As I write the first blogpost on theory for my last quarter of AC4D, I must start with a disclaimer:
What you are about to read is purely theoretical. It has, of yet, been untested in the field. Any semblance to truth or facts are incidental. Please read with caution.
Keeping this disclaimer in mind, the reader should know this blogpost will be a discussion of how I am making sense of the articles I read housed under the headline “The Best of Intentions”. I will first discuss a framework for how I am understanding how a person might develop their identity according to design theory. Second, I will pontificate on ways an Interaction Designer might use his skills to build products that have an impact on identity development. I will conclude with the kinds of projects I might value as move forward in my career.
Identity Development Framework
The 15 articles we read these last two weeks focus on particular kinds of actors that are within/have impact on the build environment: design practitioners, interactions designers, design educators, design clients, marketers, MNCs, bleeding-heart consumers, and economically and socially disadvantaged populations. I was not satisfied cleaving this conceptual space as if all actors that we are discussing aren’t just humans within a larger socio-historical construct. Namely, from a design theory perspective, all of these actors have been impacted by the human-created world. Designers, though they self-importantly claim they can have a broad impact on the world, are also subject to the same dynamics at play as does as bleeding-heart consumer or an economically disadvantaged person (though, designers do have more power and privilege).
Looking back to first quarter’s theory course, I recall Vitta discussing how consumers project their identity onto the material world. He says that there is a “…loss of identity for the individual who is submerged on one side in an avalanche of goods” and that, “…he or she is constrained to use these goods not for functionality but as images of himself or herself to be projected toward the outside world as the sole contact with others.” This calls to mind Phy’s critique of (Product)Red. (Product)Red is a charity campaign in which consumers purchase consumer goods for a higher cost so that companies like Gap make a profit and what remains goes to AIDS charity in Africa. Phy says that, “”…consumers are sold on the ideas or commodities that exemplifies what they want to represent in their society through means of materials they own. With this in mind, the (Product) Red campaign takes on a … tactic to encourage consumers to purchase their products as a means of ‘doing good for the world.” Thus, a person’s identity is developed through their consumption.
On the other hand, one can see that a person’s identity is developed through their choices of what and how they produce. This is evident in the various discussions in the articles (as well as all year long) about the importance of using theory to inform my choices of projects as a designer. Of course, this can be seen from the perspective of the impact that the decisions a designer has on future users. But it also about how I may identify as a designer. For example, Pal says that, “practice working with atypical user populations or use-case scenarios, offers benefits to designers…making us more well-rounded…and attractive.” Thus a person’s identity is also developed through their production.
As you can see in the concept map below, moving further from how production and consumption constitute a person’s identity, we see that a person’s identity is also shaped by their relationship to giving and receiving. I define giving and receiving as the relationship a person has to the things they produce and consume. It is the emotional casing that an individual has about the things they produce and consume. Take the above example of (PRODUCT)RED, well-intentioned consumers make the choice to purchase more expensive products because they believe it is good to give to charity as well as purchase (potentially useless) stuff. This is also a discussion explored in an article by Karani in which he critiques the idea that selling to people at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) should be seen simultaneously as lucrative and as a way to eradicate poverty. However,
The poor are vulnerable by virtue of lack of education (often they are illiterate), lack of information, and economic, cultural and social deprivations. A person’s preferences are malleable and shaped by his background and experience. We need to look beyond the expressed preferences and focus on people’s capabilities to choose the lives they have reason to value.
This can also be seen in the example cited by Anderson wherein homeless people sell “Street Spirit” for $1 instead of just asking for money. The theory is that people feel differently about giving to the homeless if they get something in return.
Of course, a person’s relationship to giving/receiving is informed by large systemic issues involving social, economic and ability factors. However, people are people and my theory is that one’s identity is developed through the ways in which they produce and consume, how they feel about giving and receiving and are informed by the larger systemic constructs out of their control.
How Interaction Designers Might Use Their Skills to Shape Identity
As an interaction designer who might shape identity development, I will present three design pillars. The first design pillar is that of competence, or the belief that a person has that they can do _____(fill in blank with any skill). The second pillar is that of connection, or the ability to connect otherwise disparate entities. The third pillar is that of inclusion, or the ability to make all individuals part of a whole. I believe I can apply these three pillars to the way I outlined identity development to have positive (or negative) impacts on users. Ultimately, I believe that if I design using these three pillars, I can use interaction design to help more people have access to higher qualities of life.
The need for competence starts with how a person either does (or does not) consume and produce. Take Hanson’s belief that because the internet is an unlimited supply of information, “..people become confused or distrustful, they resort back to their basic impulses, their instinctual drive to be tribalistic and self-absorbed.” In this case, Interaction Designers have had a negative impact on a person’s sense of competence. However, more positively, according to Sen as quoted by Karani, designers can help build up a person’s competence helping more people have access to, “basic education, elementary health care, and secure employment are important not only in their own right, but also for the role they can play in giving people opportunity to approach the world with courage and freedom.”
The need for connection is between people, a key problem Interaction Designers can impact. Take the example of New Story highlighted by Peters in which people donate directly to a family in Haiti. Donors can watch as the project evolves. The cofounder of New Story is quoted to say that keeping the process visible was that, “trying to provide the most transparent experience to the donors, that also helped us provide it to our partner and our builders.” Keeping all individuals connected help to change a donor’s relationship to giving change and led to a super successful campaign.
Connection is also present in an article by Gordon and Papi Thornton in which they describe more effective ways to train future designers and have a positive impact is that they need to “promote a full understanding of a problem and its context to ensure that students understand what is working, what isn’t, where the gaps in impact lie, and they they might plug into existing efforts to solve…problems.” Students (anyone trying to solve problems) should try to learn about the (lack of) connections that are currently at play before innovating.
Inclusion (or lack of it) is felt through identity development. I believe it is an Interaction Designer’s role should learn from the mistakes made when designing the High Line and ask if the design, “Is…even something you want?’ Going out and getting permission, and then having the community shaping every ask, has [to be] critical.” It should be the role of researchers, according to Hempl, “…to allow subjects– users, customers, people — to speak for themselves.” It is incumbent upon designers to include all stakeholders when making design decisions, and look to those who are the least included to build inclusive decisions.
I believe that as an Interaction Designers should have an impact on a user’s identity development by developing designs around competence, connection and inclusion. The theory is that as Kolko says, designers, “…build culture through our objects, services and systems as we define behavior through interactions.” Interaction Designers may have a positive impact on a person’s identity as they change behavior around consumption, production, feelings about giving and receiving and ultimately, the larger systemic issues that constrain us all.
Possible Future Projects
As think about applying the theories I’ve developed at AC4D, I imagine the future ideal projects I may want to work on. Broadly speaking, I believe that if I design with the above pillars so that I may have an impact on identity development, I will help more people have access to higher qualities of life. I believe that people will be able to have access to more meaningful and supportive communities, quality of life services such as health care and education and the privilege to plan for future-oriented action.
As I said in the disclaimer, none of this has been tested but it sure as heck makes me excited to see what happens once I leave our small school and try to practice what I preach.