It’s a beautiful autumn day outside, top of 4 degrees today and slightly overcast . I see college students (super intelligent) criss-crossing the green lawn, kicking the brownish leaves, on their way to class. An American flag gently waves in the background. This is what an American college campus feels like, and I love it!
Since arriving at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, I’ve been warmly embraced into this campus life. I’ve literally jumped into classes, often not knowing exactly what the classes are or what I was required to do, but its often (thankfully) turned out ok. The two classes I’ve been in so far has been ones where there’s a mixture of student levels – from undergrad, postgrad and research candidates. What seems like a pedagogical nightmare to me, fellow colleagues shrug and accept this as how it is here. The breadth and depth that the students are required to perform at is also very interesting. For example, I took part in a class run by Kristin Hughes, Bruce Hanington and Tim (forgot his last name). This class is called “Design and Policy for Humanitarian Impact”. It has 20 students split into 8 project teams, a mix of design grad and undergrads, and some from the Heinz school of public policy, and a few from HCI, Engineering, etc. The inter-disciplinary mix was fascinating to see, and each group had to research an issue of their choice, which was very meaty and rich. I was really impressed by the quality of their work and the insights they’ve gained already, though was concerned how they would manage such a huge task in a short timeframe. Big issues like enabling teenagers to discuss sexuality with family members; creating hands-on extra-curricula activities for high schools; combined sewage overflow; addressing cross-cultural discrimination between black African Americans and Black Africans… that the students weren’t afraid to tackle these ‘real-world’ problems was great to see.
I also got to see Aisling’s class on Critical Design. Students had to create a fictitious campaign on any issue of their choice. Many of these were imbued with a wicked sense of humour (’Design your ideal man’ or ‘Electric shocks from a guitar to make you practice to perfection’, ‘A mirror that records and plays back’), and produced very convincingly. Some of them sparked discussions and questions about gender, race, values, privacy, identity… it was all fascinating. I was really amazed by the way the design students weren’t pushed in providing ’solutions’, and as research, provoke questionings and open further avenues. These are great projects that I could learn from.
The presentations I did briefly in Kirstin’s class, Jodi Forlizzi’s class on Service Design, and in Laurene’s class on research methods was received well (I think). In these presentations, I had aimed to emphasise the ‘imperfection’ of methods, showing instances where things went wrong and having to improvise but what you can learn from making those mistakes. Another bug-bear of mine that I spoke about was that methods aren’t always replicable and generalisable. I feel that some of the critique I made, especially about service design had ruffled some feathers… perhaps in a good way?
It started with a simple venn diagram…
The frustration I felt when I saw the presentations on sustainability at the research stream of AGIdeas is that there’s a limit to what design can do if its still locked in the same old paradigm of producing better products (eg. using less energy, using recyclable / renewable materials). Its what Fumi said at the DESIS talk – the explosion of eco-friendly market in Japan over the last 20 yrs has had a ‘rebound effect’ (offset from the introduction of new technology) making little to no impact on CO2 emissions (see the line graph at the top of the chart – in fact, the CO2 emissions have gone up over the last 20 years)
“Since late 1900s, Japanese industries together with academy and the government aimed to develop environmentally efficient products, applying eco-design methods. The results were so fruitful that the market was filled with ‘eco products’. And as a result, the total amount of material and energy consumption have increased, so as GHG”
Perhaps this is why the DESIS framework, with the inclusion of social innovation AND sustainability interests me. If design is about creating meaning, experiences and relationships, it is centred on people – not products – and so the processes and outcomes of social innovation needs to be sustaining for people and sustainable for the environment.
I then drew this diagram – an addition to the venn. I don’t know if this is ‘cheating’ but instead of the overlaps (which venn is good at showing), I wanted to visualise the agency of design as practice/process-driven. I tried drawing ’stitching’, ‘bridging’, or drawing a ‘cog’ but none of them seemed to capture what I’m thinking.
The ‘bridging’ resonated with me because of the readings I’m doing at the moment on social networks and social capital. There is a well-trodden hypothesis that innovation comes at the edge of a ’structural hole’. ‘People whose networks bridge the structural holes between groups have earlier access to a broader diversity of information and have experience in translating information across groups. People whose networks bridge the structural holes between groups have an advantage in detecting and developing rewarding opportunities. Information arbitrage is their advantage. They are able to see early, see more broadly, and translate information across groups … brokerage across the structural holes between groups provides a vision of options otherwise unseen.’ (Burt 2004, p. 354)
So, then I interrogated that social innovation, it being a field, but it too is also process-driven. That social innovation and design is, in this instance, the two sides of the same coin. The field in which it operates within could then be visualised as many – for social inclusion; disaster preparedness; community cohesion… bringing in stakeholders who represent/advocate/contribute different knowledge or practice perspectives.
Design brokers that process, bringing people together from different backgrounds, thereby creating a fruitful space for social innovation to take place. Because design always operates outside of itself (designers shouldn’t design for designers – that’s called incest), perhaps this gives them the ’structural hole’ edge advantage…?
Just found this really interesting article on ‘public wayfinding’ guerilla signages in N. Carolina.
Compassion and ethics..?
A few weeks ago, I was invited to take part in a facilitated workshop on ‘building a vision for Melbourne’ with Green’s MP Adam Bandt at The Hub Melbourne. There were a range of participants from education, like myself, and others from non-profit organisations, local government, greens members and various industry groups. This workshop was organised so that we, as a group, could contribute to this ‘vision’ for the city of Melborune and for Adam to potentially campaign and implement through his role and input in policies. We broke up into tables that each had a theme – sustainability, equality and compassion – and the groups were given roughly 45min to identify the problems and suggest ideas for implementation.
With the recent contentious Carbon Tax debate, this workshop potentially was a way to generate practical ideas and avenues to address sustainability and social inclusion – two key agendas of the government. The workshop seemed to be mainly greens/labor supporters – so no climate skeptics there – and with a one-sided discussion, it could easily promote an idealistic, skwewed perspective, which was a concern.
The workshop and group discussion sounds good in theory, but there were several issues that were problematic. I was on the ‘compassion’ table and with such a value-laden word, there was no time to agree on what ‘compassion’ meant which led to divergent interpretations about ‘caring’, ‘diversity’, respect’, ‘voice’, ‘empowerment’ and ‘empathy’. Broad generalisations were also made, for example, ‘people don’t care about eachother anymore’, or ‘people don’t have the time’, that also hindered a collective understanding of the issue. The conversation on our table was fraught with tension – those who had the largest voice usually got their point across – some talked over others – we quibbled over terminologies – and ironically, there was very little ‘compassion’ manifesting and being enacted on our table. I felt that the ideas that we proposed, was therefore ‘hollow’ in meaning.
Attending this workshop highlighted a critical neglect in our own discourse in design. It made me realise how ‘compassion’ or ‘empathy’ is a cornerstone for designers, yet little is discussed about its importance, possibly owing to the engineering, sciences or Modernist traditions that highlight roles and functions insead. Designers who have empathy for those they design for and with, are able to engage and create authentically trusting relationships, thereby leading to more meaningful interaction and outcomes. But how do we generate /educate empathy or compassion? Are these values we are born with, nurtured through our parents or taught through formal/informal education in culture/society? Some of these questions also surfaced in our table’s discussion and they seemed very philosophical and deep to be tackled in 10 min!
New Contexts New Practices – Day one
I’m at this conference and I’m half excited and half disappointed – today provided lots to think about but also ‘de-mythicised’ a few people who I had regarded quite highly.
I was excited about:
Service Design being a large focus of this conference – the conversation seems to be far more broader than graphic design per se. In Meredith Davis presentation, which I really enjoyed as a very thought-provoking, well-framed discussion, she talked about the broader cultural, environmental and technological contexts were design need to be in relation to (though I remain unconvinced by the example projects she presented – there was very little time to drill down deeper into them, which was a shame).
Talking with Ric Grefé, the Director of AIGA, it seemed like they were far more supporting and proactive in working with education, thereby establishing a stronger partnership with academia and industry. This is great to see. Ric was also of the opinion that ‘adjectives’ needs to be dropped in design – ie. graphic, industrial, communication etc – and focus more on design thinking and problem solving for design to have agency in more complex contexts. Though this isn’t a ‘new’ thing, its great to see this being advocated by the Director of AIGA (and, unfortunately, reflects poorly on what AGDA is doing – they’re so behind..!). Ric also told me how the role of AIGA isn’t to be one that gives approval and impart expertise, but their role is to ’start the conversation’ on this new way of promoting and talking about design, which was really refreshing to hear.
Rick Robinson’s talk was highly entertaining (and thanks to him, I know how to pronounce the author who wrote ‘flow’!). I took away quite a lot from his presentation, especially on being able to be ‘in-between’ disciplines is to know the ’structures’ that make-up your discipline, and then be able to push and play with it. This then ables you to see how it ‘fits’ with another discpline. He brought up a great example of musicians – the idea of improv and jamming – and the idea of being ‘adept’, which were all really good ideas to think about.
I was disappointed by the key-note provocateurs:
Shelley Evenson’s talk on Service Design – I think I heard this before – maybe on TED – I am a ‘tougher’ audience than most to talk to about Service Design, but she had said a few too many things that made me think ‘oh-ooh…’ and that was disappointing. For example, she talked about the dog that tweets, as if that was a good example of power of social media technology. She talked about some skewed idealised version of ‘people co-designing’ their experiences in Starbucks. Oh dear. She talked about designers being responsible to design the various touchpoints for the service delivery, which made me think of the total ‘big-brother’ idea of design control (brrr…!), and the un-design of any serendipitious encounters, which is inherent in any dynamic, living, organic systems. Neither her, or anyone in service design is talking about this obvious contradiction. She was clearly doing a ‘hard sell’ of service design to the audience and there was very little critical perspective that she brought to it. She also talked about the ‘bridge-model’ diagram that she did and published in Interactions journal – and I still have some grave questions about that too, in the way it ’sanitizes’ the design process and opens up misinterpretation that design isn’t iterative or involve a ‘double-looping’ learning process (Schon) in the thinking, making and critiqing.
Sharon Poggenpohl on design research – I know she meant to be provocative, yet, I just felt that I was lectured at – and I’m probably one of those in the minority (98 people with PhDs – wow, what a statistic) who have already ‘converted’. Tim made an interesting point later at dinner about ‘provocation’ might mean to take a conservative stance on research. So much of her talk was that ‘designers should read more, should research and publish more’, the ‘graduate programs in the states are a re-hash of what wasn’t understood in undergrad (harsh!) – so stop doing it’ – and what else, using ‘google isn’t research’. On it went. Clearly, her definition of design research was the way I have described it – the ‘Big R’ research and not about the ‘little r’ – emphasising the research that can be evidenced, made explicit, publishable (in writing) and what I would imagine designers running a million miles away from. Lisa mentioned how she thought it alienates people even further, rather than encouraging and supporting them into design research, and I couldn’t agree more.
Disaster Risk and Resilience
Resilience will be a significant conceptual framework in tackling immense problems facing our society and environment of our time. The statistics of death tolls, injury, damages and loss caused by natural and man-made disasters is unfathomable. Yet, resilience is not a new thing – I would imagine that our ancestors were extraordinarily resilient – but perhaps in the modern society, and in developed countries, we have begun to take things for granted. Just as our immune systems are beginning to break down (greater numbers of those with allergies), we may have begun being less resilient as well..?
In being resilient, terms such as diversity, modality, distributed systems and networks, and indigenous-based practices was highlighted as being key notions and practices for design, as well as the planning for infrastructure (which also include non-physical things like culture, energy, connection among community members etc). Though often, disasters that were ‘man-made’ and ‘natural’ were distinguished. Aren’t humans part of the natural dynamic system too? Humans are also capable of giving and receiving ‘disturbances and disruptions’, being in a constant state of ‘flux’ whilst trying to establish a momentary stability. Is the separation between humans and nature – a very cartesian view of the world – weakening our ability to be resilient?
The notion of ‘Community’ also seems to be a bit of a buzz word these days, used in conjuction with disasters and resilience. On one hand, it is perceived as an ideological, mythical concept – a sense of belonging. On the other, community is often used for pushing political agendas by the government, authorities, businesses and worryingly, the aid agencies as well. I think there is tension between the desire for individuality and being part of the collective at play.
I saw a documentary on Anthony Gormley
… on ABC 2 last night. I always admired his work – he seemed to be constantly pushing the boundaries of what he does. He said something that I thought applied to us (design practitioners / design academics) that as an artist, you had the responsibility to do ‘what was worth doing’, as opposed to doing someone else’s ‘bidding’. He said that was ‘easier said than done’, and its the doing part that was the hardest thing.
How often do we question ourselves on this? How hard is this to ask and answer this question honestly and with integrity, and then to act upon it? It requires a strength in mind, openness and confidence to begin that questioning within oneself - and then perhaps several years to actually take the step towards the answer…? ‘What was worth doing’ is the toughest question one could ask of one self – and obviously, its all relative, depending on one’s own ideology, aspiration, values, ethics and faith. This to me seems to be the crux of the whole ’social responsibility’ debate – a lot of that stuff is based on what others tell you that its ‘worth doing’, as opposed to creating a ’space’ in one’s practice where it can be contemplated upon.
zen, fire and the art of being a novice
The Birds of a Feather project on community engagement around bushfires in the Otway region has been very rewarding on many levels. I just thought I’d pop this thought here for now, stemming from a conversation that I just had with Jeremy.
Since our presentation to the CFA this week, I have been mulling over why they had found our workshop so interesting. My thinking was still caught up in the ‘novelty’ of the design methods we’ve used, such as the Playful Triggers and scenarios as a way to facilitate engagement and knowledge transfer. It is obvious that these methods, which I/designers take for granted, sounds new and interesting to others – but is that it?
Jeremy had an interesting point to make about this. He reckoned that there was something a lot deeper going on that makes what we/I do different to what the CFA does around community engagement and facilitation. He used the word ‘user-centred’, which on first hearing sounds questionable since I would’ve thought that our approach and the CFA’s approach on community engagement (in particular, the staff we spoke to) were both user-centred. He explained that perhaps we approach a context with an open, enquiry-led way that assumes nothing. We take the position that we don’t know anything, and we are here to understand and to explore possibilities. On the otherhand, the CFA are a culture of people who have expertise. Their role is to help, advise, and be an expert on ‘fire and community engagement’. He pointed out to the fundamental differences in our approach stemming from this positioning.
I then remarked that this is a very zen-like thinking. In zen philosophy, the higher you progress, the less of an expert you become. Zen philosophy is to achieve ‘mu’, or nothing-ness. One undergoes a process of ‘letting go’ the ego, possessions, facts and figures, etc.
I can be criticised and get caught in semantics, just as how zen cannot really be articulated in words. It does sound like a contradiction and a confusion, but I sense that there is something here that is core to any activity, like pedagogy, parenting, management etc. I feel that this has all been figured out thousands of years ago, with us still trying to make sense of this philosophy and seeing how it is actually ‘lived’ in our own lives – in our actions, our work, our perspective of the world.
Aylesbury Estate project
This project aims to preserve the oral histories, transitions and sense of place of its residents as the Estate goes through a process of regeneration. Teal, Claire, Joanna from the London College of Communication and myself ran a series of workshops with the residents to capture and share their stories.
I was amazed at how large the Aylesbury Estate was – its one of the biggest Estates in the UK! Apparently, the Estate is going to be knocked down and re-developed to improve facilities and house more people. This period of transition and re-development was considered a critical time to document and record the past and current life stories around the Estate, so it can be shared with others in the future.
The first workshop that Teal ran was with the Design Writing Criticism students from LCC. The students and residents took part in a breadmaking workshop as a communal activity to talk and share each of their stories. Some students brought their own cultural ingredients, like rosemary, raisins and cinnamon to make different kinds of bread. I thought that was an informal and inclusive way to ‘exchange’ knowledge, cultural practice, tradition and stories.
The second workshop continued the theme of food. We designed ‘invitations’ for residents to come to a story-telling session around food on special occasions. Everyone who attended had many stories to tell about food or special occasions. It was really interesting to hear how much times had changed since they were children (some participants were in their 80s!) particularly about what they ate and the lifestyles they had. I had designed ‘trigger’ cards of food as a way to facilitate the conversations, but its hard to know how effective they were. Many were so vocal and willing to tell us their stories anyway!
The third workshop extended both of these themes to capture the resident’s wishes for the future. The first session showed them the telling your story blog that Joanna designed. This was a great vehicle to demonstrate how their stories were captured and shared with others. It introduced them to this ‘new technology’, hopefully enabling them to tell their children, grand-kids, friends and relatives about Aylesbury Estate. Later, we asked them to write their wishes for the future on the cards I designed.
Some were quite hesitant but others were willing and there were very lovely thoughts being expressed in all of them. Later, they were clipped on to ribbons, like how christmas cards are displayed.
I was really interested in reading the post on Design Observer, ‘The Kindness of Strangers’ which is a discussion between Valerie Casey and David Stairs (http://observatory.designobserver.com/entry.html?entry=11177). Those who have travelled the long, hard, windy road of design and social responsibility have developed a healthy cynicism towards recent interest in social design as a ‘fad’. Though, 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 I think its something that humans instinctively do. 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 that one can ‘fix’ problems because of one’s privileged position.
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.
The project on bushfires is a classic example of different realities colliding with one another. Our team had to face tough obstacles and as a designer and project leader caught up in it, I often wanted to crawl back into my comfy little hole and just play with my toys… I understood that it was my ideology that was the driving force behind my involvement. But my ideology demanded that I moved mountains and continents. Surely that was possible! – it said. But after months of trying and being completely exhausted, I realised that it wasn’t going to work. In the end, the only way to get around the obstacle was to make it simpler and reduce the project to a smaller scale. In other words, cut out the number of ‘realities’ that were complicating the project and re-focus our efforts on assisting the communities in another way.