design existentia.

Don’t let our emphasis on “making things” fool you: Human-centered design is an existential discipline.

For the last 20 years, design theorists have been publicly weighing the ethics of designing with users or designing for them. User-centered tech is the newest frontier, but this debate first went global when design, well, went global. In the mid-1990s, socially-minded entrepreneurs began to look seriously at the systemic problem of global poverty. Universally, they came to argue that the existing global model of capitalism-plus-federally-funded international development was not sufficient as a response to rising inequality.

You probably know the name Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, inventor of microfinance, and pioneers. You may also be familiar with the names Dean Spears, researcher into cognitive depletion and economic decision-making models of the poor; Emily Pilloton, early adopter of the idea of place-based social impact; or Sally Osberg and Roger Martin at the Skoll Foundation, who in the mid-2000s led efforts to define and fund the idea of the “social entrepreneur.”

Each of these individuals, along with international development-careerperson-turned-journalist Michael Hobbes, businessmen C.K. Prahalad and Allen Hammond, and influential design theorist Victor Margolin have grappled with the best models for ethical social impact, and where design fits into—or drives—that model.


Poverty is a clear example of what designers called a wicked problem: something difficult or impossible to solve due to contradictory, incomplete, or constantly-changing components of both the problem and the criteria for success. Wicked problems do not want to be solved.

But it is clearly a problem that deserves the trying. And herein lies the existentia of human-centered design. If we agree that poverty is a negative for the people living in it; and that resources exist both within and without impoverished ecosystems that can help alleviate or solve this negative — what’s our next move?

Many designers, myself included, would say here: The people living in poverty have the best ideas and answers about what is needed to improve their lives (as all of us do for our own lived realities). The role of the truly-human-centered designer is to listen, gather data on people’s stated desires and their behavior, and work with the people to design what they say they want and need.

But human-centered design is still a fairly ivory-tower discipline. Who has the networks and the money to train to be a designer? Who has the portfolio and influence to hire design services before proof of concept? Do the people who could most benefit from human-centered design have a way of accessing these tools on their own, should they want and need them, in an unforced way?

(This tension is present even at our own scrappy school. Our class is overwhelmingly white. Our instructors are overwhelmingly male, though the students are majority female. And while no students have said this program is financially easy, the fact that AC4D does not qualify for federal loans means that each of us, to some degree, has enough of a social, financial, and/or familial safety net that we have decided we can incur tens of thousands of dollars of life-work expense for a year of training.)

If the answer to that last question — Do the people who could most benefit from human-centered design have a way of accessing these tools on their own? — is no, then we have to ask: How are we best to take design’s problem-solving approach to people in other places and circumstances without inherently doing some degree of white-savior unasked-for evangelizing? (In designer terms: How do we ensure that we ourselves are not the “non-native product introduced to a fragile ecosystem”?)

And if that’s what we’re doing … are we respecting the agency of the poor any more than an openly exploitative model?

Is your head spinning yet?

It turns out “making things” is a very intricate challenge if you believe that a third word is implied: “make things responsibly.”

To me, the designer who best represents one way forward is Emily Pilloton. Yet she doesn’t quite resolve this last tension, of evangelizing from what is ultimately an outsider’s position. Her exhortation to place ourselves physically in a place, and work from where we are planted, is to me the most ethically sound argument, that recognizes the agency of the user and respects their participation in the process.

But I wonder if we can take her challenge one step further: Instead of moving ourselves to places that we determine are in need of our services, could we instead plant our feet in the communities and networks we are already in, regardless of their wealth? If instead of communities of poverty, we exist in deep community with developers and designers and investors and founders and thought leaders … can we consider that our design field for embedded user insight? Can our design provoke those who are most insured against provocation?

In the meantime, we have these models to consider. In the spirit of understanding how these models would, and do, play out on Earth … this comic looks at how each of these design theorists approaches the wicked problem of poverty, and where I might fit, and why I want to play along.