Filed under: Social design, Thoughts on readings, User/Human Centred Design, on empathy and values
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.