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The storm in a designer teacup
July 17, 2010 5:00 AM   Subscribe

Bruce Nussbaum kicked off a minor hubbub in designa circles this week with his provocative article "Is Humanitarian Design the new Imperialism?" which led to this response by Frogdesign's Robert Fabricant "In Defense of Design Imperialism" and WorldChanging's Alex Steffen's "The Problem with Design: Imperialism or thinking too small?" and finally a whole slew of blog posts, opinions and commentary artfully collated here by the editors of Design Observer. But the question still remains unanswered...
posted by infini (85 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Very interesting post. Looking forward to going through the links!
posted by Athanasius at 5:39 AM on July 17, 2010


Needs a "mass omphaloskepsis" tag.
posted by sciurus at 5:44 AM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Another example: Australian housing project falls flat in Afghanistan
posted by Carol Anne at 5:50 AM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Carol Anne, your link only shows a captioned photograph, there's no story?
posted by infini at 5:53 AM on July 17, 2010


Is Humanitarian Design the new Imperialism?

No, not really. Because that's not the right word. Any more than Humanitarian Design is the next Holocaust. You don't just get to use words that kinda-sorta mean what you want them to mean. Words have meaning despite your best intentions, not because of them, and in this case, imperialism has some very specific connotations that are simply not present in the current topic. Humanitarian design is still fundamentally wrapped up in choices that their recipients may or may not take. Imperialism offers no such choice.

The analogy is flawed, the argument is a giant circle-jerk designed to get your attention, like talentless children furiously producing crappy drawings with the hope that you'll put it on the fridge. It's intellectually wanting. It's fucking lazy. Oh, but sure makes for a great heading, right? Who cares if it makes any fucking sense?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:07 AM on July 17, 2010 [17 favorites]


a major hubbub in design circles is 3,000 people reading the article
posted by parmanparman at 6:13 AM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Another example: Australian housing project falls flat in Afghanistan

It's an example of something, surely. But is it an example of the "failure" of "humanitarian design", or yet another example of local politics getting in the way of development?
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 6:17 AM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Taking Civil Disobedient's point and moving forward from the Nussbaum article it also seems to me that the point is not whether humanitarian design is the new imperialism, because it is overly simplistic simply to list any intervention of this nature as humanitarian and match it to a single outcome, rather it is that poor design is a potential form of new imperialism, in that new design to solve problems in developing countries which does not engage with the perceived needs of the people themselves and thus risks rejection can be qualified as poor design, and since it also dictates to people in nations historically subject to imperialism then it is rendered imperialistic. I would argue it is possible to design for humanitarian purposes which are not imperialistic but to be effective it must consider inclusivity as a key element of the design process. Essentially then I am arguing that there is good and bad humanitarian design, and that one qualification for bad design is a failure to account for the wishes of the people being designed for.
posted by biffa at 6:22 AM on July 17, 2010 [6 favorites]


I would like to step on the thing that is getting on civil_disobedient's nerves by asking a simple question:

When the hell did "design" become a discipline of its own?

I mean, looking at the first link there's a picture of the "hippo roller," a water transportation device "designed" for use in dry parts of the third world. Groovy. What the hell is "designed" about this? When I was growing up this sort of thing was called an invention. People like Bucky Fuller and Preston Tucker who wanted to build things that would change the world were called inventors or entrepeneurs. A designer, if there was anybody wearing such a label in the company at all, was the guy who decided what color to paint it and how high to make the tail fins.

Sure history is full of famous design decisions -- the president of Sony deciding that a videocassette should be the size of a paperback book, the iPhone, and on. But those design decisions aren't worth bupkis if you can't build what you envision, and that involves engineering. Yes you can engineer something functional but crappy (such as the DVD user interface) but you can't design something functional at all unless there is someone to implement what you design.

I have spent my entire adult life building things for people. We have a simple criterion; if it works, we get paid. If it doesn't work, which happens sometimes, we do our best to fix it. This involves electronics, mechanical construction, and nowadays quite a bit of software. After we get it working we try to make it easy to use and maintain. I suppose this last step is what they call "design" but it's like the period at the end of a sentence; it ain't got nothing to do if there ain't a sentence for it to stop. The idea that someone would study "design" as a discipline all on its own, instead of as one element of engineering or construction or programming, strikes me as deeply vacuous.

But then, the same thing is true of advertising, and those guys make more money than I do too.
posted by localroger at 6:33 AM on July 17, 2010 [18 favorites]


Why is it that the least necessary professionals always tend to be the most self-aggrandizing? I love good design (which usually is the sort of design which tries hard not to be noticed), but this kind of nonsense us what makes people want to send all designers off in the B-ship, together with the telephone sanitizers.
posted by Skeptic at 6:48 AM on July 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Good design enables. Bad design can kill.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:58 AM on July 17, 2010


When the hell did "design" become a discipline of its own?

I went to a talk sometime last year about how Design Is Going To Save The World and man, turns out everyone is apparently a designer. Programmers designing programs, planners designing cities, and of course inventors designing inventions. What do you mean you can't make the database Helvetica?!
posted by soma lkzx at 7:02 AM on July 17, 2010


I am a software developer, more or less (grad student, web freelancer, whatever; I wear many hats but I write code for most of them). Lately, I've been working on several projects which involve bringing designers' designs to life. I agree with localroger insofar as design without implementation is kind of useless (that's why they need me; otherwise they just have a pretty Illustrator document). On the other hand, implementation without good design isn't much good either. I can build a system that works and refine it, but often the mockups the design guys and gals come up with are worlds more usable than my first draft UIs, assuming we all understand the requirements. I've noticed that the designers frequently have insights into things I can do to make the apps look/work better. Sometimes they have completely asinine ideas and I want to shake them and say "no, this is not how it works," but even those interactions lead to better understanding, and a better product in the end. I suppose you could argue that I'm not a very good programmer if my UIs aren't that great, but I think it's more that we end up with complimentary skill sets.
posted by Alterscape at 7:41 AM on July 17, 2010 [7 favorites]


Yet, OLPC failed in its initial plan to drop millions of inexpensive computers into villages, to hook kids directly to the Web and, in effect, get them to educate themselves. The Indian establishment locked OLPC out precisely because it perceived the effort as inappropriate technological colonialism that cut out those responsible for education in the country—policymakers, teachers, curriculum builders, parents.

I'm conflicted about this, a bit. One part of me wants to yell at the Indian establishment for putting their own power interests above the education of their children. The other part of me wonders if there isn't any eye/plank attending that OLPC could do in their home country before they set their sights on India.
posted by Bookhouse at 7:43 AM on July 17, 2010


All I'll add, at this point, to this fascinating thread (thank you all for your thoughts) is this link to an older MeFi debate brought to mind by a comment in one of the threads in one of the links in the FPP

btw, Bookhouse, there was the little matter of MIT's bad blood with the Indian government prior to the OLPC project ...
posted by infini at 8:12 AM on July 17, 2010


I suppose you could argue that I'm not a very good programmer if my UIs aren't that great

No, you're spot-on. To abstract perhaps too much, there are people who get things done successfully and that usually requires more than one person because no one can be good at all aspects of a meaningful task. Then there are the other 60/70/80% of people who insist they're very good at things too and spend inordinate amounts of time making it more difficult to finish anything because we have to slow down and pretend they're helping. Meetings aren't inherently a bad thing; they've just become the slow kids' preferred method of bogging us down.
posted by yerfatma at 8:20 AM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


localroger: sometimes a product needs to be designed before it can be engineered. Take the Apple Newton vs the Palm Pilot. The former was a product of engineering (history here) that was never really designed to be used the way people might actually use a gadget like that. The Palm team (formed with a lot of ex-Apple people, incidentally) played with dummy prototypes for a long time to get the shape right before they actually built the thing—one of their priorities was to make something that would fit in a shirt pocket.

Obviously both have been left by the road by now, but at the time, Palm triumphed in the marketplace.
posted by adamrice at 8:31 AM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Out of all the stuff I read, I only liked Emily Pilloton's response. She's trying to make sense (in her work and in the essay) and taking responsibility for what she's doing. What's more ethical than that?

The rest seems noise at best, self-serving rationalizations at worst.
posted by mondaygreens at 8:54 AM on July 17, 2010


localroger: When the hell did "design" become a discipline of its own?

Academically, design is a discipline just as much as engineering or history. It is studied at universities, people have degrees in design. It is comparable to art, as most people studying design are also practicing designers, although there are also design historians, curators, and critics. Most practicing designers are fairly specialized - for example, their practice might focus on graphic design (also called visual communication), product design, or interaction design.

Professionally, however, design is not as regulated as disciplines such as law and architecture. Just as anyone can call themselves an artist or a writer, anyone is free to call themselves a designer. In "Design: A Very Short Introduction", John Heskett writes, "[there are] activities that appropriate the word 'design' to create an aura of competence, as in: hair design, nail design, floral design, and even funeral design. Why not hair engineering, or funeral architecture? Part of the reason why design can be used in this arbitrary manner is that it has never cohered into a unified profession, such as law, medicine, or architecture, where a licence or similar qualification is required to practise, with standards established and protected by self-regulating institutions, and use of the professional descriptor limited to those who have gained admittance through regulated procedures. Instead, design has splintered into ever-greater subdivisions of practice without any overarching concept or organization, and so can be appropriated by anyone."

People like Bucky Fuller and Preston Tucker who wanted to build things that would change the world were called inventors or entrepeneurs.

Perhaps in the past people like Buckminster Fuller or Preston Tucker were known more as 'inventors' than 'designers', but they are certainly considered designers now, and studied by other designers. Maybe this is a little like calling someone a 'sanitation engineer' instead of a 'waste collector', but it is also an indicator of how the discipline is gradually becoming more professionalized.

The Heskett book is an excellent starting point if you want to learn more about the history and practice of design.
posted by oulipian at 9:00 AM on July 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


I wrote about design people in a recent thread.
posted by grobstein at 9:19 AM on July 17, 2010


...like talentless children furiously producing crappy drawings with the hope that you'll put it on the fridge. It's intellectually wanting. It's fucking lazy.

Worst Father's Day ever.
posted by anifinder at 9:20 AM on July 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


localroger, you are taking things too far. Yes, of course there are clueless designers. But you underestimate the importance of design. In reality both engineering and design are complimentary. What you are describing is what actually failed in the real world: "A designer, if there was anybody wearing such a label in the company at all, was the guy who decided what color to paint it and how high to make the tail fins." It goes both ways. You cannot divorce engineering from design, or only make design a kind of trivial finishing touch overlay on the engineering, or design as some kind of sketch which engineers bring to life. What you are describing is how things used to work in the bad old days of car production in the Detroit dinosaurs. A car would get conceptualized, then "thrown over a wall into the next cubicle" and engineers would do their thing and then throw it over the wall into the manufacturing guys and so on. Walls. That created crappy products and Detroit got eaten alive by better integrated companies. In fact, design is very important. Good design is adapted to how a human being wants to use a product, not merely aesthetically, but functionally. Over-reliance on engineering without design was what caused the bad "adapt the human to the machine" attitude. That was then. Today, increasingly, we understand that function is primary - it is the machine that is supposed to adapt to how humans work, not the other way around. The world is moving toward design first. As it should. Naturally, you must do it in cooperation with engineering, otherwise the thing doesn't work or dies in the marketplace. But to underestimate design is very old school and quite wrong-headed.
posted by VikingSword at 9:31 AM on July 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


There is certainly something cruel about beauty and therefore also about the desire to make everything beautiful. It is a kind of violence on the ordinary.

Design icons like the iPhone, B&O, Versace, Phillippe Starck - all their products have a haughty pedantry about them that seems to scream "IMPROVE YOUR LIFE SO YOU ARE WORTHY OF ME, YOU SLOB"

So, yeah - "designers" coming into my living space and solving my problems? Can only mean trouble
posted by eeeeeez at 9:38 AM on July 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'd like to chime-in with a little plea that everyone try real hard not to mistakenly believe that these elites represent all designers...or even so much as represent a majority of designers. Most of us are out here plugging-away, day-to-day, at providing a service to small businesses or trying to make the Marketing Manager's latest brainstorm read well and work with the current company style.

Most of us don't have the luxury to mull-over and pontificate on these higher concepts like Humanitarian Design. We're too busy trying to explain to a potential client why a logo costs more than $50.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:39 AM on July 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


I wouldn't rush to judgement on the Indian government and the OLPC before reading up on MIT Media Labs Asia and Europe.
posted by Devonian at 9:43 AM on July 17, 2010


"It's an example of something, surely. But is it an example of the "failure" of "humanitarian design", or yet another example of local politics getting in the way of development?"

mostly the latter, but there is reference to problems with the design of the buildings.

"Afghans living in the town have also expressed concern about the way houses have been built. Traditional Afghan homes are surrounded by high walls, which provide security and privacy, especially for women.

The open plan housing in AliceGhan means that the people have had to improvise.

One resident, Sayed Ahmed, says his wife is a prisoner in her own home.

"She's been inside all day. People are outside working, so I have put the bricks in front of the window, but still she cannot go out."
posted by striatic at 9:44 AM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I might be missing something, but is what Nussbaum's talking about different from technological innovation? Because some of the organisation's being given money to address innovation challenges are increasingly focusing on 'innovation at the point of use' and involving potential users in design and modification processes, with lots of feedback loops in the design process - e.g. involving farmers at the point of design, if you're trying to build cheap farm machinery. I found this site really interesting from that perspective.
posted by YouRebelScum at 9:49 AM on July 17, 2010


I was under the impression Bucky Fuller was a designer. I graduated from Southern Illinois University in the School of Art and Design. Bucky Fuller was a professor there teaching "design" courses.
posted by cedar key at 9:56 AM on July 17, 2010


Favorited Civil_Disobedient and Thorzdad.

I want to smack "Designers" sometimes.

[delete long rant about the inability of "designers" to resolve the differences between rational and irrational and to articulate their ideas clearly and succinctly]
posted by Xoebe at 10:07 AM on July 17, 2010


localroger: When the hell did "design" become a discipline of its own?
The term "industrial design" is often attributed to the artist Joseph Claude Sinel in 1919 (although he himself denied it in later interviews) but the specialization predates that by at least a decade.
Answer: about a hundred years ago.
posted by jtron at 10:08 AM on July 17, 2010


@Bookhouse, how do you know that the Indian government's decision was about power?

Anyway.. In all honesty all I see are do-gooders with the best of intentions (and also want
to pat themselves on the back)--. Even if hey want to surround themselves in the environment where they want to make a difference, they have the comfort of knowing they have a real home, an embassy, that they can return to, (something the locals do not). How can one expect to help if one does not know get to know people in the community?

I posit this to the people who invented that stupid rolling barrel. Hire a team of landscape ecologists and engineers (who will work for no profit) to maintain water wells and systems to deliver clean water. while you are at it you could construct sewers, alleviate said country's debt produce public institutions that support recycling, garbage pick up and public parks. Support their democracy, ban harmful NGO's and be careful not to become one (i.e. reporters without borders, IRI, IMF).

Do you get the Idea? I’m talking infrastructure. And about that laptop, how do they expect for children to make the most of a laptop without proper literacy and weaning? invest in their education first. Donate a 1,000 blackboards and help construct a 1,000 buildings to learn (with THEIR laborers). and on and on... To me these people are just like those medical mission people who were always just as disillusioned.
posted by Student of Man at 10:10 AM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


YouRebelScum: In a way, yes, it is different. What's he's talking about is best exemplified by this exhibition "Design for the other 90%" where products to pull water, filter water, cook food without smoke, prevent mosquitos etc are wonderfully designed "to save lives/have impact/make a better world" and are targetted at the "poor". They tend to win awards but rarely do what what they claim to for a variety of reasons ranging from distribution issues, pricing, production et al that the wellmeaning designers involved have not taken into consideration in these challenging environments. Much like the example of the Afghan housing problem not taking local cultural norms into consideration as mentioned by striatic above.

As an aside, just look at the naming conventions "design for the other 90%" - no wonder the "other 90%" are beginning to express grumbling resentment WTF ;p

Here is David Stairs' insightful critique on the exhibition and the products - "Why Design won't save the world"

On the other hand, your link is also an example of hte above, but as you say, it isn't being done through the pink fuzzy haze of "do gooding altruism" that tends to overlook the real world challenges involved.
posted by infini at 10:13 AM on July 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


localroger, not sure what you mean by citing Bucky Fuller in this conversation. Regardless of what you believe about design or invention, this man was about standardisable, geometric structures deployable by first world countries only. His structures are individually beautiful but contextually oblivious, which is the one thing everyone in this design debate is trying to wash their hands of. This doesn't strike me as a debate about the facileness of design as either tail fin support for serious_engineering or conspicuous marker of taste. Sure those things exist but in the context of humanitarian design these are just knee jerk attacks on a straw man - no one is telling refugees how many tassels to put on their lampshades.

It's about two ways of designing something; the first focusses on technical ingenuity in isolation from the ultimate point of use culturally and geographically (the hippo roller in the first link (and for that matter every single geodesic dome in existence)), the second is sensitive to existing craft and building traditions, local materials, cultures of use etc. The question then is how much the former imposes values on people who didn't ask for them - and you can see this presumption at play in striatic's quotes on open plan vs traditional layouts in the Afghan context - and how should we investigate and invest in local expertise?
posted by doobiedoo at 10:26 AM on July 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


Is it just me or do graphic designers tend to be a defensive lot? So often trying to enlighten others about "better" design by talking down to them. If I never heard another complain about how one "had to explain to a client why logo design costs more than X dollars" or variations on the theme, I'd be happy.

Not to get snarky, but what's the logic behind charging money for a service that has no tangible, and for most small businesses, no testable results? That it's part of how things are done and graphic designers give their time and skill to it? If this is the case, it's not hard to understand why business owners are reluctant - especially when they can get cheaper man-hours from overseas workers. You can quibble about the loss of quality, but that's the decision of the person paying.

Or is the reason identity- and brand-building? In which case.. how do you put a sum on that, especially on one specific visual part of that? You can point to a cheap design and compare it with an expensive design to make a simplistic case for the branding power of a logo, but the whole notion of expensive design is mostly circulated by/through businesses that have a lot of money to spend on all aspects of marketing and PR; there's a lot more to that comparison than just how much money was spent on the logo. I mean what's a better historical logo than the Swastika?

The power of a logo, it seems to me, comes much more from its circulation and what it stands for than from its design. In any case - shouldn't the proof of "good design" be in the pudding? Show not tell, and all that.
posted by mondaygreens at 10:28 AM on July 17, 2010


mondaygreens, with all due respect to you as a wonderful individual and member of this community etc, you have just exemplified the biggest challenge faced in selling design services outside of the regions where intangibles have a cash value. (IP, ideas, concepts etc)

as for the graphic designer's problems, we always said that cos they were sissy wimps playing with paper and colour while we were building real things out of metals and wood that kicked ass


/ducks
posted by infini at 10:33 AM on July 17, 2010


:) I was hoping I'd ruffle someone into actually explaining, so that I could wake up tomorrow a more enlightened appreciater of the logo-designing fraternity.

Seriously - this seems to me an economic problem (things being priced at what someone's willing to pay for them, so for a small business every penny spent is an investment; if something costs real money, it has to *make* real money, make more money in fact, to make economic sense) that's not going to go away by educating people about design. Am I wrong? Will someone please educate me?

(As someone who's trying to get published, I really do sympathize with creative designers. I wish more people valued books -- especially where I live -- and were willing to pay for them. But in general I doubt that I can convince anyone into paying for something that *they* don't think is of value -- this perception is what publishers are always trying to figure out and game -- and I don't even think it's fair to try to convince someone about something my own livelihood depends upon. You know? I think it'd be fairer to say, look, I do this, I love it... can you give me some money so I don't have to give it up or turn it into a job where I'm always having to justify doing it or make pitches for how it "adds value" to your life/business?

Sigh!)
posted by mondaygreens at 10:45 AM on July 17, 2010


I mean what's a better historical logo than the Swastika?

They lost didn't they?
posted by doobiedoo at 10:54 AM on July 17, 2010


Yes, but what had that to do with the symbol? It lives on... it still means.
posted by mondaygreens at 10:58 AM on July 17, 2010


A logo is not simply a symbol but the embodiment of the core values of the brand it represents, just the way your own example of the swastika represents certain values or meaning derived from its roots in vedic philosophy or hinduism

Google and read up on brands and branding - this is a grey area of understanding in your market, as my BIL always says, and he works in the field. I don't think any of us could educate you in this thread regarding the depth and complexity of your question.

I understand the problem you face - that lack of perception of value for the ideas (even those in a book) or the moral copyright of an author is what leads to the grey markets and piracy and all the attendant problems in the whole continent.

I hope this helps
posted by infini at 10:58 AM on July 17, 2010


A logo is not simply a symbol but the embodiment of the core values of the brand it represents

I could see a logo as a way to trigger in someone their own perception of stuff associated with that brand, but when I look at logos for a company I don't know anything about or don't have any feelings towards, I don't see an embodiment of core values. I just see a little picture.
posted by cucumber at 11:10 AM on July 17, 2010


Interesting comments. I volunteer at a NYC park where I have observed the same cluelessness on the part of new management. Installing a new soccer field and track which increased usage by 2/3 and not increasing garbage collection. Plans for a restaurant and no additional toilets. Planting saplings and not watering. They died. Removing the fence from a community garden which invited vandalism. Neglecting to enforce park rules which made for unpleasantness which overwhelmed any improvements.

I couldn't help but think of these laptops and wonder how they are going to be charged when people have no electricity. Solar? How will they have a new part delivered if they break? Who is going to teach kids to use and maintain them? And they are still too expensive for someone who lives on $2 a day. For me that would be as if a computer cost $6000 - that would be the portion of my monthly salary.
posted by swooz at 11:10 AM on July 17, 2010


... what's the logic behind charging money for a service that has no tangible, and for most small businesses, no testable results?

It's impossible to quantify happiness, but that's all people really want.
posted by amtho at 11:14 AM on July 17, 2010


All right. I do know a little bit; my sibling studied advertising not long ago and I read a lot of her books... although she doesn't work in the field so I don't know it very well (and dislike what I know). I guess my problem is not just the tangible/intangible divide but also with the bundled assumption that brands actually represent core values. Brands exist in the minds of people - it's all about perception. Some companies might actually be living up to their values, whatever they are and whatever that means, but you certainly don't need to do it to create a brand; you just need to create the perception that you do. And that takes money, fair enough, but I just don't believe that it's as cut and dried as representing values.

Recall is a big part of logo branding, and again, that comes from money to circulate a symbol and have it mean something (advertising etc.) rather than just having a symbol. (On preview, what cucumber said)

Regardless, this is what is known as a derail!, so I will back off and read more about the subject.
posted by mondaygreens at 11:18 AM on July 17, 2010


ehhh, what do I know... I dropped out of everything ;p
posted by infini at 11:19 AM on July 17, 2010


Ha, me too. Baaarely made it through college, and that accomplishment will see me through to my thirties.

Metafilter: the blind leading the blind. :D
posted by mondaygreens at 11:25 AM on July 17, 2010


Another thought. I recall watching Henry Louis Gates Jr. on PBS years ago describing voulnteering at a clinic in Africa. He noticed that the vast majority of patients came in with intestinal disease due to dirty drinking water. His solution? Allow villagers access to the clinic's well, which was clean. His colleagues response? No.
posted by swooz at 11:43 AM on July 17, 2010


I think where you start to run into problems is with the idea that what we can provide for people in developing countries is cleverness. They have cleverness. See mosquito nets being used for clothing and fishing. What is lacking is resources, infrastructure, and education. If your clever design helps provide or improve some of those things, then you have a hit. If it's just a clever solution to some day to day problem, well, you might still have something useful, but the people you are trying to help probably already have a lot of clever solutions to that problem, and theirs all work without importing whatever it is that you designed.

There was a guy who designed a hypodermic needle that could only be used once, and was just as cheap (pennies) as current needles. Is that good or bad design? It certainly solves a serious problem in a simple and straightforward way. It also exacerbates a different problem, by making people more reliant on import of medical supplies, but frankly, fewer people die of a lack of needles than of contaminated needles. But that's not the only consideration. There is also the problem of actually getting people to use them. Because if you can buy normal needles, and you have limited resources, you might still buy the ones you can reuse. And if you are receiving aid, and get only single-use needles, they can very quickly become perceived as inferior quality or as patronizing. And if the rich countries get together and decide that everyone has to use the new needles, you will probably resent that.

But this can be (and is) totally over-thought as well. I was reading about a project to design washing machines for areas without infrastructure. It's something that could make a huge difference for women, who in many areas spend hours a day just doing laundry. In this case, local solutions are rare not for a lack of cleverness, but for a lack of value for women's time. But one of their design goals was to preserve the community aspect of washing clothes. And I get what they were trying to do. To make sure that they didn't disrupt the community norms by taking away this time that the women also used to talk and socialize. But it ends up biasing your designs towards things that are less efficient at washing clothes. Laundry time isn't something unique that you will destroy by making the task easier. Or maybe I'm wrong, and the places I've lived where laundry was done by hand are exceptions. I just don't know, which is why it's hard.
posted by Nothing at 11:51 AM on July 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Listening to global voices - Sure, the web connects the globe, but most of us end up hearing mainly from people just like ourselves. Blogger and technologist Ethan Zuckerman wants to help share the stories of the whole wide world. He talks about clever strategies to open up your Twitter world and read the news in languages you don't even know.
posted by kliuless at 11:54 AM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm conflicted about this, a bit. One part of me wants to yell at the Indian establishment for putting their own power interests above the education of their children. The other part of me wonders if there isn't any eye/plank attending that OLPC could do in their home country before they set their sights on India.

There's also the fact that nobody has been able to prove any positive effect of the usage of computers in the classroom, while negative effects are documented all around.
posted by falameufilho at 11:54 AM on July 17, 2010


Not to get snarky, but what's the logic behind charging money for a service that has no tangible, and for most small businesses, no testable results? That it's part of how things are done and graphic designers give their time and skill to it?

Would you buy a car from a sloppily dressed person?

Would you eat at a restaurant with a shabby interior?

Would your Italian meal be as enjoyable in an Asian interior?

If you had to personally stand if front of your business 24/7/365 for years into the futre and be the first thing people see about your business, how would you dress? Would you put on those cheap shoes, those wrinkly clothes?

Think of your favorite looking car. Think about just looking at it instils certain feelings in it. Don't you want a logo to do something similar for your customers?

These are the reasons why you want a decent looking and professional made logo for your business.

Also note that graphic designers do more than logos. Personally, as designer, I'm not a fan of doing them, because few people want to pay for it, while sucking up most of your time and I love publication design more anyway. Mmmmm publications *drools*.

I mean what's a better historical logo than the Swastika?

The cross? I'm not getting your point here.

I think you're focusing too much on the idea of logo and forgetting the very important step which small businesses often fail to consider: marketing. Remember, the swastika had a completely different meaning before the Nazi's. The fact that they marketed (yes, I'm using the term loosely) the shit out of that logo changed the meaning of it.

Marketing is where the magic really happens, it's how people come to know a logo.

...and I don't even think it's fair to try to convince someone about something my own livelihood depends upon.

I'm sorry, but that's idiotic. Either what you're doing offers value, and you should be paid for it or it doesn't offer value and then of course you shouldn't be paid for it. You should be paid so that you afford to make more of that thing that offers value.
posted by new brand day at 12:04 PM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I mean what's a better historical logo than the Swastika?

They lost didn't they?


The Nazis were not without problematic logo designs.
posted by Dreadnought at 12:05 PM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


swooz: "I couldn't help but think of these laptops and wonder how they are going to be charged when people have no electricity."

They came with hand crank generators. And they were to be sold to the governments, not directly to the end users.
posted by idiopath at 12:07 PM on July 17, 2010


Are do-gooders the newest Christian evangelists? In a way, yes. They are, in a sense, paving the way for a kind of "imperialism of the mind" or a way of thinking. In the West we have a way of engaging the world that is, well, Western.

For example, my friend Al worked for the UN agriculture department in Ethiopia during the famine. He and his colleagues watched the local farmers struggle to manage the minimal water they had. So, naturally (they thought), since these guys are farming on hills, we should show them how to terrace. Which they did. And the crops were better. But to Al's amazement, in preparation for the next crop, the farmers plowed over the terraces and went back to seeding the way they always had seeded the land. Why?

A human's sense of pride and dignity is a far stronger motivator than the apparent success of a "new" design. Indeed why should these farmers dispense with centuries of method (which doubtless we don't, maybe can't, understand) in light of the new guy showing up with fancy gear and ideas. For Al and the UN guys, the Ethiopian farmers were generous and they deferred their method for the terraces, which appeared to work (to Al). But I can't begrudge them and their return to a longstanding method, regardless of the outcome. They've been there longer. They have their ways.

It's not imperialism to offer another way, or another design, but it's an attitude that comes out of an imperialist culture that has the balls (or the asshole-ishness) to suggest that people give up their sense of what works, for ours.
posted by kneecapped at 12:26 PM on July 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


brand new day, I was taking logo design as an extreme (and common) example of what I was talking about regarding design. Also because someone upthread mentioned trying to explain to a client why a logo costs more than $50. I have several friends who work as graphic designers and I don't think at all that what they do is limited to logos or is worthless. I was talking about the difficulty of trying to convince a small business about why it's useful, and also exploring in what ways in might not be *as* useful as things that are tangible and testable and, in my humble opinion, less prone to BSing.

The questions you asked in response to mine I don't know how to answer, because I don't think like a consumer all the time or even very strongly. I am sure there are people who care much more about these things than I do, and also people who are much more aware than I am about the reasons they use for judging the value of various objects and experiences. For me that's just not a very interesting thing to get invested in.

I don't have a favorite looking car, I don't judge the experience of eating out based on the interiors, I don't see people as representations of commodities, much more the other way 'round. And I really do wonder if I'm that alone in this kind of thing. I mean the very thing that PR and advertising companies bank on is our power to believe - not our capacity to make critical and rational decisions. Because, logically, why would I care about what the salesman is wearing, unless I was taught to judge people as part of an entire process of consumer judgment. Regardless, I think the kind of questions you are asking are of much more interest to sellers than buyers. It makes us vulnerable, and there's something dishonest about exploiting our common tendencies and desires that way.

I understand how small businesses work, especially in the US (I work with them) and my point was exactly that it's hard to convince small businesses to invest a lot in graphic design (of which logo is sometimes the biggest cost, after web design) because they don't even have the money for marketing, or don't understand how to best use it and are reluctant. You can find fault with them for not understanding how to do this, but I think that's unreasonable - most small businesses, when they are able to actually compete fairly, do just fine. It's when they have to compete with bigger companies that they need real marketing budgets, because - well, I don't need to go into all that I'm sure. If you're American, you've heard of Wal-mart.

I'm sorry, but that's idiotic. Either what you're doing offers value, and you should be paid for it or it doesn't offer value and then of course you shouldn't be paid for it. You should be paid so that you afford to make more of that thing that offers value.

I don't think "value" is as easily understood as you make it out to be -- especially in a market as competitive as the US. It's rare that people offer something of value that another isn't. This is where marketing comes in (isn't this mentioned in like the first episode of Mad Men?) to create unique perceptions where there is not much uniqueness in reality. It's not magic, but it's not real. That was my point with the Swastika logo - it's powerful and meaningful because it represents something that really happened. It's a real symbol.

Saying that a piece of artwork can have that kind of recall power (and of course there are many brands that now do), and more than that, a kind of pull - speaks to... what? The extremely greater "value" some commodities provide compared to others? I think it speaks to the power of money. The design is... incidental to that.
posted by mondaygreens at 12:39 PM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think where you start to run into problems is with the idea that what we can provide for people in developing countries is cleverness.

Imho, this.

And this now makes me ponder whether the recent rise in humanitarian design or even design thinking and innovation and all that jazz emerged from the shift that took place over this past decade of the gruntwork of design studios (detailing, engineering drawings, preparing for manufacture, tooling etc and all that back end stuff after the concept was approved but the stuff hadn't been made) moved over along with the factories to China and India. This was a loss of revenue to the high end studios in the 'developed' world but they told themselves and everyone else that it didn't matter, the innovation, the ingenuity and the thinking that it took to come up with all the new stuff was still theirs and that wouldn't be outsourced and that was what would retain their competitive advantage and still pay the bills.

In fact I still remember Guardian articles about the Indians and Chinese who were going to eat their lunch etc but design would save us, we're gonna keep the creative advantage, they can do the backbreaking coolie work, that's it boys, that's what will save us. And it made me cry once in London, in the offices of the Design Council, because that's what they saw when they looked at me across the table from them in the cafeteria when all I wanted was for all of us to sing kumbaya and find a way forward together than was win win but anyway I digress

So given the above scenario, the design thinking movement started taking off with a bang and flash about 5 years ago and the design industry started positioning themselves higher and higher up the food chain, eventually reaching the uppermost storeys of the corporate megaliths of planning and strategy and "design will save teh world and solve all our problems and wash the windows every saturday" became the mantra.

But there was a little problem with that scenario.

At the same time, information flows increased rapidly and technology penetrated the heartland - perhaps it wasn't your whizzbang fancy laptop or flashy voodoo games machine, maybe just a handheld mobile phone but it, too, was a window to the world, a world of possibilities, information, shiny bling and exposure and thinking. It also let people talk to each other, both by voice and data and asynchronously by being able to post on the blue or wherever have you and before you knew it, they were reading all the idealistic rhetoric and accessing the analyses of the development programs so many have mentioned above and they were saying "hey, you got that wrong, that won't work here, its not like that" or whatever.

And now, the whole world is in transition and things aren't hte way they are supposed to be and the whole status quo is like a deck of cards thrown up in the air but it hasn't come down yet and no one knows where the aces will land and everyone's afraid and everyone is holding on to what they can and so it finally seeps down into the littlemost corner of the not as important as Wall St industry and you have this debate.

Or something like that.
posted by infini at 12:46 PM on July 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


so to finish the thought neatly, that shakiness and fear leads to wanting to feel better which in a way humanitarian design allows you do feel.
posted by infini at 12:49 PM on July 17, 2010


infini, that was brilliant! I'm thinking now of all the ways this kind of rationalization (we Americans have unlimited creative power!) is still happening, and I'm wondering how long it might've been going on (is it a kind of Christian evangelism, as kneecapped suggests and I'm inclined to agree with heartily), and how high up it goes.
posted by mondaygreens at 12:56 PM on July 17, 2010


I don't know much about Christian history; I'd probably just call it Orientalism from my POV, but then that's been tied to evangelism too...
posted by mondaygreens at 12:58 PM on July 17, 2010


It looks like the problem with that Afghan housing development is that no actual design was involved, in the sense that design is supposed to be about creating solutions to specific problems.

I've seen very similar issues with out-of-whole-cloth 'communities' in rural China (example). Western developer comes in for a project that will make them look like compassionate heroes on their website; proceeds to build a cookie-cutter suburban-style housing development, with no thought as to the needs or lifestyles of the people who are supposed to occupy; follow-through on infrastructure and employment opportunities never materializes. Eventually everybody just forgets about the project because nobody in their right mind (from any country) would ever want to live there. Or the local authorities bulldoze the old, organic dwelling structures and force everybody into the new ones against their will.

I suppose there is an imperialist mindset to the assumptions behind these sorts of projects, the idea that what everybody wants is to live in the American-pioneered idea of a ticky-tacky housing subdevelopment. Maybe not 'imperialist' so much as just 'culturally myopic.' But at least with this kind of imperialism, as opposed to the 'opening trade markets with superior firepower' kind, the only people who are substantially hurt are the idiot foreigners who spent the money. Except in the bulldoze case, obviously.

RE: Buckminster Fuller, the dude called what he did Design Science and his vision of what it would take for world-around humanity to survive as an industrial civilization was predicated on a Design Science Revolution, so I think it's safe to say he self-identified as a designer.
posted by zjacreman at 1:39 PM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


They are, in a sense, paving the way for a kind of "imperialism of the mind" or a way of thinking. In the West we have a way of engaging the world that is, well, Western.

Sorry, I totally disagree with this, if anything, the problem is the exact opposite one. This gesture of "You have such a unique culture, we in the West have so much to learn from you!" is also ultimately racist, in exactly the same way that keeping women out of politics and commerce is sexist. This was also justified by idealizing and aestheticizing femininity and wanting to preserve it against the corrupting influences of the cut-throat masculine world.

It is often patronizing for the design community to engage in this humanitarian design work -- look at who they mostly engage with: the most impoverished and desperate members of society, not with the best and brightest, their leaders and the local design community and industry. So this idealization of difference still asserts the superiority of Western culture: we are strong, creative and enlightened, they are poor and pathetic, people to be pitied or turned into aesthetic objects. The Other who the design community engages in these projects is the inverse of our own narcissistic and arrogant self-perception.

In reality, these sincere expressions of cultural appreciation and deep respect are intended as a kind of polite screen to hide their presumed fundamental inferiority, as if mentioning it is rude and should be censored, like when someone farts in the elevator, you don't say anything. But this is precisely the most condescending gesture, because it betrays our belief that the relationship between us and them can only ever be an unequal one of differences, still more evidence of our superior, not of parity and equality.

This attitude is on full display in this comment on one of the linked blogs:
I had the privilege to teach design in India... I noticed a tendency... to try quite hard to emulate the vernacular of western brand-driven design as closely as possible... It made me tremendously sad to see, in a country which has one of the most diverse and rich visual cultures in the world; and one which has communicated so much of that culture (via literal imperialism) back to the North.
We have so much compassion for the poor and the downtrodden, and yet we reject them as soon as they try to assert themselves as our peers. It's better that they should be kept in their impoverished place so their Otherness can be properly appreciated for their aesthetic beauty.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:39 PM on July 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


Had just stepped away from reading this post and was looking at an article about John Romero's Ion Storm. Their corporate motto was "Design is Law".

hmm
posted by smoothvirus at 2:07 PM on July 17, 2010


AlsoMike where are you getting this impression from?

Who are these designers who are keeping the 'impoverished in place so their Otherness can be properly appreciated for their aesthetic beauty'? The sentence you quoted was immediately preceded by this:

Of course this impulse makes sense contextually, for any number of historic, cultural, and economic reasons

Which seems to acknowledge the range of issues at stake - how modernity is displacing traditional cultures and how this is complicated by the cultural hegemony of the west.
posted by doobiedoo at 2:08 PM on July 17, 2010


doobiedoo - as to your question on who those designers are who are keeping the 'impoverished in place so their Otherness can be properly appreciated for their aesthetic beauty'? I can answer that and its not just the design industry alone by itself. As mondaygreens fascinating link shows, its perhaps an as yet nascent yet burgeoning movement towards "outcompeting" the world rather than choosing to cooperate or collaborate towards holistic solutions. I quite agree with AlsoMike's reading of that particular comment - you'll note the author is not addressing the issue at hand but digressing into a discussion of western aesthetics.

btw, AlsoMike, I can't resist asking, so do you think the author of the blog is hot or not? er, I mean the Other appreciated for aesthetic beauty... ;p
posted by infini at 2:17 PM on July 17, 2010


I feel like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca... time to go to bed I suppose
posted by infini at 2:38 PM on July 17, 2010


I'm asking that question about humanitarian design specifically, of course the media industry propagates all sorts of exotic images of otherness that regulate our sense of power and superiority. I thought AlsoMike was suggesting that there were designers who were providing clean water and electricity whilst attempting to preserve some sort of shanty town chic, which I thought was incredible.

I don't agree that the quoted comment falls in this category, but then I assume the commenter is referring to more communication design (especially since he talks about India's visual culture), rather than utilities. It'd really be a joke if he was suggesting that low cost Indian water purifiers sport bindi patterns to make them more culturally 'expressive', but I think we can give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he's lamenting the loss of more traditional Indian graphic design in favour of anonymous global branding.
posted by doobiedoo at 2:56 PM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


But at least with this kind of imperialism, as opposed to the 'opening trade markets with superior firepower' kind, the only people who are substantially hurt are the idiot foreigners who spent the money. Except in the bulldoze case, obviously.

What about natural resources? Industrialization is extremely expensive as it is, add the profit motive to it and there's really no end to human needs in an industrial civilization, or rather to human industry in a civilization based on it. The very idea of calling it an "industrial civilization" seems inimical (literally) to a "human civilization" because the survival of any kind of civilization depends first on the survival of human beings as a society - and the unchecked production of goods is not really related to as positively as might've once been assumed.

To touch on what kneecapped started, I think a lot of traditional civilizations with ancient histories have some reason to have pride in their ways - because these ways are part of a longer human history of practice, and there is a lot to be learned from the very real act of surviving centuries as human beings. That's the whole point of evolution - we learn, very slowly and over the course of numerous generations, how to live better and longer in our reality. (And that knowledge is passed on - that's what surviving means.) That reality is land, it is weather, it is cuisine and dance and animals and food. It's the history (and artistry) of a people. It is not guns and steam engines and cars and 24-hour connectivity. I'm not talking about selfishness and the individual survival instinct; in fact that's what I mean; that those human truths (the desire for longevity, which is fundamental to Darwinism) are unfortunately being obscured and ignored here - this is about way more than survival - this is about idealism in a very thorough way. I would go so far as to say that the US is far more religious about its technology (and also its creativity) than most Muslim countries are about Islam. Islam has laws; laws are defined, at least comparable to reality (which has laws too...). American belief in progress seems limitless; maybe it's just a very extreme form of optimism, where you don't even see the water in the glass anymore.

And talk about imperialism - if, say, global warming is not nonsense, then its first earth-shaking impacts are not expected to be on the US or specifically on industrialists or Wall Street financiers. It's predicted for small island nations, for the South East Asian coasts, for Africa and such. Places packed with people who have (or had, before imperialism) traditional ways of design and are much more honestly conservative in their desire to manipulate reality with technology. So... I don't know at all that an ideological (economic, rationalist) tyranny is any better than physical oppression. It certainly has bigger ramifications. And if you think this is a valid way to define imperialism - that the ideas of one identity (the British, or anything else) are enforced on another, with the first idea being, "we are better/stronger/righter than you"... then, yes, this is still imperialism. It's not about colonizing certain groups of people; it's about colonizing their reality, rejecting its history (its knowledge) and enforcing (through power) your own. Back then it was more military, now it's more economic. More ideological, but also more sophisticated. It's decontextualization, and once you do that you don't even need to dehumanize because you've already unrealized. I mean this quite literally.

So yes, we can await a Design Science Revolution, which seems like another way of saying a revolution in sustainable design - because the only real problem we have to solve in production is that of limited and diminishing resources. But design can only make things more efficient -- not perfectly efficient. I think it would take a delicate math to figure out how far we need to go, in terms of creativity, to reach that point... given the size of our population and of our appetites.

It takes less difficult math - but more difficult conversations and realizations - to figure out how long we're going to wait for such a revolution before we give our kids' future an honest break. The first thing would have to be a realization of our very real limitations.

There's this theory (I don't know how popular it is) that the Age of Enlightenment had its roots in Black Death - which to me makes a lot of intuitive sense. So, I don't know. Capitalist industry seems like a somewhat escapist attempt, a way of using and yet disowning that difficult lesson. As I said before... design is mostly incidental, and at best functional, within that dysfunction.
posted by mondaygreens at 3:24 PM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


To respond to everybody about my original comment, I guess I would consider someone who calls himself a programmer who designs a crappy UI a crappy programmer. But then I am also the only guy in my company of 60+ employees who can do layout or take a photo that doesn't suck, so maybe I have natural talent. I just think that if you are doing something doing it well starts with making it work for the people who will use it. That's a lesson I learned without anyone teaching it to me other than pissed off end users 20+ years ago.

I maintain that I cannot understand how anybody can consider the study of "design" as a discipline on its own makes any damn sense. You can figure out how to design a user interface, a building, a car, a vacuum cleaner, and none of those things have anything to do with each other. Someone could have listed the features of the iPhone in 1910 and told you what a cool product it would be, but doing so would have been meaningless. Design without an underpinning in technology and implementation is meaningless. And what keeps showing up here on the Blue is design as masturbation.
posted by localroger at 5:15 PM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


My remarks on the Afghan housing project and the Buckminster Fuller Design Science point were responding to different parts of the thread, and probably should have been separate comments. I certainly didn't mean to imply that the Afghan housing had anything to do with a design revolution of any kind; almost precisely the opposite.

You've got the basic gist of the Design Science Revolution down, mondaygreens - the key features were essentially 100% sustainable energy generation, zero-pollution industry (industrial byproducts were to be reclaimed for use in further industry), and extraordinarily aggressive recycling of manufactured goods to take constant advantage of ephemeralization as technology improved. His contention was that if we got our act together, everybody on Earth could live at an equally-distributed, ever-higher standard of living. It would imply the ultimate victory of one type of industrial civilization (not industrial capitalism, at least) over all other ways of life on Earth, however.

Like most Utopians Fuller was something of a crackpot, and like most Utopians, he also had compelling and necessary insights.

I should note that he also said if we hadn't pulled this off by the year 2000, global warming was going to cook us right off of this rock.

We're almost certainly too late to innovate our way out of this mess, as is only going to be too apparent as the sea levels rise, land profiles shift, and water wars begin.
posted by zjacreman at 5:33 PM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


SO many here have said it so much better than I can. This is exactly why Westerners on a backpacking trip through Laos should not be trying to save an abandoned cat.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:59 PM on July 17, 2010


localroger, just try to find a design curriculum that teaches "design" in the abstract with no technical specialization.

It doesn't work that way. You study graphic design, and learn about aesthetics, psychology, color theory, etc. You study industrial design, and you will get some mechanics and materials science. You study architectural design, you bet your ass you'll get a working knowledge of thermodynamics and structural engineering as they apply to dwelling systems. You don't hire an architect to lay out a magazine, and you don't get a graphic designer to draw plans for a bridge.

There's no teaching of "design" divorced of context but there is a methodology for problem solving that is consistent across multiple disciplines (this, more or less).

Now, perhaps it is not always obvious to you what problems a given designer is trying to solve, and some problems are more concrete and utilitarian than others. In fashion design (which I pick not because I know anything about it but because I suspect many people think it is trivial), for instance, the problem at hand is not strictly limited to "covering nakedness." There are questions of who is going to wear the coverings and what image they are trying to project, political statements, questions of beauty, etc. There is a wide overlap between engineering and art that falls under the umbrella term "design."

What you dismiss as 'design masturbation' is more likely to be design that is solving or exploring problems you have not considered to be problems yourself.

I have a much bigger beef with shit like that Afghan housing project, which is an (unfortunately commonplace) example of bad design or even antidesign. On the question of whether humanitarian design is imperialist or not, I think it very much varies. Does the design empower a local community to assert greater agency in their own affairs? Or does it create a dependency link to an outside agent, or displace existing communities? In this light I'm seeing a much stronger case for the Afghan housing project as imperialism than I did before, as it certainly was trying to impose a foreign way of life upon people and tie them to livelihoods and infrastructure granted from Foreigners On High.
posted by zjacreman at 6:05 PM on July 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


The thing is, what we know as "industrial design" has two different, sometimes opposite aspects.

On the one hand is utilitarian design, comprising ergonomics and even what we could simply call invention and engineering. The Hippo water carrier is a good example of that.

On the other hand is aesthetic design, which is very much driven by commercial interests and consumerism. The main, often only reason to spend time and money in making a product look good is in order to sell more of them. eeez has mentioned above "iPhone, B&O, Versace, Phillippe Starck" negatively as "design icons". The interesting thing about those four examples is that they are extreme examples of this other branch of design. Their aim is not to make those products more useful (as we've recently seen with the iPhone 4 antenna fiasco), but more desirable.

There's very little place in aid projects for "aesthetic design", because their point is not to sell stuff. There can be a point in making things look more desirable, for instance in order to get the end users to value the stuff you're often giving them for free, but it is a very, very limited role, and, moreover, aesthetics are culturally tricky: those designers should certainly keep in mind that the taste of an African or Asian villager may be quite different from that of their usual target markets.

Among the many, many errors of the OLPC project is the fact that they have been giving entirely too much thought to aesthetic design. The original OLPC, as well as their current tablet project, are absolutely gorgeous. But what is the point? As a child, the first computers I used were the BBC, the Commodore VIC-20 and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. The Spectrum looked alright (useless keyboard, though), but the two others were damn ugly beasts. Did I care a jot? No, I didn't, I was far too busy exploring what I could do with these fascinating toys to notice how they looked. If you can get something that works like the OLPC (that is lightyears more advanced than those computers I knew as a child) to Third World children, they'll be interested even if it looks like a donkey turd.

Asus indeed went and demonstrated the pointlessness of focussing so much on (aesthetic) design by basically copying the basic concept of the OLPC, putting it in a quite ugly (but cheap) housing, and selling it by the millions. End result: there are today possibly many more Asus Eees in the Third World than OLPCs. And Asus *sold* them. To individuals, not to their governments.

Has OLPC learnt anything? Of course not: for their next generation they are even more busy prettifying the thing, possibly with the only intent of getting more design awards than Apple. Ridiculous.
posted by Skeptic at 6:07 PM on July 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


@Skeptic one of those EEPC's is sitting on my desk at work. I bought it because it came with Windows XP instead of 7 and with a restore disk, as well as the fact that it does everything my old laptop did at 2 lb instead of 10 lb. And it can drive an external monitor, rotated.
posted by localroger at 6:16 PM on July 17, 2010




The classic for me was one design evangelsits response to the disaster in Haiti - someone asked him about a co-ordinated collective fundraising effort (apparently some people need food and shelter and have no rich parents to call, baffling isnt it ? ) and he thought it would be a good idea to produce a graphic visualisation of the Haiti news reports. He possibly then waterskied over a shark at this point. Although in fairness I must say it was a very rare and exclusive type of shark, possibly the worlds leading shark, which had invented a few groundbreaking innovations itself - and was on its way to switzerland to address a very high powered conference.
posted by sgt.serenity at 10:41 PM on July 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


modernity is displacing traditional cultures and how this is complicated by the cultural hegemony of the west.

To my reading, that part of the comment is meant to suggest that Indian designers who want to adopt Western design vernacular are under a kind of false consciousness, that somehow they're mesmerized by the West and are unable to see how they are being cut off from their authentic cultural roots. In the end, he wants Indian designers to "gain the confidence to stand on their own vernacular." To see how this postmodern multicultural idea coincides with the most conservative reactionary elements of Indian culture, apply this thinking to the issue of the Untouchables: the desire for a more equal society is a tragic example of cultural imperialism, they've adopted foreign attitudes that make them dissatisfied with their assigned place in the Indian caste system, and rather than adopting Western egalitarian rhetoric they should have the confidence to assert the equal value and cultural beauty of a caste system. Then we could maybe add a Burkean twist and say that maybe they have a good reason to be proud of their caste system, this tradition has evolved over thousands of years, it provides stability and meaning to people, etc. which incidentally is how conservatives in the US argue against gay marriage. Marx said that one of the few benefits of capitalism is that it dissolves these traditional pre-modern forms of oppression and he was right.

The trend over the last few decades has been to denounce universal notions of emancipation as secretly Eurocentric. We've turned Marx on his head, so that global capitalism is portrayed as universalist and homogenizing, destructive to the richness local cultures and traditions. But this is false. Global capitalism is fully postmodern, flexible and adaptable to local conditions so that today we have European social democratic capitalism, US free-market capitalism, Chinese authoritarian capitalism, Indian state capitalism, etc. We can see this in the latest product design trends, which seek deep understanding of cultures through the use of anthropological and ethnographic techniques. This knowledge is used to create new, better, culturally-sensitive products to introduce to their markets, so that they can be included into the global consumer system without generating (local conservative/Western liberal) protests about destruction of local traditions. At the same time, let's not lose sight of the fact that these techniques do have some practical benefits, and I predict they will be even more important in the coming communist utopia ;) So capitalism is rapidly disarming this type of anti-universalist critique, and it won't be long before this can be used to buttress the claim that we've arrived at the best possible economic system, at which point the left will have to choose: return to anti-capitalist universal emancipation, or have postmodern cultural-relativist neoliberal capitalism.

btw, AlsoMike, I can't resist asking, so do you think the author of the blog is hot or not? er, I mean the Other appreciated for aesthetic beauty... ;p

As a gesture of true solidarity with anti-imperialist struggle, I'm proud to say that I do not find her attractive!
posted by AlsoMike at 12:01 AM on July 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


It is often patronizing for the design community to engage in this humanitarian design work -- look at who they mostly engage with: the most impoverished and desperate members of society, not with the best and brightest, their leaders and the local design community and industry.

Really enjoying the perspective of these comments.

But I feel like it's a necessary caveat to ask who the hell the best and brightest are in, say, a hellish megaslum. Since we've rid ourselves of the myth that Westerners are somehow more effective on an individual level, doesn't the systemic, multi-generational dysfunction and poverty in the Third World suggest that the local best and brightest have been stymied and rendered ineffective -- or, worse yet, are actively working against the interest of the poor? The sort of systemic corruption you see in propped-up, incompetent governments no doubt prevents a lot of talent from rising the top -- and makes direct engagement with the people on the bottom a useful luxury, even if only foreigners can afford it.

We can talk about the mote in our own eye and complain that designers aren't working hard enough on Indian reservations or in the deep south or whatever... but North Dakota is still a far cry from Addis Ababa.
posted by zvs at 12:15 AM on July 18, 2010


This is a complex situation.

It seems to me that the biggest challenge with do gooding design is that the far more stringent accountability and checks of a product's relevance and value to the customer are overlooked in the altruistic haze of do gooding.

Industrial design's function was to make products more attractive and more useful for the user, thus increasing sales --> its roots have always been manufacturing and commerce and its goal, consumption

Along the way the field developed methods and tools for the better identification of 'unmet needs' (or wants) through user research and observations (the old time behavioural stuff from vance packard's days which got a new name in the 70s after the Hidden Persuaders scandal)

these methods - observation, understanding, identification of gaps or opportunities for innovations, rapid prototyping etc are still however powerful tools that permit a better understanding of local conditions, local culture and needs (that is, had the Afghan housing devt been user centered they would have taken the time to study and understand local house and wall design and its reasons)

And these - when there is a profit to be made - are rigorously applied and the products tested

BUT

the minute all if this becomes "design to do good" or "design for social impact" etc all the rigour goes out the window and the efficacy of the products, their relevance or utility rarely, if ever, considered as methodically, because there's no profit to be made, nothing to sell and usually all is funded by donations, charity or grants etc

Design itself simply then becomes a vehicle for yet another form of development aid with all the lack of results and accountability seen in these programs

Something that in the for profit commercial world no design studio or designer would dare simply because the product would fail in the market (people wouldn't buy it or the antenna wouldn't work *cough*)

But the poor recipients of this charitable good works design rarely if ever get to signal the product doesn't work because they don't have to buy it adn the product/company etc is supported by donations or charity thus obscuring the lack of "sales" which is how a market would have signalled the product sucked. - the hippo roller is the best example of this kind of thing. It was not even designed as a product ot be used, it was a piece of sculpture that caught the eye of a trust fund kid
posted by infini at 12:59 AM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


AlsoMike: "We've turned Marx on his head, so that global capitalism is portrayed as universalist and homogenizing, destructive to the richness local cultures and traditions. But this is false. Global capitalism is fully postmodern, flexible and adaptable to local conditions so that today we have European social democratic capitalism, US free-market capitalism, Chinese authoritarian capitalism, Indian state capitalism, etc."

Wow. I will refrain from getting into a whole argument with you (I doubt very much that this is a forum for it, for one thing) but your rationalism has creeped the hell out of me. Suffice it to say, if there was a "Flag as Imperialist" button on MetaFilter, I'd be ringing it like an emergency bell. At the very least, I hope I have, as a citizen of the great globalizing Indian state, the right to say: your definition of imperialism not only falls short of but thoroughly reduces the reality I live in, and your "gesture" of "true solidarity" to my struggle for self-realization is empty and wanting.

This is not to say that you are a hypocrite. I urge you to revisit the notion of "false consciousness" - I haven't read about it but the phrase itself describes exactly the idea (about your consciousness) I woud need in order to accept your argument as genuine. Being genuine and wrong myself in a variety of complex real-world situations, I identify with it too. And I think it's extremely problematic, not to mention telling, if you don't.
posted by mondaygreens at 2:58 AM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm confused mondaygreens, are you a dual passport holder? Up above in the thread you said "We Americans.." when it was relevant to the point you were making and now you choose your Indian citizenship in order to underscore this comment's validity.

I personally found AlsoMike's reading quite valid.
posted by infini at 3:03 AM on July 18, 2010


infini, AlsoMike's reading is valid within certain boundaries. It's not knowledge, and to presume that it is - to say "That is false"; "This is true" - which is what he did, is not a universally valid conclusion of his reading, IMHO.

I'm not a dual citizen but I'm what you might call a global citizen. I've lived in the US for several years, I speak and think in English and I work with US and British companies (and, tangentially to this, but importantly for me, I've learned, read and written about Iran, because my ex was Iranian - and a dissident writer, at that, which in Iran means to not be a writer, sooner or later, to different but significant degrees).

I say this to underscore that this is what globalization means, too - not just importing designs and products but importing ideas - in particular ideas about Us vs. Them - creating new identities which are confusing and don't work so easily (nor ethically) within the language of Us vs. Them. I don't have post-colonial eyes; I just have eyes and I've been (I am, really) on both sides of this. Yet I am being read as an uncomplicated identity of one kind or another, all the time, being fitted into different, often contradictory but invariably self-serving arguments about the Other. I don't just identify with Indian women but with American ones too, and Iranian ones. I don't just identify, in the complicated (but relatively unsophisticated) power politics of my country, with bosses or with workers but with both. Even when I don't identify with someone, that's *my* shortcoming, see? It's just a matter of perspective. It's inherently limited.

When done at the level of cultures, this is ideological imperialism - the result (and goal?) of cultural invasion. It's where there is no real conversation, with a common goal of understanding, and where there's unequal investment in the outcome, or indeed different understandings of outcomes themselves - and yet a truth claim is made.

Does that make sense? Anyway I just thought it was important to underscore the limitations (the linguistic contingency, to be more precise) of AlsoMike's reading. The Indian state is not something to be read and fitted so neatly into a suspect argument, even if that argument is based on an honest reading. Ethics are about honest dealings. I don't accept what's being offered as fair.

Sorry if any of that sounds harsh; I really don't mean it that way.
posted by mondaygreens at 3:31 AM on July 18, 2010


see, I'd rather just bop AlsoMike over the head with a hugbucket for his gesture of solidarity against the anti-imperialist struggle, but that's just me
posted by infini at 6:37 AM on July 18, 2010


To see how this postmodern multicultural idea coincides with the most conservative reactionary elements of Indian culture...

Coincides yes.... but aren't you really conflating postmodern relativism with conservativism? Isn't there a pretty big distance between a social caste system that's thousands of years old and say bollywood posters of the mid 20th century? Or matchbox designs of the 19th century? These aren't forms of oppression, or if they are, certainly not of the same degree. Lamenting the loss of associated craft traditions isn't confined to superior europeans pitying their exotic foreign brothers either, it's a boom industry in the western world in its right and I'm sure you can witness the resurgence of old timey design and graphics in your own backyard.

I'm also confused by your use of postmodern cultural relativism - on the one hand it opens the back door to conservative reactionaries (bad) and on the other hand it allows for the infinite accommodation of cultural difference via schemes of consumption (good). I think your own ambiguity demonstrates that you can be sensitive to local traditions, even ask if you are losing something significant in your culture through modernisation, without being forced to accept all the baggage that comes with it, or vice versa, to modernise with a critical sensibility. Conflict is unavoidable and a truer acknowledgement of one another's difference rather than the indifferent acceptance of all cultural diversity, the question is whether we allow this conflict to be played out as violent confrontations between social groups or whether we acknowledge it and work through it politically.

Design without an underpinning in technology and implementation is meaningless. And what keeps showing up here on the Blue is design as masturbation.

There's lots of design and there's lots of back patting, but is it as abstract and divorced from concrete realities as you say it is? Maybe...some of the commentators in the design observer collection spout a lot of breathless design hyperbole, I know I cringed. But some of the links also point to people who are working in deep partnership with construction experts. I don't think you give designers enough credit. For what it's worth I went to a design and art college and all the disciplines were specialised by trade - product, industrial, architecture, vehicles - the most nebulous discipline was 'interaction design' but most of those people end up doing conferences and installations anyway.
posted by doobiedoo at 7:14 AM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think your own ambiguity demonstrates that you can be sensitive to local traditions, even ask if you are losing something significant in your culture through modernisation, without being forced to accept all the baggage that comes with it, or vice versa, to modernise with a critical sensibility. Conflict is unavoidable and a truer acknowledgement of one another's difference rather than the indifferent acceptance of all cultural diversity, the question is whether we allow this conflict to be played out as violent confrontations between social groups or whether we acknowledge it and work through it politically.

doobiedoo: thank you for writing this out with the clarity that you have done so. It helps me with making sense of this complicated issue and articulates some of the challenges as well as the fuzziness inherent in the situation. I don't have the words for this kind of analysis nor perhaps the ability yet once I read this it made sense.

Also agree on your take on those who work with construction experts, having seen some of the work they're doing and their passion and dedication, I can attest to its authenticity and one hopes, long term impact.
posted by infini at 8:07 AM on July 18, 2010


zvs: "The sort of systemic corruption you see in propped-up, incompetent governments no doubt prevents a lot of talent from rising the top -- and makes direct engagement with the people on the bottom a useful luxury, even if only foreigners can afford it."

There may be some truth to this, I don't know. My opinion is that systemic poverty is not a dysfunction, it's a necessary component of capitalism - there are winners and there are losers, and even in ideal conditions, charity can only go so far in addressing these problems. We want to think that these are solvable problems without engaging in the dirty business of politics, and I believe this will turn out to be a fantasy. This might provoke despair and cause you to ask, "Well, what's the alternative? If not through humanitarian intervention, then how?" That's the question I think we should be asking. In the end, it seems that local designers feel that they aren't being treated as equals - I believe them, even if there are also more reasons beyond simple Western arrogance.

doobiedoo: "I'm also confused by your use of postmodern cultural relativism - on the one hand it opens the back door to conservative reactionaries (bad) and on the other hand it allows for the infinite accommodation of cultural difference via schemes of consumption (good)."

I'm not sure I would agree that accomodating cultural differences via consumption is good. For one thing, culturally-sensitive consumerism doesn't really leave the local culture intact, because prior to consumerism, it's experienced as substantial commitments and a sense of belonging, but under the influence of consumerism, they're turned into reflexive self-constructed, freely chosen, aestheticized identity. Only from our Western postmodern standpoint is this perceived as not a substantial change, because we've freed ourselves from our oppressive traditions. This raises an interesting ambiguity in the Western culturally-sensitive embrace: so long as they enact their culture in an aestheticized way, as a tourist attraction, we love it - the beautiful dances, the unique cuisines, the traditional dresses, etc. But when they approach it as what it means to them - as a matter of substantial commitment - then we denounce them as fundamentalists.

But, I fully accept your point about modernization with a critical sensibility. Even though there may be some part of Western culture that is genuinely universal, we Westerners are not in a good position to say what it is, and definitely should not determine it for them. I think they know more than we do what is good in our culture, we should look to them for this. If we're talking about the imposition of our cultural values through Western state power, then of course we should oppose that. But to me, that's very different from individual Indian designers, intellectuals, etc. appropriating Western ideas for their own purposes, which is often seen (I think falsely) as a related problem. I think it's the ultimate arrogant infantilizing attitude to say, effectively, "Oh but they are too naive and primitive to really see the inferiority of Western culture compared to their own rich cultural heritage, only we can truly appreciate it." Our preferred mode of culture exchange is that we identify with them as Indians, and refuse to accept them identifying with us as Westerners. Their notion of the West may be idealized, but it is precisely this idealization that allows them to see what we cannot see: Western culture for what it could be, not for what it is.

mondaygreens, I honestly don't know what to make of your comments. I've never commented on anything you've said (except a very fleeting allusion to your Burkean logic), and yet somehow I discover that I've deeply offended your struggle for self-realization. It sounds like you recognize yourself or your position in my arguments, but that is a coincidence, it was not meant as an attack on you personally. If you think my facts are wrong or my logic is flawed, I welcome your criticisms, I would love to know where the weaknesses of this argument lie. So far, it seems like you are diagnosing why I am unable to see the truth, not what truth I am unable to see.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:13 PM on July 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


design thinking and innovation and all that jazz emerged from the shift that took place over this past decade of the gruntwork of design studios ... moved over along with the factories to China and India. This was a loss of revenue to the high end studios in the 'developed' world but they told themselves and everyone else that it didn't matter

as it were, this is something that andy grove has become increasingly concerned about...
posted by kliuless at 7:21 AM on July 19, 2010


AlsoMike, I'm not offended by your argument, I just disagree with it. I have no reason to take it personally except that what you describe includes me and disregards me and most people I know.

The problem that you don't see is the problem of having epistemology as first philosophy instead of ethics as first philosophy. So of course you think you can "know" what it means to be fair on your own terms and just apply that knowledge across the globe. That's ridiculous.

In any case: anti-imperialists don't argue that "X is better for them". The question "Is X good for them?" is an imperialist question to begin with. You have no right to decide what's better, or what's true, for any group that you're not counted among and aren't even talking to, in the question. The way out of this is not to go as broad as you can, the way you did and the way globalization is doing. It's to stay as local as you are. This is not about tradition, it's about fairness and honest self-investment in a common project. It's about starting conversations, not ending them.

Anyway I'll get off the subject now. Since you read Marx, I've put up an essay for you from this book: Can the Subaltern Speak? You can read more about the Subaltern Studies project here, if you want to know exactly what the essay is dismantling.
posted by mondaygreens at 9:18 AM on July 20, 2010


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