The Puzzle of Bruce's Zeitgeist

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.

AC4D Inaugural Year – a FAQ

AC4D received a very strong group of applicants for the 2010-2011 inaugural year, and they’ve shown a tremendously positive and pro-active attitude in reaching out for more details about the program. I’ve captured some of their questions, and my responses, here.

  1. Would you consider the intensity and rigor of the program on par with nationally recognized graduate interaction design programs?Yes; it’s as intense and demanding as any program you might recognize. The program workload will be large, but not overly so. I can imagine one working at a design consultancy that requires 40-50 hours a week of your attention while attending class; I could also imagine one working retail or service[restaurant, coffee shop] as a way of creating a definitive structural gap  between your work life and school life. As a point of reference, the program is 15 hours of “face time” a week [M/T/W/T, and S], and you can estimate that the out-of-class workload is at least that and at most double that. So, worst-case is about 45 hours a week. But I would bet that those hours are  fun, intellectually stimulating, and invigorating.  For reference, there are 168 hours in a week :)
  2. How would the design, brand, and creative companies you’ve mentioned on the AC4D website look differently upon someone with a masters degree, as opposed to a certificate? How much weight would the certificate credential carry in the professional design world?In many cases, I think what’s less important than the degree or certification is the reputation the institution has that offered the credentials, and it’s my goal to elevate AC4D’s reputation to be equivalent to a “top tier” university. It’s already getting there, as we’ve gotten some great coverage in Forbes, the New York Times, and Fast Company. When we review applications at frog, we look primarily at the portfolio and relevant experience; the actual degree itself is not nearly as important as the proven track record.
  3. In general, do you envision the program as a professional design program or as a program that teaches design approach to students who will then return to their pre-AC4D disciplines?  Where do you see, or do you see, people obtaining jobs after completing the program?I would anticipate that students take three paths once they complete the program at AC4D. First, students may return to their “old job”, but with a new perspective and skillset that enables change from within. I’m hoping the number of students choosing this direction is small. Next, students may enter existing structures of non-profit, policy, planning, and humanitarian action and drive a design perspective (which is almost always foreign to these institutions). Finally, what I hope for the most, is that students will start their own businesses, launch their own products, or create their own services based on the work they’ve started at AC4D.
  4. Do you envision that students will have the complete skill set needed to take projects and ideas beyond the scope of the year and actually bring them to fruition through venture capital or will more business skills need to be obtained?The program can’t teach everything in a single year, but my hope is that students gather enough skills, tacit knowledge, and experience to be able to launch their own companies. And the expectation is not that you do it alone – it’s also that you build enough of a network through the school (with other students, the faculty, and the large network we have) to reach out for help when you need it. Austin has a great set of resources for technology development, design, and entrepreneurship.
  5. Could you illuminate the types of backgrounds and experiences of those that have applied or confirmed acceptance to the program?I’ve been thrilled by the multi-disciplinary group that’s applied. Applicants have included a ruby-on-rails software developer, a visual interaction designer, an art director, at least four print designers, an MBA, a toy designer, and a systems engineer. It’s pretty eclectic. Nearly all of the applicants have about five years of real world experience in their area of expertise.
  6. Do you envision solutions that come out of the class being built into social enterprises or carried forward by the clients and partners?Yes, I hope so. In working with real companies or agencies, we’ll tackle real problems. As an example, I’m speaking with the ACLU of Texas to determine if there’s a way to help them solve a system problem of brand awareness, interaction, and access to information through a sponsored project; if this occurred, this wouldn’t be “an exercise”, as we would interface with the stakeholders of the organization and actually implement our ideas.
  7. What are your thoughts on building design capacity in areas that are more local and more invested in solving large social problems, such as training foundations or NGOs to use the methodology?  If we believe design is a process that can be learned by anyone, is it more important to figure out how to teach the design process in an appropriate time frame to local people in the country, location, or context where a social problem exists?Yeah, completely agree. The twist to this is that we need to be able to teach and do; the problem with “design thinking” is largely that it implies an exclusion of “design doing”. So we completely need to teach the various non profits how to use design to their advantage, but they need to learn not only the philosophy of design but also how to actually do it. That takes time and a great deal of passion (clearly).
  8. What is motivating you to start this?  I’m curious as to why you teach and why you want to solve social justice and environmental problems.  What is your philosophy on why these things matter?In one regard, it’s a purely selfish pursuit. I’m good at design, and I feel like my abilities are wasted by offering my talent to massive corporations that are ethically questionable, while there are obvious problems that can be better served. I’m very convinced that design education sets in motion cultural trends; you can see a lag of about 10-15 years from when Bauhaus ideals were taught to when they started permeated the world. The same is true for the form teaching at Pratt. The same is true for integrated product design teaching at Carnegie Mellon, and the same is now true for the “design thinking” stuff coming out of Stanford. If I start teaching this pedagogy, and the school is successful, and students are successful, I’ll have helped – in 10-15 years – contribute to the type of change I would like to see in my world.