Community based design

Artwork: Peeps by Gillian Levine
Artwork: Peeps by Gillian Levine

To solve big-scale design problems, Don Norman recommends engaging with the community that has these problems and leveraging existing creativity and experience.

The principles of human-centered design have proven to be effective and productive. However, its approach is generally used in situations where professionals determine the needs of the target populations and then develop products and procedures to address the needs. This is Top-Down design: starting with higher-level conceptualizations and then refining the ideas and concepts to specific instances of products or services. This works well for mass-produced items which only allows limited specialization for individual needs and requirements.


We propose a radical change in design from experts designing for people to people designing for themselves. In the traditional approach, experts study, design, and implement solutions for the people of the world. Instead, we propose that we leverage the creativity within the communities of the world to solve their own problems: This is community-driven design, taking full advantage of the fact that it is the people in communities who best understand their problems and the impediments and affordances that impede and support change. Experts become facilitators, by mentoring and providing tools, toolkits, workshops, and support.

Jeremy Meyerson, from London’s Royal College of Art, has proposed a closely related approach “Scaling Down"


The growth model of the 20th century required that designers and companies achieve economies of scale. Scaling up involved abstraction to make large-scale production possible for the global industrial economy. In the 21st century, social challenges are increasingly disrupting world markets. This changes the focus of the design process. Designers once needed to learn just a little about large groups of people to serve mass markets. Today, they must learn a great deal about relatively small numbers of people. They must shift from concentrating on what makes groups of people similar to what makes them different.

Myerson proposed five principles of scaling down. They complement the approach in this paper by being very similar in spirit, but from a slightly different perspective, introducing slightly different concepts. Here are his principles:

  • Cultivate a Participatory Mindset—Not an Expert One

Creating with people rather than for them using collaborative methods responding to real needs identified through an interactive, democratic process, and make certain design methods obsolete.

  • Make the Process Design-Infused—Not Design-Led

Infusing multi-disciplinary processes with valuable design skills such as facilitation, visualization, and modeling offers richer, deeper, and more democratic alternatives to standard, designer-led approaches.

  • Design for People—Not Personas

Imaginary amalgams of user traits may be useful and convenient design tools in some industries—but they can be dangerous in others because they are based on unreal assumptions or idealized stereotypes.

  • Aim for Engagement—Not Abstraction

When designers adopt broad, simple, generic ideas about people, they leave no space for the type of contradiction, complexity, or iteration that real life demands. When designers opt for direct engagement with groups and individuals during workshops, consultations, or co-creation activities, they are able to resist abstraction because they are dealing with specifics, real opinions, and lived experiences.

  • Build on Assets—Don’t Just Minimize Deficits

Scaling down means looking through a positive lens, trying to enhance people’s physical and psychological assets, and building on what individual people and communities have to offer.

Scaling down is a counter-cultural movement that seeks to create a more tailored experience for communities and individuals. Experts provide the building materials and build the communication structures. Local communities build upon these resources. A powerful combination.

A participatory mindset, a design-infused approach, and engagement rather than abstraction are among the key values of scaling down. Scaling down can be seen in a variety of projects from office space planning to public health inventions in a city.

We believe that the people best equipped to address these issues are the people who live there, and we wish to help create a worldwide community, sharing procedures and results through powerful communication and learning tools, using whatever media are appropriate. This is the power of the mixed approach, building upon proven techniques in both the top-down and the bottom-up approaches.

Further reading

✤ Community based, human centered design

Don Norman & Eli Spencer | jdn.org

✤ Scaling Down: Why designers need to reverse their thinking

Jeremy Myerson | sciencedirect.com

Tools and Resources


Same Energy is a powerful visual search engine that helps you discover new styles. You can use it to find beautiful art, photography, decoration ideas, or anything else.

🎲 Foont.co is a font game for designers. Inspired by another game Can't Unsee, where you need to pick the design that is most correct, that tests your attention to details.

⚡️ Fontjoy generates font pairings in one click and helps designers choose the best font combinations. Mix and match different fonts for the perfect pairing.

🎨 Noise & Gradient generates your very own trendy textured backgrounds.

🌈 colorpalettes.earth gives you color palettes inspired by beautiful nature photos.

✅ Accessible Color Spaces is a color contrast tool by Kevin Gutowski, you can test your button’s contrast ratio for accessibility requirements.

— That’s it for this edition. See you with the next one.