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.

6 thoughts on “The Puzzle of Bruce's Zeitgeist”

Not sure how anyone could take that article and see it as an affirmation of your mission statement when in fact, it seems to me to be a critique of it—or at least of the possible outcomes of it, namely designers dropping into the Third World to “transform society” via solving “social and humanitarian problems.”

Dan –

The things Bruce chooses to write about are, in some respects, more important than his particular viewpoint on them. This is one of those examples.


Jon,No, I didn’t overlook the co-design and co-create literature (CK Prahalad was a good friend of mine) and I would never ignore Jan Chipchase in my blog post. The key question that I addressed–after experiencing the surprising negativity by Asian designers, officials and business people to some of the very best and most sensitive Western designers–was WHICH groups in the lcoal culture do we need to co-design and co-create with. Unfortunately, virtually no one commented on that. The best Humanitarian Designers collaborate with the people they are helping, plus a series of local, business and government elites. I was asking if we needed to find out who was angry at Western Humanitarian Designers coming into their countries, why they were angry and how that anger could be mollified so the good work could continue. I don’t have the answers, just the questions.

Perhaps it might help if we knew why so many Indian elites opposed One Laptop Per Child. Do you? And why few, if any, were sold in China?

I found the overall conversation surrounding the post illuminating but, in the end, disappointing, because so many rushed to defend and so few pondered the questions.


I think Nussbaum’s critique addresses itself to what are ultimately serious weaknesses with the Heideggerian (and Levinasian) approach. The “regular people” that humanitarian design engages generally the most desperate, impoverished, pathetic and dependent. Why not also engage as equals with the best and brightest of developing societies — their design communities, political institutions, local industry, etc. This failure does imply a racist, superior attitude that strongly evokes colonial discourse: we are strong and enlightened, they are weak, ignorant, vulnerable, etc. In other words, the Other with whom we engage is the inverse of our own narcissistic, arrogant self-perception.

The way the debate rages only confirms this analysis. The problem is seen as “How can we equalize what is fundamentally an unequal relationship so as not to come across as arrogant?” So the proposed solution is deep, respectful engagement with their unique cultural practices, etc. It is precisely this gesture which conceals the secret arrogance, that it’s automatically presumed to be an unequal relationship to begin with. “Even though you live in a mud hut and I live in nice Western condo, I also see you as a human being, and I think we can even learn from your unique culture!” No wonder that it’s the local designers that find this attitude so patronizing – they don’t see themselves as infantilized hut-dwellers, but as equals. When this perception is not shared by their Western peers, we shouldn’t be surprised that they find us condescending.

At the risk of sounding naive, I’d suggest that if there is a job to do, what does it matter who does it? Our corporate clients don’t take to condescension, so it stands to reason that our charitable clients shouldn’t either. But while it may be politically-savvy to engage the elites or technocrats in any design exercise, those same agents may be the unflinching source of some of the design problems we undertake to solve.

I don’t think I’m being imperialistic or condescending (or antagonistic, for that matter) when I say that the premise of any socially-responsible co-design effort is that those suffering most from the problem have the greatest potential to solve it (or be assisted in finding its solution).

I know I’m a bit late on commenting here, but would feel fortunate to hear an answer. Jon, I’m surprised at your readings of Wittgenstein. I know Wittgenstein for language games and the problems of fixing meaning *at all* (at least in the later Wittgenstein after he gave up on trying to formalize). He gave up on the project of universal languages and thus equalization is not ever knowable. As for Winograd,I didn’t read the workplace as the equalizer, but my reading might have bene shaped by the failure of the Coordinator system he describes (Winograd was my master’s advisor) and Lucy Suchman’s critique of Coordinator and Winograd’s interpretation of speech act theory in her piece “Do Categories Have Politics?” from CSCW 1994.

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