How to Be a Good Designer, Not a D***

In Joyojeet Pal’s article, “The Fallacy of Good: Marginalized Populations as Design Motivation,” he states that we should “pay attention to what we do as a practice – designing usable products – instead of setting our goals at the transformative value we imagine offering to the user.” In other words, stay in your lane, fatuous interaction design saviors! He describes numerous “design for good” efforts as superficial, short-term experiments that serve primarily as professional development exercises for the designers, not helpful or even impactful interventions in underprivileged communities.

Numerous others within and without design have argued that many altruistic design efforts prove fruitless for a variety of reasons: because designers are not incentivized to build a deep understanding of the problems they are addressing, because the design challenge timelines are too brief to create meaningful change, because sometimes you don’t know what happened. You just circle back to an old stomping ground and realize that you can’t tell whether no one acted on your design ideas or if they were attempted but then withered away without the iterative process to improve and sustain them.

As a design student aspiring to create positive social impact, examples like PlayPump International and the High Line park in New York City engender both deep anxiety and optimism. Anxiety because all those projects had at least some unintended, negative impacts on the populations they were supposed to be benefiting, but hope because they show the power of design. We are not limited to creating better, more usable products because even the idea of trying to limit oneself to “just” improving usability is problematic. To paraphrase Jon Kolko of the Modernist design studio, our jobs as designers are to create artifacts and affect behavior, and cultures are defined by their people’s artifacts and the behaviors. Thus, Kolko argues, “Every design decision… contributes to the behavior of the masses, and helps define the culture or our society.” Our decisions are going to be transforming (in ways large and small) the lives and cultures of people everywhere, so we might as well concentrate on making those effects as positive as possible.

So moving right past “should we try to create change,” the questions becomes, “how do we go about creating positive change?” I have a couple arguments to make here which are by no means exhaustive of the possibilities, but which have been occupying me in the last few weeks. The first is universal and procedural: that designers must cultivate a deep understanding of the problem spaces they are working in through qualitative and secondary research. The second is that both long-term, structural change (e.g. shifting government regulations) and short-term harm-reducing interventions (e.g. corporate-sponsored charity and giving underprivileged people access to bourgeois services) are valid as targets of designers’ efforts.

Design Research Evangelism

An antidote to the problems highlighted above with superficial design-for-good solutions is rich, deep research. This means having open-ended conversations with all the stakeholders involved in one’s chosen problem area. Robert Hammond (one of the people behind the redesign of the High Line into a park) for instance, reflected that he wished he had asked residents living in Chelsea near the High Line at the start of the project, “What can we do for you?” rather than asking them more binary questions about what colors of paint they would prefer in their park. Then the mix of people walking on the High Line today would look less white and more like the population of Chelsea today, which is 30% people of color. Indeed, once High Line leaders did start asking, a resident suggested holding Latin dance parties there. The ¡Arriba! dance parties have been successful and well-attended by both local residents of color and people from outside the neighborhood.

In addition to embedded, qualitative research, using a tool like the Impact Gap Canvas can give you a good grasp of solutions past and present that have been tried in a given problem space so that you do not end up recreating old failures of exacerbating past traumas. Without doing this thoughtful and time-intensive legwork, designers trying to achieve social good are like drunken party-goers struggling to play pin the tail on the donkey. They might get lucky and hit the mark, but they’re much more likely to poke a hole in the wall or passersby.

What Should the Target Be?

In this blog especially, I am preaching to the choir in talking up design research, but understanding a problem doesn’t necessarily clear the fog about what one should do about it. For that, we ideate and plot our solutions on an impact-feasibility canvas. Here’s one I created to mapping the methods I’ll be talking about today.

Social Change Methods: Impact vs. Effort Required to Implement

Map Depicting Various Methods of Creating Social Change by Their Potential Impact and the Effort Required to Achieve Them

Government

At the top, right corner, the heavyweight of creating positive social impact is changing government programs and regulations. As Aneel Karnani argues in “Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: A Mirage,” the best way to stop companies from selling harmful products to the poor is to impose and enforce government regulations prohibiting or making it harder to access those products. The best way to ensure that everyone has access to high-quality health care is to force the government to provide that access.

That said, changing laws, especially the ones that undergird fundamental systems in our societies, is incredibly difficult and often takes years if not generations. Many hard-working people find their ambitions and optimism ground to dust trying to bring about change in government. Given that reality, designers are right to sometimes make the choice to tackle harm-reducing, smaller scale projects that do not effectively challenge the broader systems that create mass inequities. The willingness to battle bureaucracy and inertia is a finite resource in all of us.

Consuming as Charity

So, let’s take a look at some less impactful but possibly still useful methods for creating change. First: publicized corporate charity efforts that encourage customers to buy certain products because a percentage of the sale will go to some charitable cause. Setting aside the obvious insincerity of many businesses’ philanthropic campaigns, the question is, can they do good? Should I, as a designer, lend my skills to those projects? Problematic though it is to reinforce the ideal of consumerism with all the human and ecological tolls it wreaks, I would lend a hand to some of them. Buffalo Exchange, for instance, a second-hand clothing store with a branch in Austin, gives its customers who bring their own bags to the checkout counter a token worth five cents. The customer can then choose which of three local charities they’d like to donate to and slide their token into the appropriate charity’s box. The three charities currently on offer in the Austin Buffalo Exchange are a local environmental group, a domestic abuse shelter, and a pet shelter. Does Buffalo Exchange benefit from being viewed as a socially conscious company? Undoubtedly. But they are also encouraging their customers to reduce plastic waste by bringing in reusable bags, educating customers about local charities (by asking them to choose which charity they would like to donate to rather than just pre-picking one), and to top it off, they have given over $728,000 to local charities since the program began in 1994. Will the Tokens for Bags program uproot capitalism? No, but it does good in its own way, at a small scale. That seems worthwhile.

“Bourgeois” Social Services

Next, let’s turn to the recent trend of creating high quality services for people experiencing homelessness. Since the early days or public workhouses, souplines, and other services for vulnerable populations, there has been a tendency to design products, services, and facilities meant to help underprivileged people to be, frankly, crappy experiences. This has partly, to be sure, been out of efforts to keep costs low to be able to help the most people possible, but it has also been the result of deliberate efforts to disincentivize people from getting too comfortable with charity. And the clients of these services realize this and often opt out of participating in them because they do not want to be treated poorly.

Lately, though, the news has featured more and more efforts to provide disadvantaged people with the same quality of service that the wealthy expect. One example would be a restaurant in Spain called Robin Hood that charges patrons for breakfast and lunch and then serves fancy, high-quality dinners to people experiencing homelessness. Another would be the Jon and Jill Kerr Conway Residence in Washington, D.C., an apartment building that opened in 2017 to 60 homeless veterans and 64 low-income adults. This beautiful building has a gym, on-site social services, free wifi, the works. And this is just one of a few of these projects popping up around the country. The idea behind these projects is that there is an unquantifiable but essential value to dignity and beauty that will be effective in helping a few underprivileged individuals in the long run. In fact, the idea is that those programs that help just a few individuals will be more effective in the long run at alleviating suffering than programs with lower quality interactions with many more clients.

rendering of beautiful apartment complex
A Rendering of the John and Jill Ker Conway Residence by Community Solutions

These programs are too new for there to be any conclusive evidence about their relative effectiveness, but I am curious to find out what will happen. They do not try to change the way in which modern capitalist culture causes people to build their identities around the products and services they consume and interact with. They do not address the threat overconsumption poses to the environment. But they do attempt to change the lives of individuals experiencing homelessness as well as the perceptions of their neighbors. Indeed, the architect of one of these lovely new apartment complexes for the formerly homeless, Theresa Hwang, said, “Especially as we get closer to downtown, people are always like, ‘I don’t want you to build a complex that’s going to have all these homeless people in it, I don’t want to live next door to homeless people… Architecture really helps sometimes by showing it’s not a ‘homeless project,’ it’s not a shelter. It’s an apartment building.” So perhaps these projects that emphasize beauty and dignity will bring about their own level of systemic change, if only to undermine the NIMBY movement.

As For Me…

Examining these cases of attempts at designing for good has only reinforced the nebulous and situational nature of my task as I choose where I should work after I leave AC4D. Government, large corporations, non-profits – they all have the capacity to help and hurt. There’s no escape from ambiguity, responsibility, and the exercise of personal judgment. How exhausting, and how divine.