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Canvas: a participation device

A canvas, or to put it better “canvases”, are resources to help groups (and individuals) to think and to build up shared sense. I’ll try to explain why from my perspective.

What is a canvas?

In its materiality, a canvas is a pre-prepared poster, large enough to be put on a wall and read by everyone who is in the room (roughly 100×70 cm). It shows the issues to be discussed and provides space both for questions and contributions. A canvas is an oriented map, open and ready to be enriched by more information, ideas, and thoughts.

Why a canvas is an engaging tool?

On the web you can find many canvases, built for different, sometimes focused, purposes. They have some common aspects.

  • Static and dynamic. Canvas is a static object, made of paper, printed or drawn. But, like a manifesto, it leads to reading it and thinking of it. If you leave and return in the room, it is still there, with its main questions and its sub-questions, with the topics it poses to the bystander. A canvas also is a dynamic object. In two ways. First, it is designed to write on it (or better to attach some post-it on it). Second, it can be moved around, put on a flip board, on the table, in a different room to be used to facilitate meetings.
  • Visual and practical. A canvas offers, at a glance, a synoptic view. The most important elements you have to consider, to investigate, to discuss are there: it is not difficult to identify them and to anticipate the connections. But a canvas is also a practical device: in front of you, there are many spaces to fill in. The titles of each space (with their evocative words or questions) attract your attention. In a group, you can be asked to work on the main topic  (the title of the canvas) or on the subdomain. At the end of a working session, many ideas have been gathered, and are there to be reconsidered.
  • Definite and extendible. A canvas offers a set of challenges to all the participants of the working group: the game is fair, the assignment is there, the task is definite. And yet,  it is possible to think out of the box: you can explore uncharted territories, with new questions, widening the perimeter, or finding an emergent theme you can improve the issue to be considered.
  • Harbinger of involvement. When you open a canvas (and of course when you propose to build up one) you express strong intentionality to share relevant topics to be collectively considered. It does not pose an ultimate statement, it does not spread an agreed synthesis. A canvas call to express ideas and proposals as a result of dialogue.
  • Pattern and format. A canvas brings some hypotheses about issues that matter and their relationship (not already defined but at least assumed), so it channels the users’ attention on specific fields. The structure, made by boards arranged side by side, offers a vision. But a canvas with “what” deals also with “how”. It offers ingredients and a kind of “elaborative recipe” to produce some collective thoughts. So a canvas is an intentional pattern-generating and collective sensemaking format, bringing a structured configuration of questions. At the same time, it is a format that invites and activates collective engagement and elaboration around the underlying scheme.

Canvases are manifesto-charts, they pose issues, they draw maps for thought, to write (do not forget the power of post-it, despite oversaturation), and to connect ideas. In conclusion, if you have any matter to gather people on, to go deep, and to examine it, you should consider preparing a targeted canvas to facilitate participation and to make it productive.

Thanks to Charles Blass (@lovevolv) for the suggestions.

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Mainograz è il blog professionale di Graziano Maino, consulente di organizzazioni e network, professionista indipendente (legge 4/2013).

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