It’s week two of Q4 and our Theory of Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship class has kicked off with a curated list of readings that we discussed in class and then synthesized for better understanding, very similar rhythm to our theory class of Q1.
But before I go ahead and talk about my conclusions around the assigned readings, I want to share my personal perspective on why I think design theory is important for design practicioners. After describing the phenomenological and positivist approaches in a digital technology context, and the importance of designers to have them in mind when making decisions, Richard Anderson says:
Theory informs practice. Without knowing the types of things described above [positivist and phenomenological concepts], decisions are still made, but they are made with a less informed, less thoughtful consideration.
Theory informs practice because of its narrative based on other’s experience and research. Having a clear concept of theory as as a design practitioner is necessary because it provides a knowledge base that we can use to learn from other people’s mistakes and points of view. But it is mainly necessary because it helps us develop our own set of principles.
But having principles as a designer isn’t enough. In his article “Yet Another Dilemma”, Richard Anderson sheds light into a problem that I believe is latent in the design and entrepreneurship community; in many instances we don’t remember to follow up, and when this happens, we disregard following the act of following through. This translates countless hours spent problem finding, collaborating and ideating solutions that will never see the light of day.
If our role is to use design as a tool to shape behavior, it is our responsibility to shape this behavior in the right direction and follow through to make sure that change happens in a meaningful way. The way we should be able to do this is by taking into consideration the context and culture that we’re somehow “intervening”.
And this is something that I’ve personally experienced this in the school setting too. Like Daniela Papi-Thornton and Michael Gordon point out in their “Rethinking Business Plan Competitions” article, design students tend to focus a lot of time developing their portfolio, even though the projects are meant to address social impact issues more and more, design students care about the output that they’ll be able to show the world. But this needs to change, designers need to care more about showing the process and outcomes their decision making.
So many things happen during these working sessions, we come up with endless amounts of ideas, prototypes, talk to so many people, but at the end of the day, what are we doing with this shared knowledge? And this is where I wonder, what does it really take to enable change?
If we add a best practice to follow through on our design initiatives, make it part of our “design toolkit” – along with all of these activities and methodologies that we use. If none of this is possible, then at least we need to be able to set the right expectations for the people that we’re engaging.
If we get together, and ideate, but nothing seems to be changing, is it good practice to take matters into our own hands?
This is where social entrepreneurship comes into play. Like we read in Adele Peter’s article “Did this new nonprofit crack the code for building developing world housing?”, designers in this case took the matter into their own hands – they detected a problem and they decided to come up with a strategy to solve for it. They followed through and they’re seeing change happen. But as we discussed several times in class discussion, there is a justified expectation that taking matters into our own hands as designers isn’t the right path to take, policy and legislation is, which begs the question if we are fighting the right fight.
But what about practice and experimentation?
In 2015, I attended a design workshop in my home town imparted by a design strategist. Her method was the following:
- Gather a bunch of newspapers
- Pick an article that talks about a problem in your country
- Get a consensus within your team
- Start ideating a solution
We read some of the articles and we picked the subject of childhood obesity. In Mexico, 34% of children between 5 and 19 years old are considered obese. In 2015, a study confirmed that with a 32.8% of the population being obese, Mexico is now the fattest country in the hemisphere.
Our diet, once based out of beans and maize slowly transformed into a diet high in cheap processed foods. This is making our children grow up to be fatter than ever.
With the intention of addressing a nutritional learning gap, Woop is a product that was designed to teach young children to moderate their intake of food containing high amounts of sugar, which seems to be a task that is hard to do for parents.
A team of 5 people created a working prototype in a week, but we were so worried about having our prototype looking good for the presentation, that we never really worried about making sure if it was indeed contributing to solving the real problem.
And as I read “The High Line’s Next Balancing Art” from Laura Bliss, and reflecting in this past project of my college years, I kept thinking – who where we really designing for? Was it for these children that are prone to obesity, to change their lives and contribute to “change the world”, or was it for us, design students, that wanted a nice looking design in our portfolios that aimed to contribute to a meaningful problem?
All of this to say that we never really followed validated the intention of our design.
But who is a designer nowadays and who’s holding them accountable?
Design went from the traditional practice of creating tangible goods to a practice of systems thinking and it that has gained a lot of traction during the last few years. Designers nowadays have been inheriting more and more responsibilities because we are required to foster relationships with the people we are designing with. Anyone that detects a problem and decides to come up with a solution in a creative way, taking into account end user input – empathy building – is considered a designer.
So how can we keep designing and keep our reputations and stakeholder’s dignity intact?
Because we’re human.
But we can definitely try…
and if failure happens, then that can only translate into valuable experience.
We do need to make ourselves accountable and responsible for the relationships we build along the way.
Theory, like in any other disciplines allows professionals to develop principles which they will then apply to all aspects of their work. If our role as designers “lies[…] in encouraging behavioral change and explicitly shaping culture in a positive and lasting way” (Kolko, Misguided focus on brand and user experience), setting expectations before hand with the people that we’re engaging, and designing with is imperative. This will not only allow us to preserve our participant’s dignity intact, but also to acknowledge design as a user-focused craft to the eyes of others that don’t recognize its impact yet. Because what is empathy and rapport building if we don’t follow through with the humans we engage with.