designing for = (designing with – commitment to a community)

This week we discussed the role of ethnography in understanding the differences between “designing with” and “designing for”. This discussion was based around readings by Emily Pilloton and Liz Sanders. The goal was to argue a challenging position related to these two design approaches, and we came to the conclusion that “designing with” does no greater good than “designing for” without commitment.

In order to unpack the idea of commitment, we chose to first consider the two methods of “designing with” that are put forth by both Pilloton and Sanders.

Liz Sanders sets out the primary tenants of co-creation by defining it as “any act of collective creativity that is experienced jointly by two or more people.” She divides the value spectrum of co-creation into three groups: monetary, use/experience, and social. She argues that the social end of this spectrum has the most potential for generating value through the process of co-creation.

Furthermore, Emily Pilloton illustrates a segment of the ethnographic process in designing for social impact, including proximity, empathic investment, and pervasiveness. While ethnography informs co-creation, this act of quiet observation provides meaningful insight that is necessary when investing in designing within a local community. Pilloton’s use of ethnography expands on Sanders’ methodology by making the commitment to living alongside her fellow participants in co-creation. We believe that Pilloton would argue that without this expansion of methodology, we run the risk of “designing with” being too closely related to “designing for”.

Which brings us to the question of what commitment means; how do we adhere to the ethnographic process in designing with a community, instead of for a community? The notion of commitment challenges a prevalent desire for breadth in choosing the more glamorous wide-reaching design projects, also referred to as “scattershot acupuncture”. Commitment in a community also allows us to fully immerse our own subjectivity within the value structure of the people we are working with. If we spend too short of a period in a non-local culture, we often don’t have the time to shed our own value systems in the synthesizing process of research, potentially endangering the community with an imperialist agenda.

Issues within a community are often time intrinsically tied to each other and must be solved holistically as symptoms of larger, more complicated problems. Staying to work within a community beyond the initial scope of the project allows us to gain feedback and tweak the solution to fit an ever changing context. When we commit to the project in the long run, we “are likely to have a larger, stronger, and even exponential impact,” allowing a more true sense of designing with a community.

Love, Cheyenne and Jaime

A call to re-contextualize "design-with" thinking

Ethnography is a qualitative research method birthed in the social sciences that seeks to obtain a thick description and deep understanding of a particular group of people. In the social sciences, ethnography includes but is not limited to: immersing oneself in the culture that is being studied, open-ended interview sessions using tactile activities, and analysis and observation of literature, films and other art forms deemed significant by said culture . 

Over the past four decades, the design community, seeing value in this form of research, has sought to use and modify ethnographic methods to better understand the users they are designing for. Designers have transitioned from producing something based solely on intuition, to rigorous ethnographic research prior to ideation and development of products, to co-creation where users are involved in the beginning, middle and end of the design process. The increasing list of methods where users are directly involved in the creative process have been put by the design community under the umbrella term of “design with.” This term is appropriate especially when juxtaposed with another method of design, “design for” where users are not involved during the creative process.

Practitioners of “design-with” can be found in Emily Piloton’s Project H design firm located in rural North Carolina. Piloton asserts that in order to “design-with” the designer must be “present, in a place, and part of the [end user’s] community.” Other examples include Christopher La Dantec’s work with urban computing and urban homless, and Bill Gaver’s cultural probes.

Because of rising prominence of these and other practitioners, design-with, especially among the design for social good community, has been elevated to being the “holy grail” of all design methods. It is viewed as that which both empowers the end user while simultaneously eliminating the possibility of designing some atrocity that will make a mess of everything. This is evident in the starry-eyed discussions held by idealistic design students and by the prevalence of featuring design-with practitioners in media such as TED talks, the reality-TV-show equivalent for socially conscious geeks. This elevation of design-with is unmerited. 

To illustrate our point, we can look at one of the examples cited previously, Project H Design. One of Project H’s projects is Studio H, “a public high school “design/build” program based in Bertie County, NC, that sparks rural community development through real-world, built projects.” Whether Studio H has had an impact  is irrelevant. In fact it probably has experienced and will continue to experience great success. However, it is important that we as a design community recognize that even a model as poetically beautiful as Studio H is still massively influenced, possibly even negatively influenced, by the designers who created the curriculum, teach the classes and assist with development. This is not so much a flaw in methodology but an acknowledgement of an inherent truth that we have stereotypes and preferences that we bring into everything we touch. While there are things we can do to try and minimize the influence of these biases, they still exist and present themselves at some point in anything we create or “co-create.”

So where does that leave us? Does this render design-with methods useless? The answer is a resounding, “NO.” Design-with methods are invaluable at developing insight and empathy that can act as great fodder for innovation and at the same time provide an empowering experience for the end-user. However, it is important that we, as socially conscious designers re-contextualize design-with. Instead of being the epitome of design methods, design-with is an umbrella term used to describe a specific subset of ethnographic tools. It is one of many ways of understanding users, and can sometimes guard against creating something awful. However, the harm or power of designers cannot be harnessed for good by any one particular method. Instead, we as designers need to always approach problems with a posture of humility while not being afraid to trust the gut intuition that enables us to make abductive leaps that can lead to revolutionary innovation.

-Ben Franck and Jonathan Lewis

Less is harder than more

During an exercise in brevity, I found a little inspiration in Hemingway. He once said, “I am trying to make, before I get through, a picture of the world-or as much of it as I have seen. Boiling it down always, rather than spreading it out thin.” And without further ado, here is my brand statement, boiled down.

Getting uncomfortable with what's comfortable

“You have to get comfortable with what you’re comfortable with, and get uncomfortable with what’s comfortable.” That was some of the advice given to us last class, and in that spirit, I’ve been trying to get uncomfortable with words and more comfortable with visuals. Thus, I’m resisting the temptation to launch into a lengthy preamble to this week’s assignments, and just get straight to the pictures.

The latest iteration of my brand statement, in (sort of) poster form:


And, some stories about how food gets from a local farm to the table:

a kid’s story about brussel sprouts

a critic’s story about brussel sprouts

a CSA member’s story about brussel sprouts

Less is More

In the spirit of iteration, we’ve been asked to address our brand with an economy of words. The result should be illustrated in poster format, using Helvetica type and proper rules of typography.

Our second task was to visualize one story from three perspectives through the use of story-boarding on Post-it notes. Our story is “how food gets to the table from a local farm.”
So without further adieu…

1. This first perspective is from someone making a dish for a potluck dinner.

2. The second perspective is from a farm volunteer who kills and prepares a hog for roasting, unsuccessfully.

3. And the third perspective is from a dog.