On the road with the best intentions

At AC4D our curriculum is bookended with theory courses, and we have arrived at Q4 and are embarking on our second module of theory.
You may ask, “What is theory?”

Richard Anderson and Christina Wodtke rally on twitter about what constitutes theory in “On the Importance of Theory to Design Practitioners- Jon Kolko and Richard Anderson in conversation.” Is there a Top 10 list of what should be mandated for a designer to read? According to Richard: NO. I agree, theory is personal; it cannot be prescribed. For us as designers, theory informs and shapes our opinions, instills awareness outside ourselves, and gives us purpose; theory informs one’s concept of what is good.

The first section of our course readings is organized around the theme: “With the Best Intentions”. When I thought about the core meaning of the phrase; I noted that most times I use it it takes the form: “… the best intentions BUT….”. In our readings failure of the best intentions can be rooted in misinformed actions, misinformed motivations, and misinformed solutions.

For Who’s Good

“Remember, people will judge you by your actions not your intentions. You may have a heart of gold, but so does a hard boiled egg” – Maya Angelou

In “The Fallacy of Good: Marginalized Populations as Design Motivation” and “Rethinking Business Plan Competitions” the line is drawn between designers feeling good and designing for good. Often times designers focus on their expertise of building a [technology] product and examining its use and overlook designing for what is actually good for the population. Both are good intentions with an empty effect. In design competitions, the rewards are misaligned for product success: winning is dictated by flashy presentations about solutions formed over a short period of time and business plans are not grounded in active operations. Simply put, this is the wrong framework and incentive for designing for good. On the other spectrum is Jan Chipchase who, as an ethnographer, immerses himself into local populations to gain insight into the culture and identify, actual problems of a population before considering solutions.“The Human Codebreakers,” describes Chipchase’s process and ends the article with a quote from Susan Sontag: “The only interesting answers are those which destroy the question.” We, as designers, only create good for ourselves unless we are engaged directly with those we design for.

Misinformed Motivations

“History is a better guide than good intentions.” -Jeane Kirkpatrick

Good design accounts for cultural change which means designers consider long term effects go their work. New Story is a company that built 100 homes in Haiti using local materials and workers whilst the Red Cross struggled to do the same. Wow- they solved a problem that a charity with over 3 billion dollars of revenue couldn’t! 100 Haitians have homes but their has been no systemic change to avoid the same problem. Problem solved? I say not for the long term. New Story now has a partnership to make 3D printed homes, which will eliminate the need for local labor; New Story is company in the housing industry. There are plenty of people designing great solutions for refugee camps, but the deeper need is to design for the historical problem: relocating displaced refugees into places of permanence where they can have roots in a community.

“Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”  – Peter Drucker

The Product (Red) campaign provides an avenue for consumers to help stop the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa. It works like this: I buy a red t-shirt at The Gap in return The Gap will donate 50% of the proceeds to the campaign. While this is a great mechanism to adapt to society’s consumerist ways, the consumer remains disengaged in the problem and the solution. Further, the purchase leaves the consumer with little to no education on the problem space and how to help. In “Sex doesn’t sell anymore, activism does”, Alex Holder highlights the corporations motivations to participate in campaigns like Product (Red) or run their own campaigns. This is a problem: People substitute consumerism for activism and companies profit even more.

“It is always with the best intentions that the worst work is done.” – Oscar WiIde

People are motivated by feeling good, people seek out comfort. For example, the internet has given us unlimited access to data, but is the world a better place? Not necessarily because people are seeking information they want vs the information they SHOULD learn. UX design aims to make people comfortable, to design for joy. In “Design Strategy, Product Management, Education & Writing” Jon Kolko writes that as designers we shape culture. Designers should design for values, not for joy!

Misinformed Actions

“The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and no good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding.”   – Albert Camus

As humans, we like to feel good through helping those with greater needs than our own. In “Reflections on Gratitude” we heard the touching story of a crowd funding campaign benefiting an immigrant mother of 3 children who was living in a shelter that resulted in 10x the financial goal. Donors weren’t satisfied. They wanted a thank you. Were their motivations selfish altruism? Some people want something in exchange for their donations, they want to feel good about themselves. The problem lies in that there is not a personality to systemic change thus the personal reward is less.

Take Aways

“Even the best intentions turn around one day… nobody’s right all the time.” – Stevie Nicks

NYC’s High Line adaptive reuse of old rail lines has been a massive success, attracting millions of dollars into the neighborhood. “The High Lines Next Balancing Act” zeros in on where the project has not been a success: for the residents of the neighborhood’s public housing residents. Whilst the co-founders tried to design with the community residents, in hindsight they acknowledge they didn’t ask the right questions to truly hear the concerns of the neighborhood. Within this article we learn about the mistakes of not designing at a level of local needs… FROM THE DESIGNERS. The High Line Network leverages the mistakes made in the original design and allows similar projects nationwide to gain from learning the history of others. For me, this is as close as we’ve come to “Designing for the best intentions” in our readings.