Maria Popova | Essays

The Language of Design Imperialism

Pieter Bruegel, Tower of Babel, 1563

I go to a lot of conferences. Design conferences, tech conferences, media conferences, cross-disciplinary conferences. And the worst of them are always the ones brimming with panels, on which a handful of industry heavy-hitters sit around for an hour, throwing at each other opinions that oscillate between congratulatory and contrarian but inevitably dance around a hermetic subject of collectively predetermined importance. The problem with such panels is that they regurgitate existing viewpoints held within the industry bubble about issues framed by the industry paradigm, often in buzzword-encrusted language that offers little substance beyond the collective fluff-slinging.

Over the past few weeks, the design community has witnessed the virtual version of an industry panel. Ignited by Bruce Nussbaum's controversial, and some may say solely for the sake thereof, contention that humanitarian designers are the new imperialists and followed by a flurry of responses ranging from insightful, fact-grounded retorts to righteous indignation to argumentative defensiveness, the debate has brought up some necessary conversations, but it has also become a platform for near-academic discussion of an issue tragically removed from the actual cultural landscapes where humanitarian design projects live.

What's most worrisome and ironic about the debate is the almost complete lack — with the exception of a few blog comments here and there — of voices of designers who work in the very regions and communities in question, those loosely defined as the "developing world" and the "Western poor." Worse yet, entirely missing are the much-needed multidisciplinary voices whose work is the cultural glue between design and its social implementation — anthropologists, scientists, educators, writers.

Yes, writers.

Because if designers are the new imperialists, the delusional white-caped superheroes Nussbaum calls them out to be, design writers are their giddy, overeager sidekicks, complicit in disengaging from the very communities in which humanitarian design is meant to be manifest.

The way we talk and write about these issues is incredibly important. As this excellent Wall Street Journal article argues, language shapes culture and cognition in a powerful way. The very vocabulary we use in this debate is incredibly flawed. We can't even come up with a fair way of describing the communities in question. We slide across a spectrum of political quasi-correctness and tragic generalization, from the near-obsolete for reasons of clear condescension "third world" to the hardly better "developing world" to Alex Steffen's alarmingly geo-generalized "Global South" to the depressingly hierarchical "bottom billion." These lump terms not only dehumanize entire classes of people, but they also fail to account for the vast cultural differences between the various microcommunities within these brackets. Political, anthropological, ethnic, religious and sociological differences that would explain why, for instance, the XO-1 laptop from One Laptop Per Child, once hailed as a pinnacle of humanitarian design, was embraced in Paraguay and reviled in India.

We talk about working "in the field" as the ultimate litmus test for true "humanitarian design." But the notion of "the field" flattens out a incredibly rich, layered, multiplane social system in which these design projects and products live. No wonder we consistently fail to design what Emily Pilloton aptly terms "systems, not stuff."

I'd be curious to know how these communities and cultures verbalize their own sense of self and identity. How do you say "bottom billion" in Swahili? How does "the field" describe itself in Aymara?

Even the term "humanitarian design" bespeaks a fundamental limitation — incredibly anthropocentric, it fails to recognize the importance of design that lives in a complex ecosystem of humanity and nature, society and environment, which are always symbiotically linked to one another's well-being. When even our language exudes the kind of cultural conceit that got us in our climate crisis pickle, there's something fundamentally wrong with how we think about our role in the world — as designers and as people.

In a brilliant SEED Magazine article from 2008, authors Maywa Montenegro and Terry Glavin make a convincing argument for the link between biodiversity and cultural diversity. "Pull back from the jargon, " they caution, "and the essence is simple: Homogeneous landscapes — whether linguistic, cultural, biological, or genetic — are brittle and prone to failure." But a key point of failure in today's global design landscape lies precisely in the jargon — we need to invent new ways of writing, talking and thinking about concepts of "humanitarian design"; we need new language that doesn't homogenize entire cultures, new vocabulary that better reflects the intricate lace of the world's biocultural and psychosocial diversity as a drawing board for design.

To borrow from science and resilience theory, the work of Italian anthropologist and linguist Luisa Maffi, founder of biocultural diversity conservancy Terralingua, offers ample evidence that the loss of indigenous languages is followed closely by a loss of biodiversity. Without trying to oversimplify what's clearly a complex issue, this raises an obvious question: Could it be that as soon as we lose our linguistic grasp of a species, we stop talking about it, then thinking about it, then caring about it? When it comes to humanitarian design, we never invented this language in the first place, a language that allows us to properly talk, think and care about indigenous communities and their biocultural landscape. Our jargon has set us up for failure from the get-go.

So what can the design community do? I don't have the answer. And I am certain no one person does. But cross-disciplinary teams of designers, scientists, anthropologists, linguists and writers might. Teams that include what GlobalVoices founder Ethan Zuckerman recently called "bridge figures" — people who have one foot in an expert community, be that technology or design or another discipline, and one in a local community benefiting from this expertise.

For now, let's embrace our responsibility as designers and design writers to honor cultural diversity. Let's stop hiding behind industry jargon. Let's invent a new language that allows us to better think, talk and care about indigenous cultures and microcommunities before we try to retrofit them to our projects and our preconceptions. Language that is just, because this is not just semantics. Above all, let's welcome voices and viewpoints from other disciplines, other parts of the world and other paradigms. Enough with the industry panels already.

For a digest of essays and related content surrounding this debate, go here. — The Editors

Posted in: Business, Media, Social Good

Comments [13]

Thanks Maria... as someone with an undergrad in Anthropology and postgrad in Design I'm obviously supporting your validation of cross-disciplinary approaches – design sure ain't no island!

You also brought to mind the comic book "Whose Development?" (and its equivalent translated version in Hindi) which was released late last year. http://bit.ly/aJ7h2r. In graphic novel form 15 stories were compiled to reflect on the 'accomplishments' of development from India's 15 states. It's topics range from the negative effects on aam aadmi of tourism to uranium mining which seek to translate real stories into graphic narrative. (Aam aadmi is the locally used term which translates to "common man" and has some alignment to the notion of those at the base of the pyramid) Although I note that the price is not within the budgets of many it portrays, I hazard a guess that its social activist producers have made it their business to also get copies into the hands of those that are effected. I'm pretty sure aam admi are not reading design blogs... perhaps ventures like these do a better job of igniting the conversation at the grassroots – while still using design to do so.
Meena Kadri

Great and insightful article. A lot of truth here. I hope people take notice.

thanks for your many insights, maria. i think the shared-language insights you seek are within us all, regardless of race, creed, color, nationality, class. they are buried, obscufated by the complex meta languages of modern life, of vocation, of ambition. before any of this, we felt and knew very early on:

i am hungry. give me food.
i am thirsty. give me water.
i am curious. show me that.
i am lonely. be near me.
i am in pain. soothe me.
i am sad. feel me.
i am frustrated. hear me.
i have plenty. share with me.
i am lost. find me.
i am cold. shelter me.
i am a child. show me how to be an adult.
i am innocent. protect me.
i am small in this world. show me a world that is smaller.
i am bitter. show me love.
i am injured. bandage me.
i am violated. find me justice.
i am invisible. see me.
i am made less than another. make me equal.
i am encrusted in lies. show me the truth.
i am orphaned. take my hand.
i am faceless. show me a mirror.
and so on.

if designers can heed these simple dyads and heal these universal proto-needs, i am not really sure what all the controversy is about. perhaps they speak with the tongue of (western, northern, priviledged) modernity, and that is why everyone misunderstands them so. that is indeed the babel problem. but to say that the language of design transcends this is not accurate. design, i would argue, must rediscover its proto-humanity, before embarking on humanitarian adventures of whatever sort. perhaps it's really not about design at all, much less the language of design. it is the opposite of the language of plenty. it is the language of the very basic, the very little, the language of "without".

more than retracing one's origins, designers should probably unlearn everything they've ever learned about design (afterall, it's the language of modern plenty). just start over...tabula rasa.

beginner's mind.
Gong Szeto

Informative article Maria and certinley one to learn from. Design is poetry and in my mind largely unappreciated.
Nicola Hill

one talks about 'beginner's mind' but then praises an article chock full of words that take up space. more action, less words is always the order of the day for real doers.
ryan cab

#designdialogue an approach to what design can be, or should aim for can be found here: http://bit.ly/cHZoYP

there is this thing called the "cult of action"...caveat emptor.

"The Cult of Action for Action's Sake", which dictates that action is of value in itself, and should be taken without intellectual reflection. This, says Umberto Eco, is connected with anti-intellectualism and irrationalism, and often manifests in attacks on modern culture and science.


action without thought is like shooting without aim. maria's whole point are the challenges inherent in describing and reaching semantic and cognitive consensus around *aim* itself. did you miss that? did you even read it?

Gong Szeto

....Good design develops incrementally, and in an unavoidably globalised community, good design projects bounce off of other ones. In these small explosions of technical nous and creative spirit you will see the materialisation of over-arching social concerns - environmental issues, globalisation, consumerism, ethics etc. - not as doctrinaire monoliths, but as small, individual investigations into contemporary culture.

A designer’s social responsibility - if he or she feels the need - is to ask questions rather than to place emphasis on problem-solving. Designers need to stop making simplistic overtures to saving the world; stop the mantra for ‘socially-responsible design’ that ignores the issues of religion, politics and personal taste; and stop seducing the consumer into believing that the choice of one particular design over another equates to sound ethical/political judgement. Finally, designers must stop measuring the impact of design solely on how big is the problem and instead focus on how important is the question.

Full article here http://bit.ly/cHZoYP

Third good article on "language" this week. The other was by Ralph Caplan.


Joe Moran

This article reminds me of the fallout from Frontline's coverage of the playpump - a 'design solution' for pumping water in small isolated villages. I think many of the coolstuff designs for the developing world are going to look in the future the way electrical health devices of the late 19th century look to us now - quaint, gaudy, hype.

As for language, great article and interesting challenge. So glad you published this piece. But I would suggest that before first-worlders go about redefining language, a more useful endeavor might be redefining affluence - to be something with a lighter footprint. Think of the benefits of such a cultural export.

Anyone interested in the language of GD and anthropology should read: 'Anthropologising Design' by Lucia Neva
it can be found here: http://bit.ly/limlang
Colin Davies

Thought provoking article.

I strongly believe that communities like the African Digital Art Network http://africandigitalart.com bring more 'bridge figures' together in order to encourage local design communities to take part in the creative economy.

Providing designers with the tools to voice their creativity is more important than just speaking on their behalf through these humanitarian design efforts.

Incisive essay and analysis. Thoughtful discussion.

Design writers do not usually act as critics, but as celebrants of design. Most are designers themselves. The bubble of communication in which their writing and their subjects act has its function, but it creates a fog that obscures their view of what others can contribute to the discussion to enrich the solution and its value.

It is uncommon for a professional argument to tackle the problem of seeing that profession's contributions outside the context of itself, be that design, engineering, finance, politics, the military, farming, etc. And that is worth celebrating.
Kristina Goodrich

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