Design Crusades: A Critical Reflection on Social Design
In the last few years, part of the design field has geared efforts towards the social sector, aiming to improve the lives of people in extreme need—the underprivileged, the needy, the poor—by producing meaningful, lasting change through systems and objects. Like humanitarian aid, social design hinges, and effectively depends, on the notion of the “other” as its benefactor, implying that the West can save the rest of the world. Inherently flawed, this idea of Western superiority fails to consider the “other’s” perspective, consistently stereotyping a user belonging to a different socio-economic context, with different values and culture. Failing to understand his user, the social designer will incorrectly apply his skills, rendering all outcomes problematic.
“Success” was a crucial element in the projects included at The Museum of Modern Art’s Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement 2010 exhibit, one of the MoMA’s initial forays into the world of social design, recognizing the importance of this emerging field. On a sunny September morning in 2010, architecture curator Andres Lepik stood behind a small podium in a light gray suit introducing the exhibition, and assured all journalists and architects present that he had personally visited each and every one of the 11 projects included in the show, to guarantee their success. As to what exactly Lepik’s criteria were, we were not told. As you entered the Special Exhibitions Gallery, on the third floor, the corridor wall to your right prominently featured a map showing the distribution of the projects on display—seven of them in the developing world, all bringing “innovative architecture to underserved communities”—complete with cost and year of construction. Inside the gallery’s pale blue walls, display was democratized. Blown-up photos introduced each project, and you could analyze architect’s statements and sketchbooks, project models and videos that varied in content. For an exhibition that sought to “offer a redefining of the architect’s role and responsibility to society,” Small Scale was not so different from every other architecture show before it.
Missing from the models and sketches was information about the particular context and narrative of each project. Most projects didn’t even have a map of the location and what surrounds it, and it is hard to believe that every museumgoer understands the concept of a township in South Africa, a barrio in Venezuela or a village in Bangladesh. Lepik offers in the exhibition catalogue that “each project is the result of a dialogue in which the architect cedes part of his or her authority to others, marking an important departure from the modernist ideal,” but the only project on the show explicit about its process was the Quinta Monroy Housing in the small town of Iquique, Chile, by local architecture firm Elemental. A row of impromptu stereoscopes mounted along a wall told the story of how success, in this case, relied on pragmatism and full cooperation between the architects and the residents from the beginning. On the opposing wall, a video gave a sense of place and of who the members of this community were. The overblown image on the wall showed a bare, geometric succession of buildings, no people in sight.
Almost all of the other projects on display in Small Scale featured photographs of at least one smiling, colored person, seemingly jubilant at the architect’s gift. Bangladeshi children stared innocently at the camera—and at us—in Anna Haeringer’s METI Handmade School. Venezuelan kids shared a hilarious joke sitting in Urban Think-Tank’s Metro Cable in Caracas. These images exploit the population served by using them as proof of the project’s success. If the kids in the developing world are smiling at the moment of the snapshot, then we museumgoers are to believe that everything is fine. These people hang in timeless limbo, their positive futures inferred. All other information is not of immediate concern. However, “to fly the flag of social engagement you do indeed need to move beyond looks,” architecture critic Alexandra Lange noted in a review of the show. For Small Scale, this would mean providing context and process information for each project, bringing the architects down from their pedestals and transforming this exhibition into a celebration of collaboration, signaling indeed the “conviction that good design is not a privilege of the few and powerful.”
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“It is always more complex than what it seems,” offers Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, referring to the major lesson he has learned from working for the social sector. “Therefore a willingness to dig into complexity, a willingness to embrace it and understand it, and then somehow cut through it and do something tangible on the other side, is a skill you need as a designer in the social sector. If what you want is somebody to come and give you a simple brief that you can then go away with and create a wonderful design from and hand it back at the end, then you’ll be disappointed working in the social sector, because it won’t work out that way.”
The transition of the design industry toward the social sector will be painful and long. Although the first social design projects in the early 2000s kept encountering the same barriers, practitioners working abroad today have made strides, constantly testing new models in a variety of places and scales, and making the most of a field where everything is still negotiable. It is clear now that success is hard and never certain. However, good first steps include leaving your cultural bias behind you, working with the target community from the inception of the project, building on the expertise of local partners and starting small. If designers really wish to embark on social design projects abroad, they must go beyond the enthusiasm and feel-good of their initial ideas: they must learn about development initiatives and business planning, about the context they’ll be working in, and must be willing to change and adapt their concepts, facing constraints that will inevitably exist.
It is wiser to start in your community than abroad. Designers will more naturally adapt to a context they already know; however, working locally doesn’t always translate to good results. It also seems wrong to engage in a charity-like, pro-bono model. I’m a firm believer in an exchange process, empowering and conveying ownership of ideas to the users designers work with, in the U.S. or abroad. If social design wants to become a sustainable, profitable field, then it must start with exchanges of objects, ideas or money to create interest and demand in the social sector. Both the ideas of co-creation and of a holistic approach are beautiful to hear, but elusive and extremely difficult to implement. Many designers working on the social sectors have talked of a metrics system to be universally adopted, but such an endeavor will only exists when there is sufficient consensus around the field.
Back in the West, the media fails miserably in telling the stories of these projects, finding its biggest difficulties in the simplistic vocabulary and images used to describe social design abroad, its users and outcomes. Social designers in the field seem to be descending from their pedestals and bridging cultural divides, by shattering the figure of the designer-as-savior. But the media in the West reconstructs that figure as a pivotal part of the story. Prototypes are bolstered to pass for finished projects, concepts that haven’t left the drawing board are heralded as excellent examples, and the user is constantly diminished, generalized and stereotyped in vocabulary and images. “The way we talk and write about these issues is incredibly important,” argues writer Maria Popova. “Language shapes culture and cognition in a powerful way. The very vocabulary we use in this debate is incredibly flawed. We can’t even come up with a fair way of describing the communities in question.”
These flawed stories feed the idealist student back at home in the West, inspiring him to do what he comes to believe is noble, easy and imperative, leading to more mistakes and errors. And social designers cannot afford to make big mistakes in the social sector. As Tim Brown points out, “with many of these things where people don’t have choices and you’re maybe giving them the only choice they have, then there’s a responsibility to develop solutions that have the most possible impact.” Designers will hardly be chastised for failing in the social sector, but they must do justice to themselves and to the people they are working with.
The transition is happening in the field, and it must now happen in education, museums and the media, giving an opportunity to the audience to realize and interpret the complexity of the social sector and its issues. To empower others we must disempower ourselves, and it is time to deconstruct and disempower the figure of the designer-as-savior, bringing nuance to the simplistic debate, and allowing for the social design field to live up to its true potential.