Moderated by Julie Lasky | Dialogues

The Kindness of Strangers

Detail from Christopher Webb's 1934 Faith, Hope and Charity window at Ingoldisthorpe, Norfolk, UK. 
Photo: Simon Knott.

David, on September 14, you posted an essay on your blog Design-Altruism-Project, called "Arguing with Success," which challenged the recent surge of interest in socially relevant design — the many practitioners, books and websites (including this one) that have sprung up in the past months or years. "It’s so terribly trendy to care, about the poor, the environment, and every form of 'betterment' that I begin to assume we must be selling more design by fetishizing social relevance," you wrote. You went on to question the value of several social-design activities and organizations, among them the Designers Accord, which was founded two years ago by Valerie. "Social networking has struck the design world with the force of the Indonesian tsunami bringing changes of sorts, but no guarantees of lasting change," you commented. And to be frank, your essay had a tsunami-like feeling about it, as if an emotional dam had broken and you just had to let out your indignation. Was there something in particular that set you off?

First, let me thank you for this opportunity to discuss/debate the social design phenomenon. Just to warn you in advance, Rob Peters, former president of ICOGRADA and a friend, once asked me if I was a "malcontent." I think he ultimately decided that we both approach the same problems, he from the inside, and I from the outside. In this case it may sound like I'd been reading Ivan Illich on expertism, but that was the last D-A-P essay.

To attempt to answer your question, many things make me indignant, but none more so than arrogance. One of the things living in the developing world teaches is humility; the people there are, for the most part, humble to the point of self-deprecation. They shouldn't be, but they are. They've come to expect the industrial north to provide innovation, assist with industrialization, even influence their form of government as the price of aid. They treat us as "experts" and this results in "us" believing we have better answers.

We, the educated industrialized north, impose these "answers" on our world almost as a birthright. One of the recent phenomena that we've been privileged to have access to is computing technology. Unlike cell phone technology, which is more widely dispersed, computing technology and all it implies (affluence, privilege, easy access to electricity) is out of the reach of most of the world's population. This means that a select few, let's say design professionals for the sake of argument (but there are many others), get to make decisions to help, benefit and control others less fortunate and less connected.

If as a designer you are affluent and successful enough to have time to help others, you must locate those in need of assistance: flood victims, AIDS orphans, the rural poor or even the environment. Elsewhere I’ve called this "altruism as design methodology," Projects are not hard to find! Increasingly, these projects have become the stock-in-trade of design school programs and studios for a variety of reasons — recruitment, public relations, etc. It's not that altruism's making a comeback so much as that people are beginning to see altruism as potentially profitable.

In 2008, a former student of mine named Joyce Epolito won a Sappi award for her Chicago Welcomes You project for Karen refugee people (you can read more about this soon at D-A-P). When this year's awards were announced, I noticed that IDEO was a winner. Of course, the awards program is open to anyone, but when big, powerful studios with tremendous resources are competing for the same pot, it's more than "fetishizing social relevance"; it's the coopting of social relevance by industry. And the whole cycle of "expertism" resumes on a new level.

David, I agree wholeheartedly with your critique of the current state of design. It does feel like we're experiencing some kind of generalized social (design) anxiety disorder where the motivation to work on these projects has been overwhelmed by the motivation not to be left out of the party.

In the two to three years I've been truly active in this space, I can't believe how much design seems to have changed. It reminds me of the early 2000s when integrating business and brand strategy into design practice was all the rage. Embracing social-impact work is the new price of entry for most designers now, and it has led to a lot of noise.

I'm not prepared to go as far as you about all the attention being bad. Twitter, etc., makes everything exponentially more annoying, but overall I actually think the rise in awareness is a positive shift. Understanding context, and the systems in which we are a part, is essential for any designer to make a real intervention in our world. I'm optimistic about what will come out of the multiplicity of voices. The more people work on solving these seemingly intractable challenges, the more likely we'll get to good solutions. I don't begrudge anyone with the inclination to do something positive to try.

And I agree with you that these social design projects need to be viewed critically. We often give a pass to this kind of work — perhaps with this first-world arrogance you referenced — but I think it's more likely that we haven't developed the tools, methodologies and tone to be critical and productive. We are woefully immature in this dimension — designers demand higher-order challenges but we still ascribe value based on a beauty shot and a 200-word description.

So if we agree on all of these points, why did I find your post so unsettling? David, I believe you have almost made it impossible to actually have a dialogue about the topic. Your diatribe so thoroughly attacked every attempt, aspiration, program, project, plan for designers to use their craft in new ways. All of the people on your bucket list seem either to have been alienated further, or have (strategically or fearfully) congratulated you for your insight. And wit!

In my mind you’ve left little room for your targets to describe their intentions and the results of their efforts. And I have to assume that because you've made errors about the Designers Accord that you must be running loose with other projects too.

So I ask you, can a productive discourse actually happen? Maybe that’s our chance here.

David, an observation I'd like to add is the divide between people like you who have occupied the social change space for a while and people like me who only recently arrived. In fact, Change Observer was quietly excoriated by one onlooker for lacking humility. We had insufficiently acknowledged the many groups working in this area for years. Is there an insurmountable gap between those who have labored altruistically in behalf of needy causes and others who have only recently joined the party?

Julie, let me first answer your question in a word: "No." But there's a proviso. If you read the comments to my screed you'll see names like Cameron Sinclair and John Thackara — people not known for myopia —and they generally agree that the dialogue needs to reach beyond the notion of social change.

Years ago, when Bill Drenttel asked me whether DWB could play a role in the Katrina disaster, I told him disaster relief was not our mission. I've had many opportunities to regret that decision. It would have been great for PR. But it took into account the fact that there's a difference between help and meddling. Organizations like the American Red Cross and Oxfam had so much more experience in such situations than we did, just because our name said "Designers" did not give us a license to meddle.

There's bound to be some who disagree with the grant you guys received to remake part of Design Observer as a conduit of change, and I can't even say I believe that "someone had to do it." Ultimately it's less a matter of whether DO agrees with DA and DWB than whether any combination of design acronyms is needed to "intervene" in needy causes. That's what drove me to write the piece in the first place.

Valerie, I would not have agreed to this conversation if I were attempting to close the door on discussion. My disappointment with and criticism of our profession is well known. (I'm not anticipating any invitations to speak at design conferences.) And I'm pretty sure nothing I've said will dissuade any designers from "using their craft in new ways." I certainly did expect the wagons to be circled. But if the general dialogue is expanded, I'll don my Steve Martin arrow through the head and ride away happy.

I did visit your site, and I don't think I misunderstood your mission; the language was too unmistakable. Beginning with your four main goals, you speak about "thought-leaders" (are these the same as "change-agents"?), but this is an exclusive term. Who determines who such a person is, or is it self-evident? You also mention the "creative community," but we must be speaking a different dialect of English because for me this would include everyone in the world. There's a good deal about "increasing the relevance of design thinking...in strategic challenges" and defining "frameworks, tools, and value systems" (whose?), and even one brief reference to the need to "leverage insights from underrepresented geographies," but most of this is in service to the profession.

Finally, you accuse me, and rightly, I agree, of "running loose" with my facts. But at the same time you are promoting a "Global Summit on Design Education and Sustainability" that will be driven by 100 experts from (by my fallible count) 34 schools (4 international) and 9 other organizations (several with sympathetic ties to AIGA)? Again, the language of exclusion and self-aggrandizement on your site does not inspire my confidence in your altruism.

This is not, and should not devolve into, a disagreement between Valerie Casey and David Stairs, their semantics, morals or professional affiliations. But 20 years after Brundtland, it ought to be about more than a "rise in awareness." If designers don't stop talking about measuring carbon footprints and establishing national design policies, no one's gonna give a damn about them.

Perhaps it's time for designers to stop talking altogether and practice listening.

Thanks David. I'm delighted to move this discussion away from the David-Valerie battle of the egos into more productive territory.

I think you make some fair points about the Designers Accord. Maybe that's a valid departure point to continue this discussion? (By the way, I would love to actually tell you more about the Designers Accord at some stage. I think you would find it more interesting, substantive and aligned with your philosophies than my apparently poorly written copy on the site represents. The Designers Accord isn't a website, it's a group of people doing real work, every day, all over the world.)

So let's talk about language. Complex language is often needed to describe complex issues. But we frequently balk at complexity, saying that as designers we are supposed to be communicators, storytellers. That's often code for over-simplifying, avoiding having real discussion and debate, using anecdotes to dodge articulating an opinion.

Our design activism world seems to be especially hobbled by its language. Aspirational goals are wrapped up in tweet-delimited phrasing and hyperbole. Is this trend unique to design now, or is it simply the nature of current-day communication? In an increasingly post-disciplinary, global society, how can we avoid the patter of online communication but still participate in a broad conversation? If gummed up buzzwords like "thought-leader" and "creative community" are descriptive enough — albeit loosely defined — is it necessarily wrong to use them as a shortcut in communication, so we can actually get to the real work?

But maybe this isn't about semantics and the volume of noise in the design world right now. Maybe it's about the widening gap between the grand phrases and mission statements, and the actual measurable interventions. How can we bubble up the best work? Should we put in place some sort of governing body in the design world (not another trade organization)? Can we create a universal set of standards (not another manifesto) to help designers understand the consequences of their work, and the related responsibility for their impact?

David, throughout your career, you've made such an important contribution through design. As a veteran, what can you share with the next generations of design activists to help productively advance the authentic efforts?

Valerie, saw your picture in this week's Time (nice picture!). Congratulations!

Language is a marvel, capable of both great precision and great sloppiness. Precise language, like scientific language, is fairly colorless and seldom rhetorical. Rhetoric, despite what Plato has Socrates say, has its uses, but precision isn't one of them. Probably the "design activism world" you refer to has more than its share of rhetoric. This is the nature of mission statements, grant proposals and splash pages. They attempt to divert attention to themselves. I understand the need for a shorthand vocabulary for wading through the red tape. I just don't think anyone should believe in it too deeply.

I'm beginning to question the need for "interventions." If they can't be partnerships, I feel they should be avoided. Arvind Lodaya speaks eloquently of the need to reverse the modernism introduced into India by the Eames Report through the NID. Where design interventions gloss over local traditions they're glorified colonialism at best, looting at worst, and ought to be outted as such.

Man is a standards-setting creature. I assume you and our colleagues will be working on a set of standards at your upcoming conference. That standards often fail, look at the Millennium Development Goals, for example, isn't reason not to set them. They're made to be broken, right? And replaced with something better.

I'm more concerned with who determines what is "real work"? Are the recipients of the assistance really benefiting? There're some pretty bad aid interventions in the world. How can we better understand what stakeholders need or want? Who takes responsibility for the impact? Cameron Sinclair thinks we ought to have a gathering where we talk about our failures. This would be one way to spread the wisdom of potential success. How about a Design Hippocratic Oath, where we vow to "do no harm"?

As for what constitutes "authentic efforts," only history can attest. Fighting tooth and nail against a media addicted to heroizing takes effort. My baseline begins with the Biafran War in 1967–68. Médecins Sans Frontières was founded during that conflict. But some historians contend that their efforts merely prolonged the disaster. By comparison, my efforts with DWB have been small and recent. No point in glorifying things. I prefer it this way. I can only even begin to think globally on a case-by-case neighborhood basis. I certainly can't claim any kind of authority in these matters. The choices I made, to circumvent corporate design, wouldn't suit most design students. Unfortunately, although there are more opportunities in nonprofit design than formerly, the economy's making the nonprofit sector more competitive than cooperative.

I guess the best advice I have for young activists is what I give to my students: "Stay awake. Create your own opportunities. Consider yourself individual only in the context of a larger community. Give back."

I appreciate your sentiment about design for "social impact." It's abundantly clear that it takes a great deal of knowledge, humility and time to create or update the products, services and systems that improve quality of life, anywhere in the world. The big surge in media attention on these projects, in the developing world especially, can make it seem like a dalliance.

I agree that the biggest priority now is how to actually measure the impact of that work over time. I know several groups are working on this too; we will inevitably have a dozen "impact scorecards" within the year. There will an appetite for this as design firms try to integrate more mindful work (in all parts of the world) as a real part of business, not a pro-bono add-on at the end of the year.

We are at saturation point with the media around design activism — it's ironic that it's absolutely taboo to make any criticism of that work, publicly at least (until your article!). Some have said that we don't evaluate this new flavor of social design with the same rigor as traditional design. I actually think that this surge of design activism and social impact work has placed a large mirror in the face of the design industry — and the reflection makes us queasy. We don't know what we are about anymore. For the first time more of us are doing work we find "meaningful" but it's become more unsettling to be designers too. Groups are cleaving off under the guise of being purists (social Luddites!). And whereas before, when our language tripped us up we could point to an object, in the era of design thinking, we rarely have that!

I recently participated in a workshop where the hosts presented 31 sets of principles, tools, frameworks — from First Things First to Icograda's Certification (and including the Designers Accord) — that have been created over the years to help designers be more considered and responsible in their work. (The advice you thoughtfully give your students is well covered in this set — maybe even verbatim). These have created the rise in design activism.

While I have media-fatigue, I do consider the scale of participation and degree of change to be a very positive thing. The value of having so many designers involved is that together we send a strong message to our clients and partners that we are prioritizing an integrated way of thinking that includes accounting for the upstream and downstream effects of our work. I truly believe that at this moment in time, all of these projects and programs are actually changing the value systems of designers. Regardless of whether they're designing packaging for beefy jerky, working for the government on new collaborative systems or developing irrigation systems in South Africa, the context and consequences of their work are top of mind.

Okay, Valerie. If we agree that the value system of designers is changing, that it's not just a passing fancy or a "value added," does this new value system extend beyond the "consequences" of what is designed, or even beyond the business model of design itself, to embrace design as a universal social capacity? My experience is that even uneducated people participate in the design of their surrounding environment. Do you think our profession is mature enough to coexist with a philosophy that potentially pulls the plug on its profit margins?

Great question, David. Is the design industry mature enough yet? Definitely not. But we're going to have to grow up very quickly.

When I started the Designers Accord, I conceived of it as a pact between the top design firms, who would agree to work in some sort of post-competitive way and blaze new territory for everyone else. (Naive!) A few things happened: the notion of collaboration and knowledge-sharing was initially met with a deafening silence; some of the usual suspects didn't take on the leadership positions I had imagined they would; and a great portion of the lively conversations and interesting work was happening in small firms, schools and businesses all over the world by designers of all stripes, engineers, researchers, strategists — the list goes on. You correctly observed that the phrase "creative community" could include anyone. I think that's the point, and connecting this diverse collective has emerged as the greatest strength of the Designers Accord.

In The Ecology of Commerce, Paul Hawken wrote that we don't have an economic problem, or an ecological problem, we have a design problem. In his brilliant commencement speech at the University of Portland, Paul basically conscripted the entire graduating class to participate in a challenge that seemed very designerly: "Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done." I've recently heard the comment that design is too important to be left to designers. Perhaps it's actually that design is too pervasive for designers to try to manage.

As the definition of design has expanded, so have the qualifications of its practitioners. Hopefully the idea of empathy will continue to nudge the notion of the lone inventor out of the picture. I have seen a big shift in how people are working together, creating new business models and collaborations and methods for sharing — there's a general increase in reflectiveness throughout the industry. One challenge we face is how to resolve the new world order with the well-worn tools (media, awards) we use to measure progress and highlight the best of what design can be — especially when the concepts of design and designer are shifting.

As scary as it sometimes feels, the external pressures and our internal industry evolution actually provide a great chance for us to redefine who we are, what we contribute and the way we relate to the world. I don't mean this to sound too rah-rah design, but I do believe we are up for the challenge — if we're not, will someone else design it for us?

If we're not, I'm certain someone else can.

Webale nyo [Thank you very much].

Posted in: Business, Media

Comments [22]

One of the most fertile grounds for creative people - including advertisement people, graphic designers, product designers, architects, etc. - is charity. Why? Because the client, besides beeing a mass of people that the artist will never meet, won't ask for adjustments. A free briefing with an exotic reality as background - and the chance to have the pictures of Sebastiao Salgado for the gig.

People in need for help needs food, water, bricks to rebuild their houses. And not the big idea from a smartass bamboo hut designer.

If you don't think so, you are, literally, 5 thousand miles away from the point. Or not: New Orleans never needed the initiative of any designer to build their way out of the disaster - and we're talking about USA. Now imagine the countries in the south hemisphere - from where I'm writing now.

So give me a break. This gentle exchange of compliments didn't add anything to the point.
Andre Felipe

This is a fascinating conversation. I think David makes some great if rather strong points. Seems like if design can manage meddling, colonialism, posturing etc, etc. there's great work to be done. I've love to see more in depth case studies and work in this area of change design.

Like David, I too am in favor of precise language, but this Designer's Accord summit looks no problem to me. Shouldn't universities be coming to together to discuss these issues? Both better than nothing and a good start. And a few thought leaders running around is OK with me. Maybe we need more change leaders who are working with individuals/organizations in these countries and who are actually, you know, getting their hands dirty.

As activists, seems like we could be working more with existing NGOs and non-profit organizations with a more interdisciplinary approach. Design need not intercede by trying to reinvent the wheel on the last 30 - 40 years international activism as if no one's tried to 'make a difference' before. That would be foolish and arrogant. It's possible we should really be learning more outside design from people who have more experience around these issues.
Peter A Jacobson

yes, many people design or want to............................

and they dooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

Remember Tomato aprox 1995


While on the surface it may appear to be have been a "gentle exchange of compliments," it often felt more like a head-on collision of value systems. And I'm still not as sanguine about the "reflectiveness" of the design industry as Valerie is. It's going to take a lot more talking, and not only talking.

For more "un-gentleness," you should probably visit the two pieces that initiated the exchange. Both are cited in the first two paragraphs above.
D Stairs

yaddi yadda yadda

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yaddi yadda yadda

"If as a designer you are affluent and successful enough to have time to help others, you must locate those in need of assistance: flood victims, AIDS orphans, the rural poor or even the environment."

-I can see that David Stairs have a heart for people who seek for generous souls that can extend a helping hand to them. If fortunate individuals will think this way, they'll be able to give hope to the less fortunate ones. Thanks for sharing this inspiring post with us!
Girlie | Digital Room

I thought the idea was to lend them your fishing rod. Or ideally sit by the river bank with them and pass a day passing on some of your fishing experience. The rest is vanity.

I find both sides of this conversation very interesting but find it difficult to agree with one over the other. I think this has to do with a point both Stairs and Casey mentioned; that we don't really know the impact that social design has had since it became so fashionable. I think it's right to think critically about how much good we are actually doing, but on the other hand I don't see a problem with the abundance of people talking about social design work.

I think those who really want to do good will find a way to go out and do it, despite the possible inflated sense of success and rise of "slacktivists". All the talk might just be enough for someone to stand up and say they're going to do something beyond blogging or twitter.
That may be a bit too optimistic though, especially considering that some who go out to do good wind up, as Stairs mentioned, basically practicing a glorified version of colonialism. It depends on what is being done I suppose. The most interesting part of this conversation to me is that I never thought of the fact that it could be so complicated (and controversial it seems) to try and do good.

Overall I think people should keep talking and keep trying, but think very critically about doing both. This kind of bandwagon is not easy to jump onto successfully as one might think.
K. Boehme

Looking underneath the surface, much of the social design interest is generated from a genuine concern to help others and the environment.

This genuine concern and interest isn't a bad thing - much of it is coming from a good place in the heart, and its a human thing. But, this is the age-old problem with the notion of 'aid' and 'helping' - the philosophical issue of what it really means to 'help' others? I agree with Stairs when he says that a lot of it can be driven by a mis-guided understanding of power-dynamics.

I think its ok to admit that you are helping others for selfish reasons, and in fact, perhaps that is the only way to move way from being trapped in a moral dilemma. We can't all be buddhists striving for enlightenment - that will take a whole lifetime. Getting to the stage of selfless-ness aint that easy... just ask those Japanese monks who gets a sharp whack on their back for simply 'clouding their thoughts' in meditation.

So, where should we start?

I think the point raised by Casey and Stairs on being alert to the use of language is important. Language is a powerful force and can shape how we think, how we behave, what we believe and who we are. Being mindful of it is a good idea.

I also think having a good balance of ideology and reality is needed. Designers by their nature think outside of reality to propose alternative future-worlds. Some of the 'activists' I come across are pumped up with this ideology of 'changing the world'. That energy and 'the blindness of youth' is a powerful force if it can be channelled with more wisdom and a 'reality check'. The problem is that there isn't just one reality, there's millions of it. A reality to one person is different to another person. We designers should try and understand the complexity of the realities - and how they collide in a design project with a brief and a budget that only really highlights (and therefore privileges) one or two realities.

I think this is the lesson I am hoping to learn from, in my lifetime.

I'm a designer, artist, member of the global creative community, whatever you want to call me, for two reasons: I Love doing it, and other people Love what I deliver. End of story (for me anyway).
In my experience, on the surface, people turn to designers to tap our gift/talent for marrying substantive problem solving with cosmetic beauty – a marriage which is not immune to being lopsided one way or the other. But I believe people also turn to designers (or when designers are turned to them) with a secret or coded expectation that we will bring a seed of Passion or Love that business-as-usual is often devoid of.
Similar to Mr. Casey's statement that "intervention" is better left undone if it cannot be a "partnership", I would say that if our work as an industry does not endow our projects with an extra measure of love and passion – especially in Philanthropy of all places – we do more harm than good to both our clients and our industry.

It surprises me when I hear designers get together to discuss the value or impact of our work and the concept (even the very word itself) of Love rarely, if ever, gets mentioned. We'll get as deep as "giving back", "community", "partnership", "empathy" or "charity". But where's the Love people? Was it sapped out long ago by rote exploratory or too many abusive clients? Are we too afraid it isn't measurable enough? Is it just assumed to be there and taken for granted? I hope not! I think we need to pay far more attention to the notes of Love inherent in our art (if it still is Art) when we add our voice to the chorus. Obviously there are a multitude of weighty and darker issues to address in the big picture of social impact - but if we have any place at the table at all, certainly Love and Passion should be part of our mark, no?

I am so excited about this conversation. In my mind, opening up the dialogue is essential, and how great that DO has seized the opportunity to bring it to the fore. I hope we all are open to keeping the conversation going.

I think there were great points made across the board, and my eyes were opened to some things I hadn't considered before. Specifically, who decides who the "thought-leaders" are, and where the boundaries (if there are any) to the "creative community" are drawn? I think it's an essential question, that needs to stay in the forefront of our awareness, but at the same time, we won't go anywhere at all without some sort of leadership, and an agreement that boundaries and definitions of some sort are essential.

The sense I got from Mr. Stairs is that at the core, he has basically lost faith in humanity, across the board. An "I'll believe it when I see it" attitude. And that Ms. Casey is trying to point out that it's not over yet, we have to work with what we've got, and believe that we all essentially have good intentions.

Ultimately, we have to all be kept on our toes if anything substantial and sustainable is going to change, and this conversation is a great way to do that. Let's keep talking, within our own communities and in the media, and remember to try to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It's an adventure, yes?!!


And, bravo to Carlo for his comments and for being brave enough to bring "Love" into the conversation!!!

That's huge man, particularly hard for many of us designers to take seriously. Shall we try? To get the chill out of the air?? I'm up for it.

Regarding love, the poet William Blake wrote: "Opposition is true friendship."

I very much appreciate these many viewpoints.
D Stairs

this seems to me to be far more than a designers' issue; it's to do with the profound difference of worldviews between the so-called 'south' and 'north' and it is extremely rare to find someone from the 'north' who actually abandons his position and moves closer to that of the 'south' such as david has... thank you for your voice, it speaks for many even though it may not seem like that from where you are at...

Stairs: Organizations like the American Red Cross and Oxfam had so much more experience in such situations than we did, just because our name said "Designers" did not give us a license to meddle. . . . Ultimately it's less a matter of whether DO agrees with DA and DWB than whether any combination of design acronyms is needed to "intervene" in needy causes.

I agree. Doctors (even the borderless ones) don't ask 'how can medicine help us be better historians or engineers'; they don't try to solve food bank policy; they don't design houses. In other words, Docs w/o Borders have a robust idea of where they can help - but also they know what lies outside of their expertise. Same with many other disciplines: historians, engineers, social scientists, bricklayers; all have a circumscribed field of practice*.

What I see implicit in much of the social design discussion is the belief that the field has no such limitation. Given a social problem, the question is usually posed as 'what's the design-based solution?' rather than the more fundamental question 'is this really under the purview of design?' In other words, maybe there are problems or circumstances in which design just won't or can't help. And that's fine! Design doesn't need to colonize everything.

Of course, I could stand accused of prematurely foreclosing the potential of design solutions. But it's not that design never works, it's that in many conversations with colleagues, design (somehow) always has something to offer. But this is just silly, there is no a priori reason why design inherently can contribute to any social issue.

To me it's not about talking too much, or more precisely, or framing things the right way. It's about seeing what actually works in design, learning from past design successes and following that lead. How many 'social design' projects actually do what they plan, actually succeed, beyond a test phase? Which ones worked, and why? Where is design skill best applied, and where is design effort wasted? I used to think there were no empirical accounts of this, but there are, and they need more attention, even though it is not as exciting.

*yes, disciplines have mutable borders and cross-disciplinarity is often possible, but disciplines also have a center and things they exclude.

I’m a little late entering this conversation, but here goes. My job is to re-write the account of design for a 250-year old society (the RSA) currently operating as a policy think-tank in London. This equates to making an argument for the value of design to citizenship and social progress; a harder and more sinuous argument than the usual truism that design ‘shapes our world’.

In writing that account I’ve made the assertive claim that design – rather reductively interpreted as a readiness to improvise and prototype, a bravery in the face of disorder and complexity, and a developed sense of part and whole – is something than can make everyone more resourceful and self reliant. We’re calling for a kind of re-distribution of the tools and insights and processes that designers use among the wider population.

Having made that claim, naturally our ambition is to prove it by increasing the access to design among those who are “under-resourced”. Currently this includes primary school children, police officers and people with spinal injuries; we expect it to expand.

One of the big problems in the “social design” debate is that whether your client is a local housing charity, an NGO, the lost craftsmen of the developing world or Sony, it’s all commercial art: designers have to eat. We have deliberately avoided proposing that designers ‘tithe’ a portion of their billable time to social good causes, although this was quite fully and persuasively explored by Victor Papanek himself. When you ask designers about citizenship or social progress they will typically recite their opera productions among the socially excluded, their work with artisans in India, their commitments to teaching, the number of people who benefit from entering their publicly-funded building. This approach seems to me ad hoc, opportunistic, patronising and commercially unsustainable.

Recognising that designers have to eat, we need instead to give definition to a new accommodation between commercial art (design) and the market; that is, the times we live in.

It may be too soon to say we are fortunate in the UK with a prevailing political agenda of inclusiveness and participation. Never before have civil servants taken so much interest in what governed people might do for themselves, including the design of public services. This is a commercial opportunity for designers as well as a social one, recognised particularly by the emerging group of “service” specialists. The RSA is doing what it can to invigorate both supply and demand in this area.

Private sector interest in choice, customisation and creativity might also help to redistribute tools. The commercial value of creativity at large in the population is not lost on manufacturers like Nokia who recognize that an adaptable or customisable product is one of the solutions to multiplying customers with increasingly diverse preferences and capabilities.

Meanwhile a downturn in the big, conmmercial design and construction market prompts us to ask how might people trained in design and architecture enter a productive relationship with the smaller, local community or a more distributed economy?

In the end the social change I’m looking for is an advance on the well-rehearsed discourse of designing for disadvantaged, ageing, socially excluded etc. people and looking instead at how much more people might do for themselves. I think we need to raise the threshold at which we expect to bring in a professional in design.

Emily Campbell

This is precisely the point. In East Africa, children make their own toys from wire and strips of innertube. Ask an American child to make something, and you get a blank stare.

But it has been designers themselves who have sought opportunities to capitalize on new sectors of the market, ie. the underprivileged. The question should not be "Don't designers have to eat?", but rather, "Can't society provide a non-commercial role for designers?"
D Stairs

I get it, I see it, getting at it by posing those focused questions is so powerful, thank you. I whole heartedly one hundred percent agree that that is the goal to aim for. I am confident that the phase we are in right now in design, re. the conversation about design for the greater good and incorporating design thinking into other disciplines is a big step in that direction. Perhaps I'm naive, but I've been proven wrong before and survived...


As designers, our primary job is to communicate, and to make the message we're communicating easily understood and available to the masses. We cannot take on entire projects on our own, and nor should we attempt to do so. That would certainly lead to failure, and much talk without any clearly defined action.

We work in tandem with others—those who are working on site to impact change. So even if we can't get our hands dirty, we can at least help them get the message out, and in that way, provide them the support they need by growing awareness. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that as designers we're so wonderful, and that because of our bright ideas we have the resources or knowledge to affect change single-handedly. That's naiive.

As designers, our primary job is to communicate, and to make the message we're communicating easily understood and available to the masses. We cannot take on entire projects on our own, and nor should we attempt to do so. That would certainly lead to failure, and much talk without any clearly defined action.

We work in tandem with others—those who are working on site to impact change. So even if we can't get our hands dirty, we can at least help them get the message out, and in that way, provide them the support they need by growing awareness. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that as designers we're so wonderful, and that because of our bright ideas we have the resources or knowledge to affect change single-handedly. That's naiive.


My apologies for coming a bit late to this party, but that I am here at all is a testament to twitter (yes, despite the limitations referenced above, it is also a darn handy research tool...)

I edit http://www.TrackerNews.net, a news aggregator & blog (http://trackerblog.TrackerNews.net) covering health issues (human, animal, eco), humanitarian work and technologies that support both. Here is a little slide show that will give you better of the scope of content: http://tinyurl.com/5zycet

It is a little unusual in that stories are not organized by category, but grouped for contextual relevance (breaking news, research papers, blog posts, websites, book reviews, e-books - print, audio, video). Eventually, everything ends up in a searchable database. There is actually quite a bit more going on both on the site and behind the scenes (including the development of a custom aggregation tool you might find interesting).

A few comments from my "outsider's" perch:

1) With so much that could be improved with skilled design attention, the surface has barely been scratched. Even if this turns out to be a movement de jour, some good will come of it and it is possible that great good could come of it.

2) Yes, there are an awful lot of feel-good projects where people go off for a week to dig a well in a developing country or attend charette-style fix-the-world workshops. The lasting value to those in deep need isn't always easy to see, but there can be other less-linear benefits Several years ago, I was invited by Amory Lovins to attend a charette on refugee issues: 300 global smarties gathered in a super-deluxe campground (outfitted with heated yurts) north of Santa Barbara for 3 days. Beyond the surreality of the setting, and the sense that most of us were in the “learning” rather than the "doing" portion of the curve, it started some conversations that are still going on today. It is actually possible to draw links between that meeting, a TED wish and some nifty disease surveillance software currently being tested in Asia as part of Rockefeller/Google-funded effort. Personally, it nurtured what has become a driving passion to bring multi-disciplinary / cross-disciplinary perspectives to news. Sometimes unintended consequences can be the point.

3) Design innovation has become a two-way street: ideas are just as likely to come from developing world, some with implications for the developed world. Working on projects for social impact makes designers better as designers by causing them to consider sometimes radically different perspectives. (aside: Many of you are probably familiar with Erik Hersman's marvelous blog, http://www.Afrigadget.com - but if you're not, you're in for treat. PopTech's solar textile FLAP bag - flexible light & power - project, spearheaded by Sheila Kennedy, gave Erik some bags to field test in Africa. Brilliant. http://www.afrigadget.com/category/flap-bag-project)

4) Re the pithy code (a la doctors' "Do no harm") - great idea. For journalism, an editor at Chicago's old City News Bureau put it best: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out!" For designers, perhaps it's something along the lines of "Listen. Share. Adapt" All the rest is commentary…

J.A. Ginsburg

I thought I would just be doing some light reading while I had my morning coffee when I clicked on this article. Instead, I have spent my day following links, reading articles and comments, and writing my thoughts down. Always exciting to be so invigorated! But I digress.

I found myself attempting to craft a response because this is an area of discussion that is near and dear to my heart. And mind. I spent my career in social change work before returning to graduate school for a masters in design. My undergraduate degree is in political theory, international politics and global economics. And having been out in the world teaching and practicing post graduate degree, I have found that I have not had anything near to a similar trajectory of a single designer I have met, read about, or heard of.

My graduate alma mater is reputed to be a leader in design education for its training of designers for 'higher orders' of design, whether it is organization, management, strategy, or social impact, as well as products and services. We are taught to be designers as problem solvers, ready and able to tackle the world's, or organization's, or market's wicked problems. I believe in the training I received. I think it is of great value (over $100k in student debt valuable, actually).

Yet, when it comes to the encouragement we are receiving (from design education at large, the 'thought leaders', practitioners, consultancies, conferences etc.) to take these new opportunities opening to designers, and to make the great social impacts, I am highly skeptical. What is clear to me is that most designers are not nearly ready to do the work. Not responsibly at least. And certainly not across the chasm of differences in their experience and those of the 'users' they are designing for. As much as I respect the human-centered design research done in order to attempt to bridge the divide, much more personal work is necessary to "do no harm."

As mentioned above, we have in our arsenal as designers our methods, process, perspective, capacity for reflection, iteration and refinement, facilitation, collaboration, empathy, tools, visualizing, and making — our competitive advantages, if you will. As we are increasingly recognized by other fields, so is the rhetoric throughout design growing more confident. Self-assured. As well as what this article is grappling with: Entitled.

What is concerning to me is that there seems to be a tussle for legitimacy. Who is down enough. Or right enough. Or legitimate enough. Or enough "mud on their boots" to do the work. This is a highly toxic place to have/leave the discussion. What has always been of great concern to me regarding design is each designer's actual ability to negotiate and navigate the work responsibly and applicably. The utter lack within design education and beyond of formal, explicit and rigorous analysis and critique by designers, of themselves, and the role of designers/design within the space of social work, is alarming. The development of an individual designer's or firm's capabilities to responsibly work for social impact requires a much deeper and broader understanding of the systems at play — the context in all its historical complexities — and how each of us internalizes those which we exist within.

I am proud to be a member of this community. And I do think there is a great deal that can be of use to impacted communities. But as I have come to realize, some of the best designers I have ever met are community organizers. We would be doing ourselves a great disservice to be willfully obtuse and not reach out to others, to marinate in the literature and experiences of those who have long grappled with how to work across our great divides.
Renna Al-Yassini

Moderated by Julie Lasky Valerie Casey is a globally recognized designer and innovator. She works with start-ups, governments, and organizations on challenges ranging from creating new products and services, to transforming organizational processes and behaviors, she also founded the Designers Accord.

Moderated by Julie Lasky David Stairs founded Designers Without Borders in 2001 while on a Fulbright research grant to Uganda. In 2006, he became founding editor of Design Altruism Project, an online experiment dedicated to addressing the shifting character of professional design practice. Stairs’ latest portrait was taken by his son Chris one morning at the City Market in Bangalore where he was a Hindu for three hours. He teaches graphic design and design history at Central Michigan University.

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