The Problem with Problem Solving.

I once went to a writers conference where Salman Rushdie talked about “the danger of the metaphor” and it’s the only thing I took from that experience. The danger, he was saying, is that a metaphor creates permanence in the association of things to ideas. 

I was vaguely thinking about this when I was trying to develop the narrative for a story on poverty. What would a person experiencing poverty say? How would they think about the relationship of themself with their circumstance? 

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The first phrase that came to mind was “climbing out of poverty.” It’s an oft used phrase that reinforces poverty, and by extension, the poor, as existing on a lower rung. It implies the upward mobility we all aspire to, the economic freedom that must be *just* within reach. No? 

In the attached story I use the ladder as both a metaphor and a material object to demonstrate how the authors we’ve read might consider the problem of poverty and how best to address it. 

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Beyond that… I’ve been thinking about the Problem of Pilloton. While I appreciate the long-term for local approach, it also strikes me as myopic. I want to ask, when that approach works, can it be scaled? How can it be scaled? Which is, really, the problem with problem solving. I do think there is an answer to this but I want to acknowledge that instinct also comes from a cultural and social history of colonialism and, frankly, a personal history with white saviorism. That what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. 

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I’m not sure how to reconcile the space in between but I’m continuing to reflect on and consider that the primary role of a designer is that of integration. Integrating language with the activity of it (Dewey), integrating context with content (Dourish), turning inward to self-evaluate best practices – measuring impact against intention (Hobbes, Fulton-Suri) – and, more recently, the responsibility of finding equilibrium, locally, before considering the bit about expansion so that can happen more deliberately, more purposefully (Papanek, Margolin, Pilloton). 

Lastly, poverty isn’t the problem of poor people, it’s a problem of power. We have a responsibility, as designers focused on the social impact of our work, to become aware of our power as gatekeepers.*

Thank you for reading. If you’d like to connect, I can be reached at 


*this was introduced to me by the People’s Institute for Survival & Beyond, in the context of their work in undoing racism. Racial oppression is one of the root causes of poverty in this country and becoming aware of our power as gatekeepers is one of their ten proven steps for undoing racism.