Co-Design, a form of participatory design that engages with users as fundamental experts in their unique cultural context, has been a general part of humanitarian design practices for at least forty years. It’s had proponents that include Pelle Ehn, who positioned Co-Design (or “Scandenavian Design”) as a form of democratic leveling of the field for union-based trade workers, and Liz Sanders, who describes how “regular people” can make creative suggestions that are then further translated or facilitated by designers towards a culturally sensitive design solution. Many books have been written about designing with people instead of for them, and it was even the original name of the well known DR conference held at IIT each year. Co-Design has had equal enthusiastic backing from Shelley Evenson, John Rheinfrank, Dick Buchanan, Terry Winograd, Brenda Laurel, and all of the others who helped shape the core theory of interaction design that many of us now hold as true and base.
So it came as some surprise to me to read Bruce Nussbaum’s reflective piece “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?”, which attempts to cast humanitarian design as some form of genius-based exportation of value structures. Bruce is as seasoned in history of design academia and practice as any expert in the new “design thinking”, so I was surprised that he overlooked such critical historic positions as Wittgenstein, who positions language as a unifying equalizer for communicating values (in this case, between “designer” and “consumer”). And he seems to have skipped the Heideggerian approach from Terry Winograd, or the work by Dreyfus and Dreyfus – all of whom cast humanitarian design (in all cases, design in the workplace as a social equalizer) as a form of value understanding and translation, rather than value application. And it’s strange that he overlooked Jan Chipchase, of frog design, who describes how immersion-based ethnography as critical to understanding, much prior to ever creating any form of translation or pragmatic design effort. And it’s equally as difficult to understand why he cast Project H in such a negative light for not taking on the problems in the United States, as that’s exactly and precisely what they are doing right now.
Bruce is a smart man, one that I respect a great deal. So I’ll take Bruce’s article less as an argument against humanitarian-focused design, and more as an indication that AC4D’s mission statement is dead on – it’s in line with what Bruce feels is the new Zeitgeist of things worth writing about. Austin Center for Design exists to transform society through design and design education. This transformation occurs through the development of design knowledge directed towards all forms of social and humanitarian problems.