Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Frederick Steier, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Jane Jorgenson, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Chris McRae, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Walt Nord, Ph.D.


action research, communication practice, group communication process, Participatory Design, science center design, World Café


This dissertation brings attention to the communication processes taking place during design of an Idea Zone at a science center. It focuses on the conceptual phase of design, during which designers seek to integrate the ideas and needs of stakeholders into design processes through such frameworks as Participatory Design (PD). In bringing a focus on communication process to conceptual design frameworks such as PD, I explore the assumed roles behind participatory design processes and the contexts created through those processes during actual design work. As these Idea Zone design efforts took place in a museum and also within the context of an ongoing action research program there, I explored the organizational challenges of cultivating spaces and conversations where designers, community members, researchers, and other participants cooperatively explored contexts and spaces for jointly designing together. A central assertion of this work is that the World Café, a designed discussion format, fits with the needs of a science center for inviting community participation in design processes. A related goal of this work was to test that assertion not as a success or failure but as an emergent and contingent process requiring changes and course adjustments through reflective practice.

To do this, my central method was an ethnographic engagement in the spirit of action research where with the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa, Florida I planned for and hosted a series of World Cafés revolving around design of an Idea Zone in the science center. Café participants included MOSI leadership and board members, designers, community members, University of South Florida (USF) students, museum staff, and other stakeholders. Data sources from the World Café included the Café planning efforts, conversations and other data generated during the Cafés themselves, as well as organizational outcomes from hosting the Cafés. Outcomes in this sense might include, for example, the potential for future Cafés around design of the Idea Zone or how what is learned in the Café becomes integrated into other Idea Zone design processes or everyday organizational contexts such as meetings at MOSI. In addition to the Café and as part of understanding Café outcomes, I also drew from data generated through follow-up interviews I conducted with Café participants including designers, community members, and others. Finally, I drew upon ethnographic data generated through my observations and interactions within the Idea Zone and the larger scene of MOSI, ranging from everyday conversations with museum visitors to the possibility of performances in the space.

With this research we (MOSI, the MOSI community, and I) learned together 1) how assumptions and issues of participation play out during group communication processes in the conceptual phase of design, 2) about ways of engaging in ethically challenging work of designing group communication processes for design, 3) how generative metaphors for the group communication process might emerge from the World Café that foster flexible and inviting space for participatory design, and 4) how each of these local questions related to designing communication for design of the Idea Zone play out within the larger organizational context of MOSI specifically and science centers more broadly. Key outcomes from these four research questions include practical contributions to design for learning spaces in MOSI, how the World Café fits with Participatory Design processes at a science center and also potential redesigns for the future, how the World Café metaphor became a way to rapidly prototype new museum experiences, and how democratic invitations offered by MOSI to the community brought about creative possibilities for community design of the Idea Zone and for staff to engage in designing MOSI's broader organizational processes of change.

Included in

Communication Commons