Tag Archives: humanitarian design

Design is Design is Design. Period.

In my every day interactions, I receive a lot of questions from people outside the design industry, confirming my belief that design is rather misunderstood by the public at large.  I believe there are numerous reasons for the prevalence of some common misconceptions, and in an attempt to explain a few of them I will likely only scratch the surface.

Though I am only formally educated in one design discipline—interior design—I believe there is much crossover between disciplines as far as design process, thinking, and theories go.  Each discipline—whether it is graphics, web, industrial, interiors, architecture, fashion, etc.—has its own inherent intricacies and unique properties but conceptually speaking, design is design is design.

Recently I was asked, “What kind of design?” in response to my statement that I write about design.  As I responded with, “All things design, in relation to society and culture,” I was met again with the same question: “But what kind of design?”  I then found myself approaching an intense monologue, explaining that our entire world is designed: the chair I’m sitting on, this glass, this napkin, this space we’re in.

Design is everywhere and everything.  This concept is lost on most, though I personally take every opportunity I have to share my thoughts on the subject.

Another recent question I received, “Why are you writing about architecture when you studied interior design?” again broaches the same subject, but I have to address this topic more specifically.  Too often when I speak the words, interior design, I literally cringe at the responses I receive: “Oh fun!” or “I always wanted to do that!” or “I need your help!”  Basically, it is assumed that an interior designer just makes things pretty.

Thanks to cable television and the invasive species of one version or another of Decorators-R-Us, many people think interior design is all about sewing pillows and curtains and—I don’t know—maybe choosing a new matching set of toilet paper holders and toothbrush cups for Sally’s new bathroom in her McMansion.  Alas, it is not.  Interior design is about making spaces where people will live, work, shop, play, and exist.  It is, essentially, the architecture of a building’s interior.

[It is indeed a problem that anyone who chooses to call himself or herself an interior designer can do so.  Some states have legislation regarding this issue, but my home state is still lacking.]

I must break the news: an interior design education at an accredited university doesn’t come with sewing lessons.  Technically speaking, it comes with much more “fun” stuff—like structural and mechanical systems, construction documents, and nitty-gritty detail work that has a tendency to make one (read: me) want to poke her eyes out and run for the hills.

In part, it is these misconceptions that led to my frustration with the industry.  Misconceptions don’t appear out of nowhere; there must be a bit of truth to them, or how would they exist?

On the other hand, it is mostly the idea that design is everywhere and everything that makes me both love and hate it at the same time.  The fact that everything we touch, live with, and interact with on a daily basis is the result of some form of design leads me to the premise that design is, in part, about power.  A clever designer can mold a person’s behavior, shape society, shape life.  It is, at once, scary and exciting.  As with any power, abuse is far more than a possibility; and is often more likely a probability.  Throw ego into the mix and what do you have?  Often, a disaster.

As a result of my discontent with much of the design-world status quo, I began a quest to discover the other side of design.  And I did in fact come across some people and projects that turn the “design = power” scenario upside down—making it a useful, rather than abused, thing.

Project M

During a visit to Hale County, Alabama to study Rural Studio, I learned of Project M—a program inspired by Rural Studio and its co-founder, Samuel Mockbee.  Project M is essentially the graphic design counterpart to architecture’s Rural Studio.  It is a program designed to inspire young graphic designers and other creatives to utilize their skills in a way that positively impacts society.  Project M’s simple motto is: “We just want to change the world.”  They operate under the manifesto that “ability equals responsibility.”

That, I can get behind.

During the summer of 2007, Project M participants took their work to Hale County, where they searched for a project that would best utilize their services. They discovered one-quarter of Hale County’s residents did not have access to clean drinking water, and determined this was an important issue they could help resolve. They created a program called Buy A Meter, which connected residents who were drinking from contaminated shallow wells to the municipal water system, for $425 per household. Working collaboratively, charrette-style, Project M participants designed a series of newsprint advertisements to solicit donations that would give families access to clean water. In addition to Buy A Meter, Project M became a permanent resident in Hale County through its Design Lab—a studio and workspace for Project M participants and visiting designers to stay and work in Hale County.

PieLab and (blank)Lab

As direct descendents of Project M, PieLab and (blank)Lab are prime examples that demonstrate innovation of ideas, and turning ideas into actions.  PieLab—in Greensboro, Alabama—is part pie shop, part community resource and design center.  With such a simple, yet beautiful concept: PIE + CONVERSATION = IDEAS and IDEAS + DESIGN = POSITIVE CHANGE, I can’t help but marvel at its innovation blanketed in simplicity.

(blank)Lab, working under another simple equation: MOBILITY + DESIGN = POSSIBILITY, is a mobile studio, traveling the country to unite communities and designers.  As the name would indicate, it seems to work under the guise of not specifically defining itself, leaving the process open to what may happen along the way, though the program’s intentions have been stated: “The conversations that will naturally occur when disparate groups are introduced, possibly for the first time, will be the catalyst for design projects meant to foster positive change.”  It seems, in essence, to be a thinking machine.

Project H

Project H Design (not to be confused with Project M) is a non-profit product design organization aimed at creating “initiatives for Humanity, Habitats, Health, and Happiness.”  Again, founded on the belief that design can change the world, Project H “connects the power of design to the people who need it most, and the places where it can make a real and lasting difference.”  Project H is run entirely by volunteer designers, and has a special focus on projects that directly enhance and affect education and experiences for youth.

Project types are wide ranging; to name but a few:

  • Learning Landscapes–a playground system that integrates math learning with play;
  • Empowerment through Food–an urban farming and school farmer’s market program designed to teach ecology, health, and business skills within academia;
  • Safe Spaces–a concept development project to create “engaging, comforting, and inspiring therapy solutions” for children in foster care.

It is projects such as these that have the ability to turn my feelings of cynicism to those of optimism.  I can’t agree more with Project M’s motto of ability equaling responsibility.  This is not to say that every designer in the world should work entirely in philanthropic ways, but I do believe it is important for anyone wielding the designer’s power to be cognizant of this power and what it means in a cultural and social sense.  To forget that design—in all its realms—is about humanity, is to ignore the core purpose of design.  To be devoted to design holistically, one must also be devoted to those for whom the designs are created.

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An unsuccessful design? Not so fast…

I’ve long questioned the idea of successful design, and how we go about determining the definition of successful. Design is a big word—much bigger than its physical stature would imply—so I’ll not make any blanket statements here about whether this question I’m posing applies to all things design.  I’ll just use a specific scenario as an example from which to pose the question.

I spent a year of my life searching for the answer to this question—as I studied the work, the process, and the people of Auburn University’s Rural Studio—for my own thesis project in design school.  I was drawn to this particular program because of its inherent humanitarianism—providing architecturally designed homes and community buildings for impoverished people in rural Alabama—people who, under any typical circumstance, would never have access to an architect.

Rural Studio is a pedagogical anomaly in architecture schools, as its purpose is as much sociological as it is architectural.  Students are required to leave their university homes and live within the small, rural communities where they design and build.  In the process, many societal lines are blurred, including racial ones—as white middle class students work closely with extremely poor African American residents.  Not your typical architect-client relationship, for sure.

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Typical home in Mason's Bend, AL | Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

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Typical home in Mason's Bend, AL | Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

I recently attended a Portland screening of “The Rural Studio,” a 2002 documentary about this program.  After having been to Alabama earlier this year on a research mission, I was mostly curious to see this film because of its relatively outdated status.  I realize 2002 was not that long ago, but Rural Studio has only been around since 1993, and when Samuel Mockbee, its co-founder, died in 2001, a change in leadership naturally led to an evolution of the program that wasn’t evident at the time this film was made.  I was curious to see how the program would be portrayed, and interested to view the film with my newly gained ‘more informed’ perspective.

By conventional views, two of the major projects profiled in the film would likely be considered failures, due to their statuses today.  But maybe conventional views don’t always apply?

The design-build process of the Sanders/Dudley house, built for a young woman with six children, was chronicled in the film: Interviews with students and the client were paired with footage of interactions between them, and footage of students physically building the home.  For anyone who believes in the power of doing good, acts of kindness, and the power of design, it is an emotionally heart-wrenching scenario to watch.  I observed others viewing the film, and could see them visibly moved.  I was moved as well.  It was the perfect portrayal of the entire reason I chose to study this program in the first place—because it is about people.  But I had this nagging little morsel of doubt, of defiance, swirling around in my head—because I knew what happened with this house after all was said and done.

As of February 2009, when I was in Alabama, the Sanders/Dudley house remained vacant, even though it was built some eight years prior.  From what I understand, the client—for one reason or another—did not like the house once it was complete, and chose not to move into it.  Her preference instead was the doublewide mobile home on the same property, adjacent to the new house Rural Studio built for her.  [One of the conditions of the Rural Studio “charity” houses is that there are virtually no conditions.  This home was given as a gift, with no expectations.  It was handed over, and the new owner may do with it whatever she pleases.]

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Sanders/Dudley Site: Rural Studio house on left; mobile home where the family lives on right. Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

Another project profiled in the film, the Glass Chapel, might also be seen today as somewhat unsuccessful.  While I know of no story with the Glass Chapel as dramatic as the story of the Sanders/Dudley house, the building appears as though maybe it’s unused, with the surrounding vegetation taking over a bit.  Regardless of its status today, my preference with this building is to sing its praises, as I believe it is a beautiful display of architectural ingenuity—of turning trash into something useful.  With a rammed earth structure made from local clay, and a roof composed of 1980s GMC sedan windows salvaged from a scrap yard, this building speaks volumes about what can be created with material resourcefulness.  For that reason, it is probably my favorite Rural Studio building.

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Glass Chapel: roof of salvaged car windows | Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

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Glass Chapel in Mason's Bend, AL | Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

The film—again—profiled the creation of the Glass Chapel in an emotionally riveting way.  Students were seen playing with local children during the process, and neighbors were frequently on-site, interacting with the students.  The students were working tirelessly, in extremely unforgiving heat.  They were dedicated to the job, and it came across loud and clear that a big part of the reason why they cared about what they were doing was because they cared about the people for whom they were doing it.

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Music Man and his Rural Studio house. Much of the materials were gathered/found on-site. Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

The most important thing I have learned through studying Rural Studio is that—often—our definitions of success and of beauty could stand some reworking.  Nothing taught me more about this than my meeting with Music Man, at his Rural Studio designed and built home.  Music Man is a legendary character in Hale County, Alabama, and rightfully so.  I’ve never felt quite so fortunate to have met anyone, as I do to have met him.  He really made me rethink my whole paradigm.  Following is an excerpt from an essay in my thesis project, about Music Man and this subject of successful design and beauty:

Music Man is truly an enigma.  He defies all logic and typical preconceived ideas about poverty and its people.  Music Man’s love for life simply blows my mind, and causes serious reflection on the things upon which we typically place value.

How do we define successful design?  And what is beautiful?  If a design is serving its purpose—a safe, structurally sound shelter that is beautiful and functional to its user—dare we call it unsuccessful simply because it hasn’t changed or “bettered” its user’s way of living?  Are we really so judgmental, and so predisposed to the idea that sterility equals beauty, that we can’t accept another human being’s way of living?  If Music Man’s house is filled to its gills with items we’d assume are junk, does that mean the design of his house was unsuccessful?

As designers, we are trained to be problem-solvers.  But as societal sheep, we are trained to think, act, live, and breathe conventionally.  We are stifled.  We are caged.  We are often boring and dull.  We work with prescriptions.  We are afraid.  We are weak.  We are out of touch with humanity.  We are touched by objects, by buildings, by light, by form, by shape, by texture.  And yet we forget to be touched by the people for whom we create these objects, buildings, light, form, shape, and texture.

How about we reconsider the notion of successful design, and most certainly the notion of beauty?

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Music Man and Me | Feb 2009

Climate Change: It’s About Humans, After All

This post is part of Blog Action Day ’09, a worldwide event with thousands of bloggers writing about one topic–climate change–today.

As much as I am a lover of concepts and theories, sometimes it is important to put human faces to these abstract concepts we concern ourselves with.  Climate change is one of those issues; it is often faceless, nameless, not human.

While climate change is not directly an issue I choose to rant about with any regular or particular fervor, poverty is.  And the two are more directly related than is often realized.  As with many issues faced by world citizens, the poor bear the worst brunt, and they often are not the most significant causers.  If I can do nothing more than be a voice for the poor, who are often voiceless, I will at least feel that I’ve done something.  The truth is that my regular life, my regular education, my regular privilege—all give me the opportunity to speak.  The poor don’t usually have this opportunity, because without privilege, education, and the confidence born from them, no one wants to listen.

I prefer to take the stance that climate change is a humanitarian issue, not just an environmental one.  Maybe it seems a bit moronic, and blatantly apparent to state that humans and environment must cohabitate peacefully, but I still believe it needs to be said.  I’m constantly drowning in drivel and droning about greenhouse gases, global warming, peak oil, the evil of cars, conserving water, sustainable-this, sustainable-that, eco-this, eco-that, green-this, green-that—but rarely, if ever do I hear anyone talk about what any of this means, and who it’s really going to affect.

The truth is, those who will suffer most from the effects of climate change are—you guessed it—the poor.  And the even sadder truth is that they are, in most cases, the smallest contributors to the problem.

I could say that design is just a small piece of the climate change puzzle.  But I like to think big.  Holistically.  Outside the box.  And so I will say that design is the entire puzzle.  Pretty much everything we look at, touch, inhabit, drive, ride, wear, write on, write with, type on, research with, eat from, drink from—is designed. Our lifestyles have been designed.  Designers shape the world by creating the things we live with.

It’s a powerful position to be in—and as with any power—it can be abused.

This topic is so vast that my monologue could become a book if I’m not careful, so now I’ll have to reel it in a bit.  In order to make this effective, I have to simplify to ideas, not details.

It is my opinion that most of the current tactics we employ for being ecologically conscious are simply futile and not effective.  I don’t think it’s enough to merely utilize different products and materials that allow us to continue going on about our lives in a “business as usual” kind of way.  I believe that if we truly want to have an impact on climate change, we must change our behavior.  We must redesign the way we live.  The great thing is that it’s possible.  If we were able to design our lives as they are now, why can’t we redesign them to effectively survive our current and future environmental conditions?  We are humans, after all.  We are adaptable.

On the other hand, the unfortunate part about this is that I believe it requires doing less, not more.  We can’t continue to be consumers of objects and things the way we currently are.  We can’t continue to build and make and build and make at the rate we currently are.  What this really means is that we can’t design the way we currently are.

It is far more sustainable to reuse and adapt what we already have—buildings and objects—than to create new ones, no matter how the new ones are made.

So what does this mean for designers?  Honestly, I’m not sure.  But I believe that if the focus of our intentions changes, the work that is spawned will follow suit.  If you keep in mind the faces of the innocent human beings your work will affect, chances are you will come up with a solution that may hurt them less.  If you recognize that every action you take has a resulting reaction—even though it may be one you can’t see—chances are you’ll make different choices.  If you consider that by designing or using something wasteful, someone across the globe may lose his access to food, water, and shelter—maybe you’ll reconsider.

Really, it’s a simple set of solutions, but it’s a complicated world we live in.  And while the optimist in me believes all this is possible, the cynic in me believes it is not probable.  We are, in fact, adaptable but we are also a species like all others—which means “survival of the fittest” is at play.  In this case, I’m afraid those who are fittest are those who have the most money.

Think back to Hurricane Katrina.  Who suffered the most?  Those who were most poor. Those who didn’t have the means to escape in time, simply didn’t.

There is an entire population of people, spread far and wide across the globe, who don’t have the tools, technology, or money to deal with the ramifications of our gluttonous lifestyles.  So if we won’t make drastic changes and sacrifices for the sake of the Earth, how about for the sake of the innocent people who will die if we don’t?

A “Hippocratic Oath” for Designers?

Sometimes, not much needs to be said.

Mainly, I just want to pass along another person’s genius.  Emily Pilloton launched Project H Design–an organization that works on industrial design solutions to address social and humanitarian concerns–last year, at the age of 26.  “The Designer’s Handshake” is a sort of “Hippocratic Oath” for designers that is part of her new book, Design Revolution.

I couldn’t have said it better myself, so here it is, in her words:

The Designer’s Handshake

(excerpt from Design Revolution by Emily Pilloton)

I, as an individual engaged within a greater design community, promise to try, to the best of my ability, to commit and adhere to the following principles within my work and life as a designer:

To go beyond doing no harm:

I will engage only in design activities that improve life, both environmental and human. I will recognize that design that does not improve life is a form of apathy and that “doing no harm” is not enough. I will engage only in design processes that are respectful, generative, catalytic, and productive.

To listen, learn, and understand:

I recognize that every client, partner, or stranger is someone to learn from. I will listen before assuming. I will seek to understand the historical, geographical, social, cultural, and economic context and precedents before beginning the design process.

To measure, share, and teach:

I will measure results quantitatively and qualitatively. I will, as appropriate, make my best practices, successes, tools, and failures available to colleagues for community-based learning.

To empower, heal, and catalyze:

I will use design as a tool to empower people, to make life better, to bring health and improve life, and to enable users to help themselves. I will seek out systemic solutions over quick fixes.

To be optimistic but critical:

I will employ perpetual optimism as a design and business strategy but will apply the same critical evaluation toward social and humanitarian design work that I would any other product. Just because it’s “for the greater good” doesn’t make it good design.

To think big and have no fear:

I will take calculated risks and not be afraid to use design as a tool for change. I will explore new models for how design can have the greatest impact for the greatest number.

To serve the under-served:

I will look first to demographics underserved by design and propose viable solutions for such groups as the homeless, the sick, the ailing, the young and old, the handicapped, poor, and incapacitated.

To not reinvent the wheel:

When something works well, I will not assume I can or should start from scratch. I will use what it is available to me and look to local resources, skill sets, and materials.

To not do what I don’t know:

I will acknowledge the limits of my expertise and will not hesitate to say “no” or to pass projects to another designer who may do a better job.

To always put the user first:

I will always place need over consumption and the human being over the market. I will consider human value, experience, and consequence above all else.

To do good business with good people:

I will be honorable in business and partnerships. I will build distribution into my design, and employ businesses that maximize social impact. I will align myself and work with individuals and groups who have the same values as I do.

To own up and repair:

I will take responsibility for any failures or mistakes I may make and take measures to repair and understand my errors.

To be part of a greater whole:

I will remember that I am a part of a system and a community of designers, users, clients, and global citizens. I will recognize that my individual decisions affect this greater group, and that I have a responsibility to contribute productively.