related books (science and science fiction), movies, magazines, children’s books, and a computer lab, the space also was replete with various scientific kits, diagrams, models, and artifacts (including pinned dragonflies and sharks’ teeth) that invited curiosity and further research about the things encountered in a science center, while being a resource for learning.

In 2011, county budgetary issues forced the closing of MOSI’s library. As questions arose about what to do with the area that had been a featured space at MOSI since 1995, the idea emerged to turn it into an “Idea Zone.” But this only led to further questions about what an “Idea Zone” might look and sound like, and how it might be designed. How could the Idea Zone be a creative and collaborative scene of knowledge sharing, exploration, and innovation? In turn, these questions about design of the space opened up further explorations about how a community might express and realize its needs for such a space even as the space itself was evolving. A large whiteboard was mounted on a temporary partition, and a 3D printer along with tables were moved into the emerging “Idea Zone,” but largely the room was empty space.

Designers have developed a number of approaches to open up designs to “outside” input, so we explored various design-oriented frameworks that foreground stakeholder participation, including Participatory Design, scenario-based design, persona development, Needfinding, and design thinking. Yet, with all those frameworks as possible choices, we sensed from our previous design engagements with MOSI that attending to the communication processes at play in design would be an important part of creating a space for creative ideas to emerge.

To attend to both the design of the Idea Zone and the communication processes intrinsic to its design, we chose to host a World Café (discussed below) within the context of a Needfinding process. Needfinding, as Rolf Faste suggests, involves two primary issues related to the design process: needs and perception. In other words, designers must be able to perceive that a stakeholder has a need if the design is to afford meaningful use by the stakeholder and, in turn, stakeholders must be able to perceive designers’ needs for design opportunities.

Within this communicative frame of joint perception (or creation) of needs, we hosted a World Café. The World Café, as a designed conversational format for group settings, invites the participation of diverse community members as stakeholders, in collaborative networks of conversation around questions that matter to the group. What is particularly important for our design goals is that the World Café can be seen to resonate with Gregory Bateson’s key communication principle that all utterances in context have both content and relationship aspects. This is important to us, as a goal is to both foster a space for creative ideas and do so in a way that encourages participants to have relationships with each other and with MOSI (and the unfolding Idea Zone) itself.

As a designed process, the World Café features seven design principles intended to flexibly guide conversation in a café atmosphere of conviviality and deep listening together. The Café process, rooted in ideas of systems theory and complexity, itself relies on a simple and flexible design. The physical setup strives to create a café-like setting with multiple small, round tables and chairs (typically four chairs), allowing for movement between the tables. The tables often are covered with a checkered tablecloth (evoking images of a café), which, in turn, is covered with butcher-block paper and crayons or markers intended to create an invitation for play and doodling together.

After a welcome and introduction, an initial open-ended question is posed, one that matters to the group. Once the group explores this initial question, a host stays at each table, while others move to new tables to take the conversation from their table to another. The newly formed groups further explore the question, after which a group “report out” may take place, often with a graphic recorder “drawing” the ideas for the entire Café. Movement occurs again, after which a new question, building on the previous conversation, is posed, tied to the context and purpose of the Café—in our situation, uncovering community needs for design of the Idea Zone (for example, “What might an Idea Zone look like, or sound like?”). The process is repeated, with movement and new emerging questions guiding the inquiry, as cross-pollination of ideas takes place.

A key insight that emerged through hosting the World Café from a Needfinding perspective is the parallel nature of the two design processes: design of the Idea Zone and design of the communication process to design the Idea Zone. Indeed, drawing on ideas from Mary Catherine Bateson, we could say that each process became a metaphor for the other. The design of a World Café is an Idea Zone, and the design of an Idea Zone is a Café. Hosting the Café was a learning process, and through that process we developed seven insights that may be important not only for design of a learning space in a science center but also for many other design activities, including even the design of our everyday conversations with others. Summarized below are the seven insights that, as in the spirit of the World Café, are intended as an opening for conversation and redesign together.

  • Communication and design involve processes of learning, both from an individual perspective and an organizational perspective.
  • A design cannot be informed by the needs of a person or a group until those needs are recognized as needs by other people or groups.
  • Complexities, paradoxes, ambiguities, and problems are to be celebrated and embraced—rather than eliminated—when trying to identify needs that are either tacit or unknown, or when designing a thing that does not yet exist, because it is out of these “dilemmas” that new future possibilities emerge.
  • Whether it is the design of a communication process or the design of a new museum space by a professional, moving design into public spheres involves questioning, acting, and reflecting on those questions and actions in relation to others.
  • Outcomes of design encompass much more than the designed space or object and may include, for example, new possibilities of interaction that emerge through the design processes, the communication processes, the constituents of the design objects, or other parallel avenues.
  • In the same way that all future uses of a designed object or space cannot be completely stipulated or dictated, the designs of communication or conversation for design should nurture new opportunities and be hospitable to differing contexts or frames of participants.
  • Design, as with many human patterns of communication, is an ecological process that builds on the communication process, which enables the design of the space or product, which in turn enables the ongoing redesign, and so on.

By seeing (communication) design as a process we all undertake each day of our lives as we communicate with others, the roles, processes, and designs of design are opened up for public dialogue, negotiation, collaboration, and redesign.

About the author (s)

Travis Thompson

University of South Florida

Doctoral Candidate

Frederick Steier

University of South Florida

Associate Professor

Wit Ostrenko

President and CEO, Tampa Museum of Science & Industry