designing for = (designing with – commitment to a community)

This week we discussed the role of ethnography in understanding the differences between “designing with” and “designing for”. This discussion was based around readings by Emily Pilloton and Liz Sanders. The goal was to argue a challenging position related to these two design approaches, and we came to the conclusion that “designing with” does no greater good than “designing for” without commitment.

In order to unpack the idea of commitment, we chose to first consider the two methods of “designing with” that are put forth by both Pilloton and Sanders.

Liz Sanders sets out the primary tenants of co-creation by defining it as “any act of collective creativity that is experienced jointly by two or more people.” She divides the value spectrum of co-creation into three groups: monetary, use/experience, and social. She argues that the social end of this spectrum has the most potential for generating value through the process of co-creation.

Furthermore, Emily Pilloton illustrates a segment of the ethnographic process in designing for social impact, including proximity, empathic investment, and pervasiveness. While ethnography informs co-creation, this act of quiet observation provides meaningful insight that is necessary when investing in designing within a local community. Pilloton’s use of ethnography expands on Sanders’ methodology by making the commitment to living alongside her fellow participants in co-creation. We believe that Pilloton would argue that without this expansion of methodology, we run the risk of “designing with” being too closely related to “designing for”.

Which brings us to the question of what commitment means; how do we adhere to the ethnographic process in designing with a community, instead of for a community? The notion of commitment challenges a prevalent desire for breadth in choosing the more glamorous wide-reaching design projects, also referred to as “scattershot acupuncture”. Commitment in a community also allows us to fully immerse our own subjectivity within the value structure of the people we are working with. If we spend too short of a period in a non-local culture, we often don’t have the time to shed our own value systems in the synthesizing process of research, potentially endangering the community with an imperialist agenda.

Issues within a community are often time intrinsically tied to each other and must be solved holistically as symptoms of larger, more complicated problems. Staying to work within a community beyond the initial scope of the project allows us to gain feedback and tweak the solution to fit an ever changing context. When we commit to the project in the long run, we “are likely to have a larger, stronger, and even exponential impact,” allowing a more true sense of designing with a community.

Love, Cheyenne and Jaime