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Dignifying Design
October 7, 2012 9:11 PM   Subscribe

Dignifying Design
It used to be that young people with humanitarian aspirations went into law or medical school or applied to Teach for America or the Peace Corps. But today, increasing numbers of the most innovative change makers have decided to try to design their way to a more beautiful, just world.

More about "this new breed of public-interest designers [which] proceeds from a belief that everybody deserves good design."

IDEO.org
Design for America
Clinton Global Initiative 2012: Designing for Impact
Stanford Social Innovation Review
Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving
posted by AceRock (22 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
I cannot hear the phrase "innovative change maker" without singing it to the tune of "California Sex Lawyer," by Fountains of Wayne.
posted by escabeche at 9:13 PM on October 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


I've been a big fan of Victor Papanek. He was an industrial designer who advocated redirecting design energy away from making sleeker commercial products towards making a better world. His book Design for the Real World, still ranks as one of my all-time favorite reads.
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:20 PM on October 7, 2012


This page about "activating the client's latent organizational wisdom" makes it sound like it might be a bit annoying from the client's point of view.
posted by XMLicious at 12:30 AM on October 8, 2012


It's hard not to be cynical: I've seen articles like this for decades. They were popular in the 1960s and you can probably find them in Victorian literature. Let's build a nice building in a poor country! And we will listen to what the poor people have to say (as long as they only talk about how much they need nice buildings). It's easy to get rich donors to pay for nice buildings. Easy to get trendy students involved in the latest fad that makes them look good. Harder to get them to pay the annual costs of staffing the buildings, or to get them involved in the real causes of the problems. The real causes are political, messy, and seldom photogenic.
posted by EnterTheStory at 3:57 AM on October 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


It's hard not to be cynical: I've seen articles like this for decades. They were popular in the 1960s and you can probably find them in Victorian literature.

It's very hard not to be cynical that "humanitarianism" has, in this way, become about using jargon to spread a consumer-based economy to every remaining undeveloped part of the globe. In a way, programs like the Peace Corps serve as "marketing" for the United States "brand": using fresh, young faces to promote the mission of increased prosperity, equality, etc. in colonies where there are often natural resources or pools of consumers which are of interest to American companies. I wonder to what extent these "design" projects intend (intentionally or not) to push this mission:

For example, looking at culture, you would find that the highest rates of obesity occur among population groups with the highest poverty rates and the fewest years of education. So a design team might spend time in these communities, observing, interviewing, and interacting with their residents.

The team would look for factors beyond the nutritional qualities of food, such as access to fresh food: For example, the team may identify only convenience stores in a neighborhood with few residents who have cars. Introducing a transportation program to community gardens and larger supermarkets could lead to positive behavior.


Instead of working with locals to address the root causes of inequality (like dependence on corrupt government, often in cahoots with businesses that have a friendly relationship with the United States or another industrialized nation) designers in this "team" seem to be tasked with finding ways to help set up market- or "entrepreneur"-based solutions — like the equivalent of more taxis, more Whole Foods — more products.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:22 AM on October 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


I don't buy the argument that would-be doctors -- who often decide to pursue medicine before high school, undertake challenging courses in the sciences, grind through 7+ years of post-secondary education, and seek to stand out as leaders in their peer groups and as volunteers in direct human services roles -- are instead choosing the chimera of industrial design, thinking it equivalent.
posted by ellF at 4:58 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Imagine if designers — uniquely trained to listen and observe, and to improve the way things function, feel and look — were, like the Enterprise Rose fellows, embedded in schools, community centers, nonprofit organizations, health clinics, religious institutions and government offices, where they could experience community needs and behavioral patterns firsthand.
Who knew that audience analysis was so new!

Also,
But we have to advocate for it and many of us, until now, simply haven’t realized that we deserve better. We couldn’t imagine the alternative. But once you see what good design can do, once you experience it, you can’t unsee it or unexperience it. It becomes a part of your possible.
This is a bit too marketing speak for me. Well in regards to design, I am a long time sufferer and partial complainer. There has been CENTURIES of design of even movements about design and its social impacts and responses to its time e.g., Arts and Crafts Movement, Pre-Raphaelites and Futurists. That this article speaks as if it is new, I find a bit condescending. Did all the previous designers, architects and artists work with no input or thought of environment, use, interactions or forethought to their work?
posted by jadepearl at 6:13 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sorry to see the negative comments here about what I think is a deeply positive trend. While of course it's true that designers have considered social problems in the past, it's undoubtedly more prevalent today. (The NYT is, as it often is, late to notice the trend, but there is a marked difference between the state of design over the last decade and dominant design culture for many decades previous to that). Young product designers aren't satisfied making the latest fancy toothbrush or toaster, and want to use their skills to address more challenging issues.

The newest shift is helping spread the useful processes of design ("design thinking," which may sound like jargon, but truly does have value) directly to the poorest communities so they can design solutions for themselves. I believe everyone, not just professional designers, can use design to make the world a better place. Really, design is just creative problem-solving, and the world certainly has plenty of problems to solve.
posted by three_red_balloons at 6:47 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Design Thinking is jargon. It’s an IDEO-instigated attempt to remove Design from design, stripping it of specific skills like materials science, industrial process, sketching or modeling and leaving in place only Empathy, Insight, and other pure thought-product outcomes. Design is not just creative problem solving, it has an actual referent. Stanford and IDEO are doing some great things but both come from a corporatist, market-driven silicon valley startup environment conditioned to see entrepreneurial solutions to every problem. All they have is the one hammer. What Design Thinking conspicuously lacks is a theory of power and an ability to reason about fairness: every solution is clever and insightful but wilts on contact with politics.
posted by migurski at 8:55 AM on October 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


every solution is clever and insightful but wilts on contact with politics.

Yeah, it's too bad to see the negative comments here. Ideal design, and its results, shouldn't wilt on contact with politics, but should anticipate it and should survive it.

Here's a good example of good design: Plumpy'nut food paste, as a general food source also very effective for treating emergency malnutrition.

Politics: a lack of infrastructure, clean water?
Design: Doesn't have to be mixed with water.
Politics: Bureaucracy, delays, slow communication and coordination?
Design: Two-year shelf life.
Politics: Difficulty in the equal distribution of food to a community when food is scarce?
Design: Individually packaged one-serving-per-person packages.

Now, it's clear that insightful design really originates from an understanding of the base processes of technology and ability -- In this case, food sciences, product engineering, etc, which is what you're talking about. But abstracting the "real problems" into some other domain that can't be solved through material, physical, engineering/design issues is a fallacy that perhaps ignores the reason why the "real problems" came to power in the first place. For example, regional instabilities created by competing political factions motivated by a lack of resources, etc, are political problems created by material needs -- and as such any solution to the situation will have to be both political and material.
posted by suedehead at 9:40 AM on October 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Design is not just creative problem solving, it has an actual referent.

I don't exclude engineering, architecture, graphic design, interaction design, or any other skills-based professions from my definition of design; I work in engineering and industrial design. But I'm not sure how it's useful to say that they must necessarily constitute the only definition of design. Using a design lens to approach systems problems—including politics itself—can be useful and productive. IDEO can better understand politics and implementation, sure. It just makes me sad to see people so dismissive of both traditional designers' attempts to approach significant problems, and of a design-informed approach to social systems reform.

On preview, I agree with suedehead.
posted by three_red_balloons at 9:43 AM on October 8, 2012


Looking at IDEO, I think a lot of their projects and goals are great in that they produce a product that (presumably) solves a major problem in a cost-effective, reproducible way that works with the community and its resources. That's what designing for the greater good should be about (and there are a lot of other orgs that do it well-- architecture for humanity, for one).

But then they go on to write shit like this:

From uniform designs to radio spots, posters to business cards, style guides to toilet stickers, the IDEO.org team designed a complete brand strategy for scaling the Clean Team toilet service in Kumasi and beyond.

Really? You have to create a 'brand strategy' and style guides for your cheap sanitation service? Because what I'm hearing is that making toilets just isn't cool enough. They pretty much outright say this-- "IDEO.org designed a Clean Team brand that was seen not just as a sanitation business, but also a social business and a sanitation solution set on redefining the status quo." Not JUST a sanitation business. Do they do this weird entrepreneurial corporate-speak thing to attract rich donors, or something?

I hate to be so cynical about an organization that obviously has good intentions, but then there are things like that 'TedX in a box-- "How do you make ideas that are worth spreading accessible in under-resourced areas and informal settlements around the world?" because what people in refugee camps need are TED TALKS!!
posted by sonmi at 10:32 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Really? You have to create a 'brand strategy' and style guides for your cheap sanitation service?

Because design isn't about making products, it's about changing/forming/creating patterns of usage and behavior. The product, the discourse and documentation about the product, its reputation, visual impact, ease of use, etc, all are part of design.
posted by suedehead at 11:18 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


This year's CGI was a packaging event for IDEO.org. Smelt like Pepsi Blue but even more interesting is the announcement last week by advisors to the EU recommending more user centered design thinking in government please. So ...looks like the OECD world is in sync.
posted by infini at 12:16 PM on October 8, 2012


I don't exclude engineering, architecture, graphic design, interaction design, or any other skills-based professions from my definition of design; I work in engineering and industrial design.
You may not, but Design Thinking quite explicitly does. There’s some allowance for Making Things in the prototype stage (after ideation, before choice) but the prevailing wisdom for prototypes is speed and cheapness and getting on with the process so you can move to branding, behavior patterns, etc. In the context of humanitarianism, Design Thinking is secular bible distribution and modernist civilization planning. The bright-eyed youngsters from the article have zero fucking clue what they’re getting themselves into. They hear stories about Stanford’s $25 baby incubator or the Q Drum water wheel and completely forget about procurement, supply chains, manufacturing and distribution. That’s where the politics really enters the picture and where Design has nothing to say, like that Kickstarter pen but with real money and lives at stake.

The current vogue for design-as-universal-solution often points to Apple as a primary example. People forget that Apple’s dominance is just as much founded on Tim Cook as it is on Steve Jobs: watertight supply chains, cornering the market on CNC milling machines, billion dollar bets on new factories with exclusive contracts and a tightly controlled product range make design success possible. Being user-focused is obviously important but at a societal level it’s no substitute for planning.
posted by migurski at 12:24 PM on October 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Though, on behalf of all the far deeper, more effective change making thinkers in the US design industry, I would just like to say that IDEO simply has teh best PR budget of them all, given that it is about 10 times the size of the average large design studio with 550 ppl
posted by infini at 12:24 PM on October 8, 2012


migurski, there are programs where there is no need to substitute for planning - the Human Centered Design Planning program at ID, IIT, Chicago, inspired and originated by Jay Doblin
posted by infini at 12:27 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


That program looks pretty good, infini, thanks!
posted by migurski at 12:30 PM on October 8, 2012


memail me if you ever decide to consider applying for admission. I set up their internal processes for that department about a decade ago.
posted by infini at 12:33 PM on October 8, 2012


Because design isn't about making products, it's about changing/forming/creating patterns of usage and behavior. The product, the discourse and documentation about the product, its reputation, visual impact, ease of use, etc, all are part of design.

That's not what I have a problem with-- my problem is with how this applies to a humanitarian effort. What purpose does branding (and, by extension, marketing) have in a humanitarian context? If the product (and its manufacturing, distribution etc) doesn't come first, then what's the point?

Looking at the sanitation project, half the blog posts are about the marketing and logo, and the rest just seem confused. They debate about showing off their advertising materials with iPads or digital picture frames (the latter will "cut down on costs"). They prototype a "log-cabin toilet from Sweden" (how this will be manufactured or distributed in Ghana, who knows) in a few houses but then realize they don't know how to dispose of any of the waste, a problem that seemed to only become apparent right then, somehow. To approach a humanitarian problem in this business-and-profit focused way seems, well, terrible to me. They outright say they're not interested in helping the very poor, instead they'll create an 'aspirational model' for them (I guess if they aspire hard enough they, too, can have a swedish toilet). Maybe I'm just a dirty socialist and really don't like this particular mix of capitalism and humanitarianism.
posted by sonmi at 2:48 PM on October 8, 2012


For my architecture thesis project I went to a remote First Nations community in central British Columbia to help them, in conjunction with a well-known Canadian environmental organization, to design and build two houses. My own experience supports EnterTheStory's assessment. It was personally gratifying, I got to spend a lot of time in one of the most beautiful parts of the country and hang out with a bunch of cool, interesting and funny people, and eventually two little houses were completed, but I was left feeling that the power of "architecture" to effect real social change in a situation like this was minimal at best. And as this wasn't considered a "real" (i.e. critical) architectural investigation in the eyes of my faculty or potential employers, the project probably handicapped me at the beginning of my career.

Also: no bibliography of public-interest architecture is complete without mentioning the great work of the late Samuel Mockbee and the 'Rural Studio' he founded at the University of Alabama - my own inspiration and the grand-daddy of all of these initiatives. I'm amazed it wasn't mentioned in the Times article.
posted by Flashman at 4:34 PM on October 8, 2012


But once you see what good design can do, once you experience it, you can’t unsee it or unexperience it. It becomes a part of your possible.

Jesus Christ. I'm all in favor of good design -- especially what the author of this piece might call "unugly architecture" -- but when did English become part of your impossible?

And the idea of "design" in the abstract reminds me too much of the notion that one can learn things like "management" in the abstract and be good at it in any context (or in the worst case, be a consultant).
posted by uosuaq at 4:39 PM on October 8, 2012


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