Paradigm and Participatory Design

I have a bit of a rambling story to share with the Interaction Culture crew today!

As some of you know, I’m immersing myself in postmodern and poststructuralist theory. While google searching for some images describing postmodernism I came across the following comic.

Note: I know the comic is too big to fit in the page, so click on it for full viewing pleasure.


The dinosaurs sparked something in my brain from a story I read a few months back about the best online comics. Another google search revealed the Qwantz strip at

Qwantz is a comic that uses the exact same dinosaur graphics in the same order for every comic in the series. The dialogue changes with the release of each new comic. To me, these seem like pretty obvious examples of syntagm and paradigm.

I started to think, again, about the first dinosaur comic about postmodernism. You’ll notice that the Copyright section at the bottom of the comic is scribbled out because the author of Qwantz did not make the comic about postmodernism. Someone stole the Qwantz formula and “made a funny” out of it. [Extra Credit for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live action movie reference]

Now for the real leap. Someone appropriating the Qwantz formula reminded me of comicboarding from CHI 07. Comicboarding is a participatory design method for use with children in which a comic about some design situation is prepared with missing panels. The children are then asked to fill in the panels to complete the story. The researcher can then interpret the desire and intentions of the child through their completion of the story.

If you extend the notion of syntagm to the design process (yes, I know I’m breaking all sorts of rules), does paradigm then become a notion of choice with an area of constraint. In all participatory design, not just comicboarding, the designer is in ultimate control of the process and has designed some sequence of steps. Participatory design gives users a chance to enter that design sytagm and push for a paradigm of their choosing. Maybe.

Food for thought and an excuse to post a funny comic.

1 Comment

  1. jimmypierce

    “Participatory design gives users a chance to enter that design sytagm and push for a paradigm of their choosing. Maybe.”

    With participatory design, it seems more like the designer is defining a set of paradigms (e.g. design constraints, feature sets) and having the user select a syntagm. Although, maybe that’s not right either… as Manovich points out, interaction design can be thought of as making explicit paradigms, while the syntagm is left for the user to make explicit. Maybe it’s a syntagm of pardigms? Or a paradigm of syntagms?!

    …Anyway, that comic is hilarious.


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