The Outcome, Regardless of Intention
As designers, everything we do from the type of problems we work on solving to making the choice of using a radio button or a check box stems from intention. Without intention, choices are made blindly causing an arbitrary execution. I believe intentions are important within design, but where the conversation becomes a bit muddy is when we began considering the outcome of our intentions. There are examples where, despite the best intentions, the outcome is less than ideal, and vice versa. This leads me to ask the question, “how important is intention when the outcome is what creates impact?”
One space where this question applies is when developing for the emerging world. Most people are familiar that there is a good amount of effort in assisting developing countries who are less fortunate than our own. There was an effort to provide clean water to people who did not have easy access. Michael Hobbes explains, “It seemed like such a good idea: A merry-go-round hooked up to a water pump. In rural sub-Saharan Africa, where children are plentiful but clean water is scarce, the PlayPump harnessed one to provide the other.” In theory this is a fantastic idea, except when the outcome is examined. After implementing the PlayPumps, Frontline returned to see the impact that had been created. They, “Discovered pumps rusting, billboards unsold, women stooping to turn the wheel in pairs. Many of the villages hadn’t even been asked if they wanted a PlayPump, they just got one, sometimes replacing the hand pumps they already had.”
The biggest opportunity in this example would have been to reach out to the recipients of the PlayPumps and learned how this effort would have been received. If the community wanted this or if they would even use it. It would have been discovered that this solution may not have been the best solution to the situation at hand, or even a solution at all.
There is another example where working with the developing world was in fact successful. New Story was able to build 151 houses in Haiti which ended up housing 1,200 people where as the Red Cross changed course after only building six houses even though they had raised half a billion dollars for the cause. The Red Cross, “struggled to attract residents because,’ the areas they planned on building were, ‘too far from basic needs like work and food.” The cofounder of New Story, Alexandria Lafci, explains, “This is what participatory design is so crucial and is something we incorporate into all of our communities. We ask families for their input about the location, the style of home, broader community needs, etc.” The findings led New Story to deciding to build their community only about 10 minutes away from their jobs and support networks. Because of this, the community was in a position to adopt the housing because it fit into what was important into their own personal life, unlike the PlayPump example. They are expanding to launch similar efforts in El Salvador and Bolivia, but the models will be slightly different because each location affords unique needs. Participatory design will be used once again to accommodate the small amount of income that exists (unlike the population in Haiti) and will implement a pay it forward model to invest in future communities. Once again, tailored to the specific needs of the population New Story is designing for.
A mix of these two efforts include the example of New York’s High Line project. Robert Hammond had the idea of “turning a disused elevated railway on Manhattan’s West Side into a high-design ‘linear park’. He thought it would attract maybe 300,000 visitors a year.” The problem lies in that, “he and his co-founder Joshua David didn’t really think about what the High Line could do to the neighborhood, apart from adding a little extra breathing room.” The project was successful in the sense that it drew new business and condos, as well as the expectation that it will generate $1 billion to the city over the next 20 years. Where the project was unsuccessful is that the park didn’t appeal to the direct neighborhood it was originally intended for. On either side of the park were local housing projects, which consisted primarily of people of color. The traffic the park ended up drawing were predominately white and mostly tourists. Reactions to the park consisted of feelings that local residents, “didn’t feel it was built for them; they didn’t see people who looked like them using it, and they didn’t like the park’s mulch-heavy programming.”
During the project locals were asked questions similar to which colors they liked, not necessarily what specifically they would like from the park itself. Because of this Hammond admits that, “ultimately, we failed.” Where they story begins to change is when you look at what happened next. This self proclaimed failure led Hammond creating the High Line Network, which is a coalition of designers and planners building adaptive reuse parks in the High Line mold. The entire purpose of the network is to further examine how to improve neglected neighborhoods, without pushing away they very people they intend to serve. A component of this organization is conducting listening sessions to hear feedback about his project, which started a number of new initiatives including paid-job trainings and further development on the two housing projects previously mentioned. These efforts are due to participatory design, which leads to a more successful execution of intention.
Another frame within this conversation is that of corporate philanthropy. One side of this conversation tends to lean towards a negative view that corporations are only incorporating philanthropy into their business model in order to sell more goods, regardless of the outcome. For example, the PRODUCT (RED) campaign is a campaign founded by Gap that has asked companies to create a red version of their product and donate a percentage of the proceeds towards the HIV/AIDS effort in Africa. One could argue that this effort feels ingenuous due to the fact companies are pushing commoditization as an effort for social impact. They see the effort as saying, “if you buy this product, then you’ll save lives.” In fact their slogan is quite literally “buy (RED), save lives.” On one hand I completely agree and there is something unsettling about this effort that doesn’t seem to fit the effort.
With that being said, despite some room for improvement in transparency, the organization has raised $465 million dollars and claims to have impacted over 90 million lives. It has allowed doctors to spend more time on their research and slow down HIV transmission. This is where intention becomes tricky. I can see the intention of this effort coming from a place of genuine interest in causing an impact, but I can also potentially see the motivating factor being that to drive higher profits via a philanthropic effort. This is a detail we may never fully know, but one fact remains: the amount of money raised to increase resources for a social cause. If this is the outcome with either intention driving the effort, then how much does it truly matter? An opportunity was identified to raise a significant amount of money for a good cause and was acted upon. Yes, I would love to believe that the effort was genuinely altruistic, but if you were the one directly benefiting PRODUCT (RED), does it change the outcome of the benefit?
Initial intentions in design can be come from a variety of motivating factors, but I would argue that the outcome is what is most important. Action can come from a place of good intention yet have negative outcomes, while it can also come from a place of poor intentions and have positive outcomes. Regardless, the outcome is what we are left with whether that be further conversation, fundraising, or housing for people in need. Ideally, we should consider the outcome while we are designing in order to optimize our intentions.