Public Participation and Planning

Americas Most Wanted Painting“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
Steve Jobs, quoted in BusinessWeek, May 25 1998.(Nine years before the iPhone and 12 years before the iPad).
The painting on the right is the satirical product of artists (Komar and Melamid) who set about designing in response to customer’s preferences in art. The survey suggested people like blue, traditional, realistic art of outdoor scenes including bodies of water in autumn. Similar paintings were constructed for multiple countries.

The painting of course is at best cromulent.


The point is, we have gone too far in planning in asking for public input. The public does not have the time or expertise to productively weigh in on most issues, which is why we have representative government, division of labor, and experts.

The public that does weigh in is atypical, often retired, and inherently conservative in their tastes. Trying to adhere to the public’s wishes results in mediocre designs, and an unwillingness to try to new ideas that are unfamiliar (simultaneously opposed because it will be successful and move traffic too well, or failing and result in too much delay).

3 thoughts on “Public Participation and Planning

  1. Kills creativity is what this does. If you are always going to try and give your customers only what they ask you, you rob yourself of the ability to surprise and delight them. Good thing you brought this up on your blog David.
    If we go by your example, if every artist was to go with the findings of this research, all their paintings will be almost alike and they will be working within a “set of parameters”. How is such work a piece of ART anymore.


  2. Not sure I can fully agree with this. Planners have to take some responsibility for the quality of public input based on the approach they take to get it. If a group doesn’t have the background or expertise to address a particular question, maybe that isn’t the right question to ask. Maybe we are not going to all the right places to engage people in our plans? The most important part of developing a plan is public *engagement* and this involves everyone learning. Maybe the problem is that we often ask for “public input” when we have already completed a plan and expect only a one-way line of communication?


  3. @Paula
    I think problem lies not in planning but over planning. You see, with marketing ventures, its a very good idea to understand what the need of the market is and coming up with a product that fills it. I don’t quite see it the same way with art. Of course, there is no problem ion trying to include psychological triggers in your art that are proven to attract art lovers but… its also very important to draw a line before the artist stops letting creativity take its course and is bound by a set of planned rules. Such a piece of art will not be art anymore but will instead be a “marketable product” only differentiated from the competition.


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