Reframing"Luddite"&"elitist"charges against foodies

Just a couple links to think about in relation to our current food systems and the foodies out there, and I would argue you could probably replace the word “food” with “technology” and other things as well. I fall into these traps of thinking or labeling or prejudging sometimes, and often it’s helpful to check myself and my thinking.

illustration by Victo Ngai


It’s pretty easy to consider those who have the means to shell out money for good organic food a foodie, and worse a foodie elitist. Let’s reframe that. These foodies are leading the way, showing how things can be if we stop buying processed food, start eating real food again. I don’t agree with the author’s point about CSA subscribers also chipping in to pay for extra subscriptions for low-income families as a solution to getting organic food into our communities. But I do agree that we shouldn’t make people feel guilty for paying “more” for better food if they can afford it.

To suggest that advocating for such a change makes me an elitist is to disparage positive decision making and behavior…The victim mentality our culture encourages actually induces guilt among people making progress. That’s crazy. We should applaud positive behavior and encourage others to follow suit, not demonize and discourage it. Would it be better to applaud people who buy amalgamated, reconstituted, fumigated, irradiated, genetically modified industrial garbage?


At the same time, some people (including myself) are guilty of romanticizing the past “when we all had time to cook” or “when we didn’t have all these internet distractions.” It’s good to get a reality check sometimes and realize that in many ways, we are much better off now with our industrialized food than we were “back then.” It’s just an evolution of the processes in our lives, and while the core messages of the Slow Food movement may be applauded, it’s actually counterproductive to automatically malign certain technological advances that have given us fast food and mass production and whatever else. Let’s look forward instead of looking backward, says Rachel Laudan for Utne Reader.

Culinary Luddites are right, though, about two important things: We need to know how to prepare good food, and we need a culinary ethos. As far as good food goes, they’ve done us all a service by teaching us how to use the bounty delivered to us by (ironically) the global economy. Their ethos, though, is another matter. Were we able to turn back the clock, as they urge, most of us would be toiling all day in the fields or the kitchen; many of us would be starving.

Nostalgia is not what we need. What we need is an ethos that comes to terms with contemporary, industrialized food, not one that dismisses it; an ethos that opens choices for everyone, not one that closes them for many so that a few may enjoy their labor; and an ethos that does not prejudge, but decides case by case when natural is preferable to processed, fresh to preserved, old to new, slow to fast, artisanal to industrial. Such an ethos, and not a timorous Luddism, is what will impel us to create the matchless modern cuisines appropriate to our time.

Chew on that bit of nuance for awhile.

Learning empathy thru firsthand experience of discrimination?

1968. MLK, Jr. is assassinated. An Iowa teacher decides that her students need to learn important lessons about racism and empathy—and that the only way to do this was through first-hand experience of discrimination. Not just talk about it, but do it and feel it. She creates a system of separation between blue-eyes and brown-eyes in her classroom as an experiment. She also later runs workshops with adults, with similar results. Watch the Frontline documentary, A Class Divided, online at PBS.

It’s pretty powerful stuff to watch these kids turn against each other so quickly. And it’s interesting against the lens of Kolko’s reading sets 2 (empathy, research, responsibility) and 3a (information vs. technology, education).

Questions it raises for me:

  • obviously a spectrum of empathy. are there some lessons of empathy you can only learn through first-hand experience? (vs. reading about it, hearing about it, witnessing it, watching a documentary like this, knowing it on a cerebral level)
  • what is responsibility of teachers (designers?) to design (facilitate?) these kinds of experiences?
  • where does this kind of learning belong? when should it take place?
  • and then also all the slippery, uneasy questions of ethics, psychological scarring, overstepping bounds, etc.?

Softballs and Swords: The Personal Style of Prominent Design Figures

Every designer has a point of view. We work relentlessly to articulate it to the design community, and more importantly, potential clients. Each talk we give, book we write and design we touch is another calculated message meant to emphasize our perspective and argue it’s validity.

As a relatively inexperienced designer, I am fascinated by the way that well-known professionals choose to present themselves and craft their public caricatures. Their message and mystique blend as we consider the validity of the messenger. Some designers thoughtfully construct their haircuts and vocal timbre and others craft articles and papers.

On the one side, designers are passionate people. We care about our work. We’re not happy to sit quietly at the assembly line of culture, consuming whatever falls off the conveyor belt. We want to stand up, make some noise, and have a hand in the direction of the things. We are naturally curious and have to find out the answers for ourselves. This is why I think that a lot of designers can be classified as “Brave Knights”.

Brave Knights are driven by their convictions. They write manifestos and laws. Knights are warriors in the board room and assholes in critiques. They shoulder the herculean task of pushing quality through the toxic sludge of corporate culture.

The epitome of the Knight is Victor Papanek. In his book, “Design for the Real World”, he manages to condemn the entire industrial design profession, preaching responsibility and thoughtfulness to a field he sees as out of control. He writes, “industrial design has put murder on a mass-production basis.” He is driven by an unshakable faith and uses his platform to speak in absolutes and with sincere intensity.

Another example is Patricia Moore’s championing of the universal design ethos. Her efforts are heroic: a female designer in a male dominated field, courageously advocating for older and less-able users, and placing herself in physical danger to better understand her users.

Many of the champions of usability and human centered design are Brave Knights. (Jacob Neilsen also comes to mind). But, great designers are also sensitive. They have highly developed skills of empathy. Some designers build their public image around this vulnerability, I dub these “Softball Coaches”.

Softball Coaches are slow to speak. They carefully examine the larger implications of their actions and creations. They are happy to stand on the sidelines. They take a more moderate approach when expressing their theories and dispensing judgement.

Allan Chochinov is a good example of a Softball Coach. He prefaces his “1000 Words: A Manifesto for Sustainability in Design” with “I don’t like the word manifesto. It reeks of dogma and rules–two things I instinctually reject.” And his rules; do no harm, stop making crap, think about the consequences–are innocuous even to the most hummer-driving, meat-eating designers.

I find it difficult to speak in absolutes and naturally lean towards this Softball Coach persona. However, when comparing these two, clearly the Knights are leading the conversation.

I’m reminded of one of my old bosses, Sister Mary Scullion. She is absolutely convinced that everyone must have a clean, safe place to live. Regardless of income, criminal history, or mental state. She is not deterred by the practical implications of such a vision. She simply knows it is right and spends her life sharing her vision publicly and working towards it.

And it’s happening. She successfully lobbies local government and receives support from patrons who believe in her cause and her conviction.

This is what I’m working towards; complete dedication in a worthwhile mission and the fearlessness to shout it from the rooftops.

Chicken or Egg? User-Education or System-Implementation?

I talked a bit about this in my video from last week.

What comes first: the chicken or the egg?

What comes first: a more aware user or the implementation of a new system?

Before, I was all rah-rah-rah for education: creating critical thinkers and influencing people’s habits by changing their minds and teaching more awareness around sustainability to create demand for new systems.

Now I’m not so sure. Even if you ingrain “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” into kids’ brains at an early age, if they grow up and go to an outdoor concert where they buy a drink in a plastic cup because that’s the only container option and there’s no recycling bin at the venue, then they’re going to throw that cup away.

If there’s no system in place to support user awareness, then it is (usually) wasted. We rinse out cans and save plastic bottles at home only if our neighborhoods has a recycling system in place. We may put paper into the bin provided at work, if the office has a system in place to get that paper to a recycling facility. If the restaurant we eat at uses real silverware, we automatically don’t generate plastic waste. If the grocery store we visit doesn’t offer paper or plastic, we automatically have to invest in reusable bags. If the toy we buy has no packaging, we are automatically generating less waste.

I also think the systems can create awareness that can’t exist before. These are the two-tiered flushers in the toilets in my rented “green” townhouse in the Meuller Development:

As Victor Papanek points out in Design for the Real World, Americans have cultural blocks that prevent them from talking about the taboo subject of body wastes. Yet, if a designer creates a toilet with this kind of flushing system, and it is bought by housing developers who are trying to certify their buildings sustainable under LEED, then the end-users are presented with a new way of thinking about saving water.

Even if people were educated about conserving water all their life, they never would have proposed this solution and picketed manufacturers for new systems. That’s our job—as designers—to create the systems that enable people to practice what they’ve been preached…and to practice what they don’t yet know they need to do to save the earth.

And the examples in this post are very small and aren’t even very forward-thinking. Imagine if we thought bigger, about the foundations of our existing systems. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I might have more impact on the world as a designer than I could have had as an educator. As interaction designers, we use design tools to drive behavior change. As a designer, I can create new systems that have built-in expectations of more sustainable behaviors and thus mindsets.

Where does education fit into all this then? Emily Pilloton of Project H “believes the best way to design for social impact is to grow design thinking from within communities, rather than importing talent and dragging-and-dropping solutions.” Hence, her new work with Studio H in a North Carolina high school.

I don’t know where I land on all that yet, but I do know this will affect my preference about our potential clients, as one seems to be supporting an education-geared system, and others seem to have more potential to create new systems.

Expanding on our Universal Design discussion

In our last theory class with Kolko, we discussed and debated and tried to wrap our heads around: consumption, universal design, and usability. Big stuff.

I want to offer some additional notes about universal design. We read a very brief article by Patricia Moore, one of the leading thinkers in universal design: an approach that advocates designing products and environments to be usable by the greatest range of people possible.

This contradicts a well-known design maxim that “you can’t solve the problem for everyone,” and that it can even become counterproductive in terms of time, cost, and efficacy of the product itself.

It’s natural and understandable for designers who have experience in today’s industry to begin thinking of the constraints that designing universally would put on a project, and you get into circle-talks about not being able to design for everyone and the impracticality of the idea. The danger is if the approach of universal design—and its inherent respect for the people who we are designing for—get thrown out (baby with bathwater).

With all the big ideas we’re discussing, there is a spectrum of action: it is one thing to talk about them on a theory level, it is another to believe them and incorporate them into our personal philosophies, it is another to practice them in our day-to-day jobs, and it is another to try to change the system to accommodate for fundamentals from the get-go.

I came into class last night already believing that universal design is a given and should be included in the design process. But that’s because I’ve already thought about this a lot the past few years. I participated in AIR-Austin (Accessibility Internet Rally) twice learning about and designing websites for non-profits that were accessible for the blind and visually-impaired…and anyone else who uses adaptive technology…and anyone who was on a low-bandwith connection who wants the option of skipping flashier design components.

I also had the good fortune to take an education course called “Individual Differences” with Dr. Jim Patton during my semester at the University of Texas’s College of Education. A handful of years ago, this class probably would have been called “Special Education” which leads me to…

Notes on language

It is more appropriate and more respectful to refer to someone as a “person with a [disability]” instead of “[disabled] person.” They probably don’t let their disability define them, and we shouldn’t either. And when considering most things, before automatically assuming anything as a deficit, consider: what is normal? FYI, we cover how to differentiate instruction for students with “gifts and talents” as much as we cover how to adapt for students on the Autism spectrum or who have some hearing loss or those students who identify with the Deaf culture. (If you spent part or all of your K-12 education bored, more attention to individual differences or “universal design” may have helped.)

Bonnie Consolo is a mother with a great sense of humor, who lives without arms; she is not an “armless woman.”

Additionally, thinking about something like ADA building code laws, consider the difference between:

  • A person in a wheelchair is handicapped.
  • The person’s environment is what handicaps a person in a wheelchair.

(Are you disabled because you’re a biker, or does your environment handicap you based on your choice of transportation?)

Observation Opportunity

As part of the Individual Differences class, we had to take a tour of the Assistive & Instructional Technology Lab on campus in Austin. Although not all of us can go undercover as a person of advanced age like Patricia Moore did for years to gain the insight and empathy to champion universal design, we can do much to observe and learn about current technologies and opportunities in the area. The AT Lab is set up with rooms meant to evoke a home, a workplace, a classroom, and an early-childhood setting. One of the first things they have you do is tie a rubberband around your fingers to test out the silverware.

One thing that struck me was how much of the technology was not what we would consider “high-tech,” and I think that’s an instructive way to redefine and think about innovating. It doesn’t have to be a computer-powered gadget. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be a wider grip or a magnifying glass.

I would guess you could call them and arrange a tour even if you aren’t a UT student. If you can’t make it, their webpage has photos of and descriptions of many of the technologies they feature at the lab.

Doing it is hard

Designing with the universal design approach is hard. I have to admit I don’t have any experience getting a product to ship, so I don’t know of all the hurdles in the way. (Maybe that’s a good thing for now. I can bump up against them when I get there and not design with them in mind as blocks.) The same is true of designing sustainably and for usability and for social impact.

We’re spending a few more weeks synthesizing positions and opinions to begin to form (or reform) our philosophy about design and our role as designers. First we have to talk the talk. Then throughout the next years, we have to prove that we can also walk the walk.

Art of Observing?

“The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes” – Marcel Proust

I was reading “The Anthropologist” chapter from “The 10 faces of Innovation” and the above quote, which was at the beginning of the chapter essentially summarized it. I think the key to understanding human behavior, which is an essential attribute of design research is observing. What does it really mean?
I think usually, we see things. Observing is different. It is seeing things, the Avatar style (or maybe Psych style). Observing will lead to empathizing. When we empathize, we won’t design for them, but we design for us. Learning to observe takes practice. Observing is usually straight forward but removing the mind blocks and conditioning we have taught ourselves is usually the hardest part. Observing needs curiosity, wonder, objectivity and most importantly patience.
Saying that “I observed” is akin to saying “I truly understand”.