Embracing the Gray


Chaos Muppet theory and a room divided

Chaos Muppets and Order Muppets–what a binary way to set up the world. In Dahlia Lithwick’s article, “Chaos Theory”, she argues that the world is made up of Chaos Muppets or Order Muppets and both are necessary to succeed. You are either a swirling ball of chaotic energy or an orderly and structured walking list of rules. While some identify with one more than the other, I identify with both.

In some situations, I am an Order Muppet structuring my day to be most efficient with the work I need to get done prioritized and defined. In other situations, I am a Chaos Muppet, juggling multiple ideas and playing with ambiguity or jumping in a car for a destination unknown, calling out left or right at every intersection. So, what changes whether I’m and Order or Chaos Muppet? Context. Depending on the situation, the context, the event, the task at hand, I can switch back and forth between both types of Muppets.

While people might identify as more Chaos or more Order, the reality is that most people are a bit of both. When it comes down to it, the world is not binary; it’s not black and white. There’s a whole lot of shades of gray in there and we can’t just overlook that.

Gray areas do not exist just in people’s personalities, they exist in everything, including real world problems and the solutions we design for them. Products are not always good or bad, but most often a bit of both. Understanding how to evaluate the good and the bad is a critical step for design. As designers, we have to be able to understand the context, know who we’re designing for and bring them in early and often on the process, and as best we can understand the consequences of our designs on other parts of the system.


Symptoms and Root Causes: What should we address?

Another binary way of looking at the world of design, is that design solutions either address the symptom or they tackle the underlying root cause. Does providing access to a shelter for a homeless person address the problem of them being homeless or does it just address a symptom? Does selling clean drinking water in developing countries address a symptom or does it address the underlying cause?

Design can tackle a variety of problems, but just how deep can we really go? Common critiques of some designs is that the solution treats a symptom of a problem, not the underlying problem itself. It’s a band-aid for the wound, not the prevention of the cause of the wound. Some argue that creating band-aids actually distracts people from addressing the root of the problem. But, like everything, it’s much more complicated than that.

Take the Product (Red) campaign for example, in which, articles of clothing (and other products) are sold to help fund treatment of HIV/AIDS in several African countries. As Cindy Phu maps out in her article “Save Africa: The Commodification of (PRODUCT) RED Campaign”, this campaign raised a lot of money and treated many people with HIV in some countries in Africa. However, those opposed to the campaign argue that it is perpetuating consumerism, only serving some countries in Africa, and not doing enough to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. Here we have another shade of gray. The campaign is serving real people with real problems, but are they doing enough to address the underlying root cause of the problem?

Band-aids and  need to co-exist because long term systemic changes take a long time and we need more immediate solutions. So, how can we have band-aids and still be focused on long term sustainable change?

Design band-aids are all around us. Take trash collection for example. Is this a band-aid to a symptom or a solution to a root cause? Trash collection is so pervasive in our culture that it feels like the solution. It’s a band-aid. It serves to collect our garbage and get it out of our line of sight. Is putting our trash in a landfill better than burning it? Yes, in some ways. Five percent of the carbon dioxide emissions is from burning trash. And 40 percent of the world burns their trash. So, let’s not burn it and instead put it into a landfill. Well, this helps with the emissions from burning rubbish, but it comes with it’s own heaps of problems as well. It takes up space, there are leaks, and there is still harmful emissions as trapped carbon items breakdown. So, whats the real root cause? That we make trash. Trash collection is treating the symptom of the underlying problem which is humans create trash.

We could argue that trash collection distracts us from the real underlying issue that we create trash. We see it as a system that solves our problem of getting rid of trash, but does it just mask our true issue that we create trash to begin with? I think some would argue that this is exactly what this band-aid does.

However, without this band-aid we would have a much larger problem that there is trash everywhere or that people are burning trash to get rid of it. Should we do away with trash collection to re-focus on the underlying cause? No. Getting rid of trash collection would present even more problems and symptoms. We need trash collection, but we also need to continue to focus on the underlying causes as well. How do we create less trash? How can we as humans create no trash? As we get to the root of the cause, just like the above image shows us, the problem becomes more complex. The web more entangled and the difficulty and the time increases. The impact might increase too.

Band-aids or solving the cause of the wounds–which one should we choose? The answer is both.

Does this mean that designs should be thrown together thoughtlessly and put into the world with immediacy being the only guiding light? No. We still need those band-aids to be thoughtful. Designers need to make sure we understand as much as possible about the environment we’re designing for. This means bringing in locals early and often to empathize and to understand the people we are creating for, like Studio D for project as outlined in “The [Human] Codebreakers: What Every Company Gets Wrong about Developing for the Emerging World, and How to Do It Right” by Jessi Hempel.

As designers, we need to understand the root cause and we need to know the symptoms and ultimately, we need to design for both. The world needs easily implemented designs that help people immediately and the world needs to long-term structural changes to large systems. We need it exist in the gray area. A space where we can implement some changes quicker, but still understand the ripples of effect it will have on the system. At the same time, we also need to be tackling the underlying root causes of these symptoms. The large, complex beasts that may take many efforts, many years, and many incremental changes to budge.

symptoms v root cause


Selfish Altruism: Yet another shade of gray

Activism sells, but activism alone won’t.  

As Mark Manson describes in his article “Everything is Fucked and I’m Pretty Sure It’s the Internet’s Fault”, the world is run by emotions. People are driven by what makes them feel good. And like Alex Holder explains in “Sex Doesn’t Sell Any More, Activism Does. And Don’t the Big Brands Know It”, activism sells. But, unfortunately, activism alone does not sell. People like to feel good. The good feeling of donating might be enough for some, but if activism comes with another payoff or product, even better.

This is why we see a rise in company’s social impact. Lyft pledging to pay to eliminate their carbon emissions, Project (Red) giving money to help HIV treatment when you buy certain products. Businesses add social good components because people value that and it sets them apart from competition. Is this bad?

People may gripe that corporations only do good because it helps their sales, but I would rather have them do good for sales than not do good at all. If Lyft offsets their carbon emissions, am I going to choose them over other rideshare companies, yes. If they want to use my interest in environmental causes to make me choose them over others, fine by me. They might not be the best corporation in the world, but if they are choosing to do something good, even if it’s driven by their sales goals, they are still doing something good.

As seen in the Project (Red) example, you can get more people to do good things, if they get something immediate in return. Because people do run on emotion and they want to feel good. Some people will feel good and that will be enough emotional payoff for them to donate straight to organizations. Others want that shirt to wear, to look cool, and to show everyone that they did something good, so if selling shirts allows them to make more money for a good cause, then go for it. But be aware of the trade-offs.

As designers, this is something to consider. Are there ways to marry the immediate payoff of something and the long-term benefits of another? As an example, Austin Center for Design is addressing two problems at once. “The long-term goal of AC4D is to investigate and drive a positive relationship between design thinking and the large “wicked” problems facing the public sector.” But think about the short, immediate problems AC4D is addressing. For the individuals in the program, the long-term goal is one to work towards but the immediate payoff is changing careers and learning new skills.

People expect something in return. Whether it’s a product or a feeling of doing good, people expect something out of an interaction.

Designers shouldn’t be afraid of the gray space, we should embrace it. If we can marry the Order and the Chaos, the short term solutions and the long term change, we should because the world is in desperate need of both.