31 January 2010

In case you've been hiding under a rock (or living on another continent): The iPad is here!

All jokes aside about its less-than-ideal name, it seems to offer some amazing experiences for users and developers. As someone who cherishes her iMac and iPhone, I'm a truly committed convert and I can't imagine working with any another brand. So I feel like a fair weather friend by posting this.

But as I watched the launch presentation, all I could think was, "How will this be applied to those who fall outside of Apple's borders?" Is the iPad only usable for those who can iAfford it? It's been positioned as a very accessible tool (compared to other products) but is it affordable enough? As I listened to everyone talk, I heard about social media, photos, emails, presentations and games. I heard from developers and how they can benefit from the software development kit for the device.

But if you are going to brag about your billions, then wouldn't it be amazing if your next announcement included a story about how this tool could actually improve things beyond gaming and graphics? What about innovations in health and economic development that can help the billions living on less than $2/day? The type of interface that the iPad offers, could be an amazing way to empower those who may not have access to information or the level of literacy that would enable them to engage effectively. I'm sure it all sounds very Pollyanna-ish, but shouldn't a global brand be truly global?

Ironically, when I travelled to Rwanda back in 2008, I contacted Apple and asked for the donation of one laptop. I had aspirations to offer design training to university students who were focused on education, technology and agriculture. In the end, I never heard from Apple. Looking back, it might have been for the better. Because you see, Apple support wasn't available in Rwanda. And this reality may be why my post is moot.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a designer. I got invigorated by everything that was shared at the launch. Apple products are smart, beautiful and intuitive. They value typography and graphics in ways others have yet to demonstrate. And this is why I would love to see these tools made available to those who may not yet know how this accessible tool could offer even more accessibility.

With all of this technological advancement, will the iPad only benefit the 10% who can access it?

29 January 2010

This project demonstrates how a dialogue through design can be generated creatively. Young minds being invited to imagine and fashion the potential of the future in a shoe box. Brilliant.
(and the fact that it was made possible by one of our Canadians is an added bonus)

28 January 2010

I respect the way Bill Easterly challenges our assumptions about aid and agree with him when he (surprisingly) writes that we should look harder for dialogue before the satire starts. Face-to-face conversations about what isn't working might provide us a means to "walk a mile in another man's shoes" and in so doing, help us collectively reduce our oversights.

26 January 2010

I hold a certain measure of interest in the way a city operates and could likely offer my two cents about how I imagine it could be enhanced (systems junkie that I am). But since I don't have any formal training in urban planning, I wouldn't want to presume that my thoughts are the best for everyone. Ironically, Jane Jacobs didn't have any training either. But her contribution to the way we now view the public sphere is significant, so I turn to her as part of my research for Dinner With A Side Of Design. What I appreciate about her approach is that she doesn't focus on the utopia at the end of the rainbow but rather pursues an honest embrace of what the city already is and designs within it:

Cities as Ecosystems
Jacobs approached cities as living beings and ecosystems. She suggested that over time, buildings, streets and neighborhoods function as dynamic organisms, changing in response to how people interact with them. She explained how each element of a city - sidewalks, parks, neighborhoods, government, economy – functions together synergistically, in the same manner as the natural ecosystem. This understanding helps us discern how cities work, how they break down, and how they could be better structured.

Mixed-Use Development
Jacobs advocated for "mixed-use" urban development – the integration of different building types and uses, whether residential or commercial, old or new. According to this idea, cities depend on a diversity of buildings, residences, businesses and other non-residential uses, as well as people of different ages using areas at different times of day, to create community vitality. She saw cities as being "organic, spontaneous, and untidy," and views the intermingling of city uses and users as crucial to economic and urban development.

Bottom-Up Community Planning
Jacobs contested the traditional planning approach that relies on the judgment of outside experts, proposing that local expertise is better suited to guiding community development. She based her writing on empirical experience and observation, noting how the prescribed government policies for planning and development are usually inconsistent with the real-life functioning of city neighborhoods.

The Case for Higher Density
Although orthodox planning theory had blamed high density for crime, filth, and a host of other problems, Jacobs disproved these assumptions and demonstrated how a high concentration of people is vital for city life, economic growth, and prosperity. While acknowledging that density alone does not produce healthy communities, she illustrated through concrete examples how higher densities yield a critical mass of people that is capable of supporting more vibrant communities. In exposing the difference between high density and overcrowding, Jacobs dispelled many myths about high concentrations of people.

content: Project For Public Spaces
image: Ken Fallin

23 January 2010

In my ongoing research, I came across this beautiful work by Elise Rijnberg. The pattern is made with subtle embroidery and meant to educate on the western traditions of dining.

20 January 2010

I'm leading seminars with design students for an Ecological Perspectives course. Last week, we tried to answer these questions. It's amazing (and embarrassing) how disconnected I am from the environment I live in. How many of these can you answer for your region?

Where Are You At? A Bioregional Quiz
Developed by Leonard Charles, Jim Dodge,Lynn Milliman and Victoria Stockley. Coevolution Quarterly 32 (Winter 1981): 1.

1. Trace the water you drink from precipitation to tap.
2. How many days til the moon is full? (Slack of 2 days allowed.)
3. What soil series are you standing on?
4. What was the total rainfall in your area last year (July-June)? (Slack: 1 inch for every 20 inches.)
5. When was the last time a fire burned in your area?
6. What were the primary subsistence techniques of the culture that lived in your area before you?
7. Name 5 edible plants in your region and their season(s) of availability.
8. From what direction do winter storms generally come in your region?
9. Where does your garbage go? What do you think will happen to all the garbage generated by the Olympics?
10. How long is the growing season where you live?
11. On what day of the year are the shadows the shortest where you live?
12. When do the deer rut in your region, and when are the young born?
13. Name five grasses in your area. Are any of them native?
14. Name five resident and five migratory birds in your area.
15. What is the land use history of where you live?
16. What primary ecological event/process influenced the landform where you live? (Bonus special: what’s the evidence?)
17. What species have become extinct in your area?
18. What are the major plant associations in your region?
19. From where you’re reading this, point north.
20. What spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom where you live?

18 January 2010

Trying out type
Reading Robert Bringhurst's words about typography could be compared to savoring a glass of fine wine: the notes are layered so you don't want to rush it.

"Letters are microscopic works of art as well as useful symbols. They mean what they are as well as what they say. Typography is the art and craft of handling these doubly meaningful bits of information. A good typographer handles them in intelligent, coherent, sensitive ways."

"Typography is to literature as musical performance is to composition: an essential act of interpretation, full of endless opportunities for insight or obtuseness."

I met a designer today
The pictures above show:
1) some student work after only one class of introductory typography
2) a graphic designer in rural Africa

Every time I sit down to prepare for this course, I am reminded of the complexity of language. I'm sure I could write a diatribe on the topic. From being in Rwanda (where I didn't speak the language I needed) to being in Canada (where I aim to teach students how to use the language they know), I am amazed by the common challenge we face: to make and show the meaning of our words.

17 January 2010

Guess who's coming to dinner?
In the process of planning for this event, I wanted to test out some ideas with a few friends: What would it look like to have an interactive and topic-focused dinner? If nothing else, I could find out what it might be like to eat, drink and write at the same time!

So last night, I got together with a web designer, a student/adventurer, a nurse, a writer and a retired finance and accounting director. The image above indicates how they would describe what they do (and was situated as an activity after the first sip of wine).

Over the course of the meal (which included a smattering of amazing food we all created to share: mushroom caps filled with crab and cheese, honey roasted root vegetables, deep fried prawns, guacamole, bruschetta and a rosemary potato radish salad), we talked a lot about economics and politics. In light of my ongoing interest in these ideas and how they impact design, I found the discussion helpful. Here's a few topics that surfaced from this diverse group:

1. Design is often perceived as exotic, expensive and exclusive.
2. China operates like many designers. In other words, "What will things look like in five years and how do we plan for that?"
3. To make an energy efficient car like the Prius, you need about 13 rare earth minerals. 93% of these minerals come from China.
4. Geopolitical events may have a significant influence on career and investment decisions. So never underestimate the value of due diligence.
5. Change happens one person at a time. Unless you live in a dictatorship.

Clearly, we covered a lot of ground. And while this was informal in its approach, I learned much from focusing my attention on a topic that can sometimes seem to big to tackle. I also appreciated how the experience offered me insight into a) creating spaces for conversation and b) a means to visualize that conversation. I am continually writing or sketching because this activity helps me internalize the ideas that are being exchanged. But I am reminded that not everyone operates this way! Because of this, I'm cued to consider how to create something accessible to allow others to share their ideas in alternative and creative ways.
Dinner with some politics and economics

14 January 2010

Learning #8: When it gets hard, you might just need to wait.

While in Rwanda, the power would often go out, the internet was as slow as molasses and sometimes our food order would take 30 minutes to arrive. Often, I would react as though these were incredibly hard things. Pauvre moi!

With issues of greater complexity, I have learned that patience is truly a virtue. And that in the waiting times, you can often see and learn things that you might have missed while you were rushing. This isn't to say that all hard equates to waiting (the survivors of the earthquake in Haiti aren't too keen to wait for help). But as I assess my own learning (and realize my own impatience), I have learned that waiting to say something or do something might actually serve me well. I'm not necessarily good at it but hope to gain wisdom in this as I go. When I think about it in design, I realize that it isn't always promoted. Deadlines and projects await you so "hard" becomes part of the game. But in watching ideas emerge from something like Slow Design, I can see that perhaps even in the intensity of it all, there might just be room for and value in waiting.

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Learning #12: To whom much is given, much will be required.
Working on projects over the past year, I have come to realize how lucky I am to have skills, knowledge, access, freedom, friends, safety, shelter and food. I happen to live in a location that makes these things seemingly easy to possess. For me, having these things doesn't mean I can sit back and relax. Having them reminds me how sharing them will actually enrich my life.
The experience of having a young Rwandan student ask me if I could teach her Illustrator so she could make things on her own was a notable moment (she saw this image on my desktop and asked, "Can I make something like that?"). Due to her busy schedule we weren't able to pursue these lessons as hoped. But this desire acts as a reminder of how my "much" requires me to respond to those with "less much." This isn't an act of charity but rather one of being open with what you possess. Be it design training or daily needs, I have learned that sharing must be part of my life and work (even if it costs me).

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12 January 2010

Learning #9: Sometimes it's best to leave well enough alone.
I don't know that this requires any further explanation?
As I've contemplated this learning, it seems best to visualize it. Which means, I'm not going to say anything else. And leave well enough alone.

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Learning #3: Just because we speak the same language, doesn't mean we understand each other.

"...dialogue characterizes an epistemological relationship. Thus, in this sense, dialogue is a way of knowing...I engage in dialogue because I recognize the social and not merely the individualistic character of the process of knowing. In this sense, dialogue presents itself as an indispensable component of the process of both learning and knowing." (Paulo Freire)

As I reflect on my work in a cross-cultural context, I realize how much complication can arise from the lack of a shared language. Getting on the wrong bus, saying the wrong thing in a meeting and ordering the wrong food are but a few examples. But back in my own city, where I am able to do most of these things, I think I can take the shared language notion for granted. It may allow you to get where you want to go but it doesn't guarantee you'll really know or learn. In looking ahead, I hope to continue to work on projects that require cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary teams because I find that these experiences help equip me to avoid the perils of assumption.

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Learning #2: Just because it's old, doesn't mean it's broken.

DIY is a the mantra of the day. Last year, I wore rain boots I found in the dumpster and revisited my mother's wardrobe from the 60s to acquire a few new outfits. To highlight this learning, I've listed a few people and places that have helped me sort out my new love and appreciation of the old(er) in the midst of a discipline that often praises the new:
The Amish
Readymade Magazine
The weavers of Gashora and a designer from Kibungo
Maker Faire
Rural Studio
Cut/Copy/Paste Exhibition

I am still sorting the economics of these ideas and how they get sustained in an age of innovation. But I love how this shift has affected my process and thinking.
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image source: Cut/Paste at the Royal Ontario Museum (Random related note? I actually inherited a cigarette case just like this one)

Learning #4: Don't underestimate the ingenuity of others.
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By now, most people are familiar with William Kamkwamba. His story reminds me of a book that has shaped my thoughts on how to embrace the ingenuity of individuals who are often perceived as those who "need saving." Pedagogy of the Oppressed, hosts a number of powerful and thought-provoking quotes. While seemingly focused on education, it speaks to a much broader conversation about how we can sometimes overlook the values and insights of those who are in a lower economic or oppressed situation because we think they need to be removed from this place. William's windmill story reminds me that things can shift because of personal ingenuity. By reading a book about energy at 14 years of age, William's world view was enhanced and he saw himself as part of the solution.

"...every human being, no matter how "ignorant" or submerged in the "culture of silence" he or she may be, is capable of looking critically at the world in a dialogical encounter with others. Provided the proper tools for such encounter, the individual can gradually perceive personal and societal reality as well as the contradictions in it, become conscious of his or her own perception of that reality, and deal critically with it."

"We simply cannot go to the laborers - urban or peasant - in the banking style, to give them "knowledge" or to impose upon them the model of the "good man" contained in a program whose content we have ourselves organized. Many political and educational plans have failed because their authors designed them according to their own personal views of reality, never once taking into account (except as mere objects of their actions) the men-in-a-situation to whom their program was ostensibly directed."

"To investigate the generative theme is to investigate people's thinking about reality and people's action upon reality, which is their praxis. For precisely this reason, the methodology proposed requires that the investigators and the people (who would normally be considered objects of that investigation) should act as co-investigators. The more active an attitude men and women take in regard to their exploration of their thematics, the more they deepen their critical awareness of reality and, in spelling out those thematics, take possession of that reality."

"Revolutionary leaders commit many errors and miscalculations by not taking into account something so real as the people's view of the world: a view which explicitly and implicitly contains their concerns, their doubts, their hopes, their way of seeing the leaders, their perceptions of themselves and of the oppressors, their religious beliefs (almost always syncretic), their fatalism, their rebellious reactions. None of these can be seen separately, for in interaction all of them compose a totality."

Paulo Freire
Pedagogy of the Oppressed

11 January 2010

Learning #10: Honesty is such a lonely word.
Billy Joel might just say it best. In the context of design for social impact, sometimes I've wondered if the truth is always embraced. From metrics to making it stick, transparency comes at a cost. I know it's part of life but quite frankly, it ain't always easy.

Lest you think I'm depressed or something, I arrive at this place after an intense graduate degree filled with critiques and commentary, teaching experiences that have their own measure of intensity (if you teach, you understand) and a few experiences where I was stretched beyond what I thought possible. In looking forward, I hope I pursue honesty and grace in my relationships and work. But I gotta be honest. It can be lonely out there.

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10 January 2010

Learning #7: Designers should be schooled in economics and politics. This affects everything.
I recently watched We Are The People We've Been Waiting For and in the film Sir Ken Robinson is one of the many people interviewed. He says, "Education is about the economy." I also took a stab at listening to George Soros speak to an audience at CEU about the future as it might look beyond the recent economic downturn. Today, Roger Martin is suggesting that MBA's get a bit more creative, critical and cultural. After finishing my graduate degree, where I sometimes got challenged about the role of design in another culture, I appreciate the insight that I've gained from trying to figure out how politics and economy influence the work I do.

We're existing in a world we didn't imagine, ripe with complexity, which means we need new ways to filter all that is coming at us. With this in mind, courses on business and politics could only help make a design curriculum more robust. There are some already on this path but there is definitely room for more:

Business Week has a whole lot more. What's notable about them? They partner with industry, which means a student has a place to apply his or her learning. But it can also expose a student to the political influences that are at play when we talk about designing for significant change or impact. Government systems can affect or inhibit this change, so we'd be wise to understand how it operates.

With a significant focus on improving systems in our world, a young designer is often excited about the opportunity to be influential in some way. While one part of his or her education is focused on honing a craft, the other must be about developing a critical understanding of where it fits in the larger context. With all our connectivity, this larger context becomes a bit more complicated. We're now talking about the issues of the big 3: buildings, transportation and food (all directed by governments on some level). If education is the economy and the economy has a political agenda, shouldn't we help designers navigate this territory? What texts should we be giving them? What books should they read? What activities can they engage in?

(The diagram above reflects potential areas of study and are meant to look like balls being juggled around. The size of each circle is not an indication of anything overly specific so I'm open to this visual being redesigned/reframed. For now it can act as a catalyst for conversation. Are there other aspects that should be included?)

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09 January 2010

Learning #1: Innovation is a tricky business.
My thoughts on this got stirred when Don Norman suggested that historically technology, not research has been the driver of major invention: "Design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs."

There's more detail in his post but this article caused a bit of a stir to the point that numerous others have responded to his position. Here are a few that surfaced:

1. Steve Portigal
2. Bruce Nussbaum
3. Michael Surtees
4. Eric Small

Does everybody view innovation the same way?
I mention these other posts because the exchange represents an idea that I've been thinking about. Can innovation be universally measured? Today, something deemed innovative in North America might not hold the same position in Africa or Asia. And invention may result from necessity, which I would suggest is the most obvious form of research.

A Case Study to Clarify

The OLPC provides a case study of how more design research might have been extremely helpful for successful innovation and adoption of this low-cost computer (which some would consider to be a major breakthrough). I say this because there is much done in the name of design-invention-innovation-good intention that ends up wasted because it can't actually be sustained (which becomes notable as the new version is being developed).

To me, cultural and/or sociological understanding is vital to the design research process. These aspects force a thorough investigation of the place where an object or service might be introduced. Clearly, an attempt to improve education was a positive aspiration. But is it enough when discussing innovation for impact?

Even with its advances, I'm still left wondering:
a) if enough communication occurred to ensure the views and needs of the user were considered and,
b) if this consideration has improved the system of effective distribution.

I wonder if educational aspirations could be better served by innovating something already available. Could this offer a more affordable and accessible option for every child? Can this be developed even further?

Innovation and systems thinking

In my own circles, I've noticed that the word innovation is tossed around quite a bit. Perhaps I've been defining it incorrectly, but I think it inherently includes systems thinking. In light of Norman's list of inventions, I'm curious to know if we can still measure breakthroughs without clarifying their impact on the system. For example, if the airplane is being taken to task for its impact on the planet, can we continue to allow technology to be the driver of innovation? Does the future of our society and planet allow for it?

Whatever we're shooting for, be it invention or innovation, we should be asking if our design (in all its forms) can be sustained by the public for whom it's been created. I'm guessing we may want to consider how we measure this? Does this measurement need to be equal for everyone or are there unique attributes depending on the location, user and cost?

Moving Forward
In considering how we view invention or innovation, what will the design community pursue more avidly? Would we be satisfied to improve the existing technologies or are we inherently driven to discover the unknown?

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07 January 2010

Twitter and Facebook let me peek in on people. But they can't replace meeting someone face to face. So in the spirit of learning from others, I've developed a list of ten people I'd love to have coffee with this year. Believe me, limiting it to ten was not easy. There are a lot of interesting people in the world! Here's what I came up with (in no particular order):

1. Paul Polak: 25 years of experience counts for something. I respect Paul's unswerving commitment to appropriate design in emerging nations. (Update: I got to meet up with him at a talk in June 2010)

2. Jacqueline Novogratz: I resonate so closely with her time in Rwanda and respect the way she's built her career based on respecting others. I could learn a lot from her.

3. Erik Hersman: I had one email exchange with Erik where we discussed the difference between rural and urban when it came to addressing needs in Africa. I'm inspired by the commitment to technology for "the dark continent."

4. Alfred Sirleaf, The Analog Blogger: Because he saw a need of the people.

5. Maggie Breslin: She has worked as a design researcher at the Sparc Lab/Mayo Clinic for the past 4+ years. To watch the complexity of a hospital and apply design process in this arena is something I want to learn more about.

6. Dambisa Moyo: One of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people ain't too shabby.

7. Eddie Izzard: Not only is he hysterical but he also runs marathons. And speaks French fluently. Also born in Yemen.

8. Lucy Orta: Anyone who cooks a meal for 70 people as a creative act has my attention.

9. Tina Fey: Because apparently, I'm her doppelgänger.

10. The women of Gashora: Because our conversations aren't finished yet. (Update: We got to meet up in May 2010!)

Bonus? Lady Gaga: A woman who can get an audience with the Queen, become a CD at Polaroid and dress like nobody's business, could likely teach me a thing or two about brand (or perhaps more likely how to speak your mind and still get ahead).

(image source: Nokia via Rutgers School of Communication and Information)

I really wanted to pursue a deeper understanding of mobile applications in my graduate research. Problem? The rural women I worked with couldn't afford a mobile phone, thereby limiting my testing options with my participants.

Instead of creating a long post about my thoughts on learning #11: The mobile phone is the new computer, I'll let these links speak for themselves. While I think Yves Behar's tablet is pretty sweet, it still comes back to accessibility. Even in my own life, my iPhone offers a new kind of computing experience (and my back is delighted to not be carrying a laptop so much these days). I love how these groups (and many others) are taking this accessible and more affordable tool and innovating new opportunities to offer immediate and relevant outcomes:

Frontline SMS Medic
Frontline SMS
Credit SMS
Nokia mBanking
Nokia Life Tools
Phone Power
Katine Market

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06 January 2010

Learning #5: Poverty can't be solved by a campaign. Or a website.
Spending time working on a sustainable development project in Rwanda exposed me to all sorts of new ideas. As the "outsider," I realize I still have much to learn. I was grateful to be given a Kinyarwanda name and told that I was 50% Rwandan but these affirmations don't replace understanding the actual needs of a community. The thing I can't shake is how often we try to solve problems using ideas or technologies that we assume will work everywhere.

Quick back story: I made a website. For a group of individuals who did not have access to the Internet. The hope was that this tool would improve the sales of their products. But the analytics prove there is little activity on this site. Without a business plan, they have no means of owning their own outcomes either. So I've struggled with my contribution for the past year or so. And have come to realize that creating an isolated outcome is no longer an acceptable way to look at my design practice.

Lesson learned? Poverty can't be solved by a campaign. Or a website. We must be asking bigger questions about entire systems before acting on solutions.

Campaigns with slogans and accompanying websites bring awareness to issues. Twitter feeds support the ideas being spread to the masses. But at the end of the day, I think we need to ask, "Are the people who we're trying to help actually seeing some sort of benefit from all this?" Whenever designers get connected to a development project, I think we need to ask the right questions.

Maggie Black helped me understand that development is complex (in her book, The No-Nonsense Guide to International Development):

Even at the purely semantic level, the term 'development' is difficult to replace. If you dislike it and its derivatives - 'developing', 'developed' - and try to avoid using them, nothing else quite works. To understand that development is an artificial construct and has earned much discredit does not help get rid of it. The concept has become ingrained in economic language and philanthropic endeavor. In default of some better terminological alternative, we will probably go on using the one we have. It would be helpful, however, if it was more used with greater care, and not assumed to be invariably beneficent and politically clean.

From this experience, I would advise any designer to simply be aware. I won't create a list of dos and don'ts because I'm not the expert. But learn from those who have gone before you, as best you can. One person I've learned from (from a distance) is Jacqueline Novogratz (head of Acumen Fund). I devoured her book, The Blue Sweater and found her talks to offer a strong case for the type of posture and action we need take.

Novogratz shows, in ways both hilarious and heartbreaking, how traditional charity often fails, but how a new form of philanthropic investing called "patient capital" can help make people self-sufficient and can change millions of lives. More than just an autobiography or a how-to guide to addressing poverty, The Blue Sweater is a call to action that challenges us to grant dignity to the poor and to rethink our engagement with the world.

These are but two examples! The list is much longer. But preparing yourself to have your eyes on the system, rather than just the product, will go a long way in producing results that have a measurable impact. In reflecting on this and seeking to move forward, I'm grateful to have been approached about a project in Rwanda (still in very early discussions about this). If it actually comes together, it would enable my new learning to be applied to pursue valuable outcomes related to maternal health. The first order of business will be to pursue an understanding of the whole system before applying any finalized solutions.

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05 January 2010

Recently, David Stairs posted a commentary about the colonization of sustainability. His post presented a great conduit for me to chat about #6: Solving anything complex requires perseverance in everything in my list of learnings from 2009. While the topic of sustainability is not the only idea that I'd fit into this learning, it offers a great lens to frame this point.

In my own process of understanding the S word and all it entails (that until recently would have shown up as a spelling mistake in Word), I continue to find myself both overwhelmed and frustrated. When I first began to explore it seriously three years ago, the word on the street for communication design was, "Change your paper, change your inks and you're good to go."

Advertising used Papyrus, the color palette was beige and the only word you needed was green. Clearly, we've come a long way since then. Or have we?

Stairs' blog post is valuable as it chronicles where we sit. But without alternatives as to how we might not colonize something yet again (which we've apparently not learned from history), we're doomed to repeat our (in)actions. I don't mean to suggest that he necessarily be held accountable to provide the definitive answers for them. We're all responsible. But to expect that every designer has all of this ideology under his or her belt and can then act on it is naive. I've read almost all the authors listed in the post yet I still find myself grappling with the complexities of this sustainable dialogue. Up to now, I've been told that I can earn a living at this thing called design and now you're telling me that all I've done before needs to change? Many designers are still asking, "How exactly do I do that?" With all the content we're wading through, we might find ourselves a bit insecure about confidently proposing or delivering the best alternatives.

The corporate entities listed seem to have more money to ask these questions and act on them while grassroots organizations likely have something to contribute but find themselves reduced to minor projects they can realistically champion. Educators may hold to different perspectives, leaving students to grapple with the best way while the rest of us might be getting our education via 140 characters:

"Designers are bound to muddy the distinction between the scientific meme and the cultural one. Since design is increasingly a hybrid of the creative arts and the social sciences, designers are destined to have it both ways, often with confusion and conflict (not to mention “conflict of interest”) ensuing."

Clearly, a collective voice is emerging. Some of it will be concerning (as Stairs rightly points out) and some of it will continue to remind us how little we really know. And I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing (unless we keep creating from this place!). Not knowing is the first step to understanding. And we're seemingly in a long process of understanding what it means to be in this world with all its diversity. But if we're going to pose concerns, are we not also responsible to suggest options to reduce the risks we witness. This isn't necessarily a comfortable place or a quick fix but one I think we have to figure out. Or at least, I have to figure out. Not so we can title it "sustainable" but so we can continue to make wise choices with what's been offered to us. To get us all on the same page might take a bit of time and patience.

These posts are aimed at being reflective and proactive so I guess I'm wondering if David has ideas of how he might change what he sees so we can avoid falling prey to what he has pointed out? Stating reality only brings us to a certain point. Providing ideas for how we might move forward is a valuable next step. If this is where we sit, what do we do now? Anyone else have ideas to reduce our interloping ways? Sketches and visuals welcomed.

(image via Keri Smith)
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02 January 2010

Harrison Ford might have something to say about Design Education

I know I said I'd start writing about my 12 notable learning moments this year but I couldn't resist posting about my experience of watching The Mosquito Coast today. In case you haven't already seen it, it's the story of a family that leaves America to move to an island called Geronimo in order to start a new life far from the trappings of the "first world." The 1986 film is based on Paul Theroux's novel of the same title and stars Harrison Ford. His character, Allie Fox, is a Harvard drop out - now inventor - with nine patents, six of them pending. His disgust for the commercialization of America (and ongoing commentary) could find itself well placed in our current discussions about the the what, why and hows of making.

We eat when we're not hungry, drink when we're not thirsty. We buy what we don't need and throw away everything that's useful. Why sell a man what he wants? Sell him what he doesn't need. Pretend he's got eight legs and two stomachs and money to burn. It's wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.  

In the early scenes of the film, Allie brings a small scale model of an innovative air conditioning system to a local asparagus farmer who only sees the mock up as tomfoolery and a waste of his money. This puts Allie over the edge and in no time, he's moving his family to Geronimo. Upon arrival, they work diligently to create a life for themselves and the "natives." Allie's optimism and inventions seems to sustain him; eventually claiming the title of Father. Life seems perfect on Geronimo until rogues arrive with guns and a desire to dominate the community. This leads to the destruction of the village when his full scale air conditioning/ice machine blows up from all the chemicals needed to make the thing work (that has obliterated the village and surrounding waterways). Because of this, Allie moves his family to another location and is seemingly invigorated by the conquest of another land.

Everything we need is here. Right here. We can live simply: gardening, beach combing. I'm a changed man, mother. No more chemicals or poisons. If what you want isn't washed up on this beach, you probably don't need it. 

While Avatar has a lot to say about nature and our relationship with the world, I would suggest that The Mosquito Coast could be postured as a tool to teach about design today. Design for development, sustainable design practice, design ethics and human-centered design are but a few topics this film (and book) could address. 

It's an absolute sin to accept the decadence of obsolescence. Why do things get worse and worse? They don't have to. They could get better and better. We accept that things fall apart. 

Design and development: Allie's ideas about reforming Geronimo offers a great case study of how one should be aware of the impact of design in another context and culture. Huge topic but valuable for the growing number of designers who wish to design cross-culturally.
Sustainable design: We'll give Allie points for using the resources he has (even though we're not sure how he got those chemicals to Geronimo). But we might also recommend that making an ice machine might not have been the best option?
Human-centered design: Allie initially acts in a very participatory manner so you're led to believe he's all about collaboration. But his ideas of how-it-ought-to-be win out over any kind of co-design session to plan their future community.
Design Ethics: We might suggest this as a catch-all topic. How you make things, why you make things, what you make, where and when you make it are all relevant questions that get exposed in Allie Fox's character.

Nature’s crooked. I wanted right angles. Straight lines.

By using this film as a catalyst for discussions, a myriad of projects could surface to counter or re-imagine the process that Allie Fox goes through. We are all searching for the value in design and want to be people who contribute appropriately. If the future of design requires a broader understanding of our world and its various systems, I think this film offers a creative means to discuss what it might look like to sustain something in the face of uncharted territory. We're thinking of calling it DESN 370: Design For Survival.

01 January 2010

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

Søren Kierkegaard had it right. And his quote is perfect for the start of a new year. Whether it be the past month or the past ten years, January 1st offers us a chance to consider all that we have been or could be. Like starting a journal with a crisp new notebook, we seem to get a stab at starting over.

But before we go there, a sort of purging needs to occur so as to avoid dragging unnecessary characters or plot lines into the next chapter. We find ourselves noting accomplishments and failures, asking questions about the future and likely proposing ideas about how we vow to change our wayward ways. A few blogs have offered up their accounts (I'm sure there are more):
Decade in Design
Cracking Open A Time Capsule from 1999
The Decade's 14 Biggest Design Moments

In the spirit of this, I wanted to recount some significant moments from the past year. I suppose I do this because I have been working through my own vision of what my discipline and career choice will entail. I've found myself wrestling (in the best possible way) with what I understand about design and what role I see myself playing in its vastness. I obviously can't speak for everyone else but as I mark the last 12 months I realize that I find myself in the middle of something that is both exciting and complex.

When people ask me what I do for a living, I respond, "I'm a designer," which used to mean I was a graphic designer. Translation? You make logos and websites. After this year, I now see design as a discipline that has moved beyond concept and production outcomes alone (which was how I was essentially taught). Happily, I find myself working alongside industrial designers, occupational therapists, health care professionals, educators and many others who want to make a difference by using our skill sets to shift the way things have traditionally be done. I find myself relieved to be connected to others who are seemingly content with what feels like a broader definition of design.

Below is a list of my chapter headers for this recap (or so I think so today). I'm going to spend the next week or so writing more on each topic so as to handle them in manageable chunks. I come to these ideas after spending my holiday break watching Long Way Round and Long Way Down (A BBC series where Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman travel the world on motorcycles). If you read my blog or know me personally, you are aware of my ongoing interest in how design can be used to impact communities with limited access to the resources we are privileged to have. I'm also keen to access their ideas so as to improve my own practice and process. The journey taken by Boorman and McGregor offers a window into the inherent complexities that surface in our attempts to make this world a little more livable. As I watched them journey, I began to reflect on these ideas:

1. Innovation is a tricky business.
2. Just because it's old, doesn't mean it's broken.
3. Just because we speak the same language, doesn't mean we understand each other.
4. Don't underestimate the ingenuity of others.
5. Poverty can't be solved by a campaign. Or a website.
6. Solving anything complex requires perseverance in everything.
7. Designers should be schooled in economics and politics. This affects everything.
8. When it gets hard, you might just need to wait.
9. Sometimes it's best to leave well enough alone.
10. Honesty is such a lonely word.
11. The mobile phone is the new computer.
12. To whom much is given, much will be required.

So as I live the beginnings of this new year, I will attempt to understand it better by looking back. Stay tuned for more!