29 July 2010

Six weeks ago, a group of diverse students gathered for the inaugural course of Design For Social Change at Emily Carr University.

In this short amount of time, they covered themes ranging from human-centered design principles to viable economic concepts that help actual change to be realized. The course was intensive but they worked very hard to produce interesting concepts that could be further developed for actual implementation. One group has already begun working with two organizations in Rwanda to enable their concept to be developed and tested there. Another group is going to push their idea by allowing a few families to test their "new vision of hosting in smaller spaces" table (see above image).

Some of the aims of this course are to teach:
Research skills
Collaboration skills
Creative/design process
How to engage creativity in complexity
Critical thinking
Understanding who you are designing for
How to develop real deliverables for your users
Visualization and articulation of ideas

The intensive nature can be challenging but I think I can say that all students (while still mulling over all they've had to ingest) will tell you that the opportunity to apply theory made a difference to their learning experience.

It was an absolute delight to both learn from and teach this crew and as per usual, I am challenged to continue considering what role design can play in influencing the type of change that is worth adopting.

A recap of our weekly engagements:
Week One
Week Two
Week Three
Week Four
Week Five
Week Six (we even had a design dinner to start the class!)

This course will be offered again in Fall 2010.

PS. If these kids can do it, so can we!

23 July 2010

Sprinkles Packaging
The results are in! I just got word that of the 413 households surveyed, this was by far the most popular concept (of the options presented) for packaging a micronutrient. This isn't going to be the actual packaging but was a way of doing formative research to find out what the preferences of a rural woman might be when it came to visualizing the idea of adopting the behaviour of adding a micronutrient to a child's food. The reasons for its popularity seem to relate to:
a) Color (these are the colors of the Rwandan flag)
b) Image (the action of feeding the child makes it clear as to what to do with the contents)

There is more work to be done and we're awaiting the opportunity to see it be pilot tested and developed further. But this was exciting news for sure!

21 July 2010

It may be in America but this just makes me proud to be a designer. And also makes me long for the day when we could have such an event to celebrate and honour the way design shapes and impacts Canadians.

I am so proud of the crew of students I've gotten to work with in this class! We have one week left, which means the process and thinking they've engaged in this short amount of time is impressive.

Tonight we discussed their prototypes and gave feedback for further development. We also covered what it means to deliver your final outcome. Here are some good questions to ask (sourced from the HCD Toolkit) in the process:

Where, when, how and why might the customer experience our solution?
What channels can assist with distributing our solution?
What are the range of ways it could be delivered?
What human, financial, manufacturing or technological elements are needed?
Who could we partner with to show the value and impact of the solution?
How will we test our idea?
How will we implement the idea?
What will be our measure of success?
How will we generate feedback?

The Ripple Effect
Dining Room Made of Pop Bottles
Karaoke and Literacy
Better World By Design Challenge
$100 Ventilator

For our last class, we're going to eat together before presenting the final projects. I'm excited to see their final outcomes! And in case you're wondering, here's what's on the menu:

14 July 2010

Design For Social Change: Class Four
After sharing the outcomes from preliminary research, we got onto the topic of social change and its relationship to economics. Each group has been encouraged to assess their concept by asking if it can be sustained over time. The Human Centered Design Toolkit has a great handout that articulates ways to assess whether you have a sustainable revenue model so I shared this as an accessible tool for evaluation. It suggests that we have a value proposition, an identified revenue source and stakeholder incentives.

Afterward, each group was asked to ideate possible solutions for their social change project. There was definitely laughter, which suggests that some wild ideas are emerging!
Next week: Prototypes.

Random recommended links and/or topics discussed:
Echoing Green
Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution (and follow up)
Genius of Design
Blue Vinyl
Unicef Kits

13 July 2010

Scan 2
I've been contacted by a grad student who has asked me (and other designers) to talk about our design process as part of her thesis research. More to the point, she wants to know how our processes differ when working cross-culturally. Because of her inquiry (and all the dialogue going on around humanitarian design these days), I've been hammering out some visualizations for her.

As I began to draw my process, I was reminded of a diagram I created during my own research. It arose while reading an article where Gui Bonsipe was interviewed. He points out a dichotomy that can impact design: there is a difference between the centre and the periphery. The simple sketch (above) was a way to visualize how my design process required that I understand the political structure in which it resides. In the case of my recent project in Rwanda, I spent a fair amount of time meeting with stakeholders within the Ministry of Health. All this before putting a pen to paper! Take a look at the layers that the MOH are collaborating with on various projects. We didn't meet with all of them but had discussions with at least 50%:
stakeholders MOH
So as I continue to create a diagram for this student, I am forced to assess how this complexity fits into the design process. The centre (often representing governments and authorities) may not be aware of the periphery (non-profits, field workers, communities) at any given time. To only target periphery projects may miss important aspects as they relate to systems and infrastructure, which will be necessary to understand if one wants to make a lasting impact. In my case, the design solution could affect over one million people, which requires an adjustment in my thinking and research when it came to engaging my overall process. In order to see this project be implemented, I will need to work with both the centre and the periphery and find ways to address both similarities and differences. I think I take this part of the process for granted in my own context but then again, I've not had the chance to work on something for one million Canadians. Yet.

09 July 2010

The Sketchbook Project: 2011
It's amazing to me. I'm a designer and yet I find myself in a sketching rut these days. My graduate research even focused on the ideas of visualization as a communication tool. So when I saw this project, I figured I'd found a creative way to face it head on. If you're groove-challenged of late, consider joining me!

Picture 4

08 July 2010

For The Love Of Labels

Bruce Nussbaum wrote an article (which I would recommend you read before you finish reading this) that begs the question: "Is humanitarian design the new imperialism?" With a provocative title like that, it begs discussion, yes? And I think it is a good one to have.

Advance apologies: This is longer than expected. I hold the complexity of the content directly responsible.

As someone who has been offered the privilege of working alongside individuals in another culture during my graduate work and beyond, I can appreciate the complexity that this question raises. During grad school, I was called a "design interloper" for choosing to focus my attention on a country other than my own. This label presumes many things, one of which is the notion that I might create something that lacked care or thought. I realize there is a history of such outcomes (which is not exclusive to the profession of design) but I struggle to classify every approach listed in the article as imperialistic. To suggest that designers might be "the new anthropologists or missionaries, come to poke into village life, "understand" it and make it better" seems to oversimplify this discussion and adds to a slew of words that keep us from understanding the layers that are involved in a very complex topic.

During my experiences in Rwanda (which for the record is not representative of the entire continent of Africa), I found myself faced with design questions on a daily basis. Since I am always evaluating how design as a problem-solving discipline can provide a solution, this can become heightened when witnessing significant issues that affect 90% of the world's population. After spending 3 months with a group of women who were unable to get ahead financially because of issues that actually could be addressed, I had a dilemma on my hands:

Do I give them money? This could be a merciful act.

Do I nod apologetically but walk away for fear of imposing my ideas? This might reduce the label issue but poses other problems.

Or does design have a role to play? Would it be a just act to actually improve the situation? If we worked together, could we collectively address this?

Don't get me wrong. There is no formula. But somehow the last option, when handled with care and attention, offers me something beyond a label. And is therefore more costly and complicated.

By definition, design is a discipline that inserts itself into our world where it may or may not be welcomed. Development as a field of work also has a history of inserting itself where it may not be needed. Put these things together and you have increased complexity. And the potential for increased labels. But this is not a new thing in design. Gui Bonsiepe has worked in other countries for many years and writes about the role that design can play in a given culture. This is a long quote but one I believe summarizes the sentiment well:

Design humanism is the exercise of design activities in order to interpret the needs of social groups, and to develop viable emancipative proposals in the form of material and semiotic artifacts. Why emancipative? Because humanism implies the reduction of domination. In the field of design, it also means to focus on the excluded, the discriminated, and economically less favored groups (as they are called in economist jargon), which amounts to the majority of the population of this planet. I want to make it clear that I don’t propagate a universalistic attitude according to the pattern of design for the world. Also, I don’t believe that this claim should be interpreted as the expression of a naive idealism, supposedly out of touch with reality. On the contrary, each profession should face this uncomfortable question, not only the profession of designers. It would be an error to take this claim as the expression of a normative request of how a designer —exposed to the pressure of the market and the antinomies between reality and what could be reality— should act today. The intention is more modest, that is to foster a critical consciousness when facing the enormous imbalance between the centers of power and the people submitted to these powers, because the imbalance is deeply undemocratic insofar as it negates participation. It treats human beings as mere instances in the process of objectivization (Verdinglichung) and commodification.

In light of the many directions I could go (and this post is already way too long), I'll focus on three things I've been thinking about lately as they relate to this discussion:

Labels can lessen impact and cause more confusion: The label of "humanitarian design" doesn't cover the range of work being done in other parts of the world. And you would never show up in a country and announce, "I am a humanitarian designer" when describing the work you are about to do. I would go so far as to suggest that ProjectH, Acumen, Idiom and IDEO are not all doing humanitarian design even though they have been seemingly classified as such in this article (as per the noun/adjective distinction). This isn't to say they aren't all exercising compassion in their approach but I would imagine would make distinctions about their focus. Suffice it to say, I'm slowly learning to tread carefully when assigning titles. They make for a great 30-second story but can be misleading and limiting (see David Sherwin's post on Bingo For Social Innovation).

Time is a valuable commodity that can often lack funding: Designing from a distance using online research is futile. Spending two weeks in a country will often lead to premature assumptions that will affect design outcomes. This means you need to spend significant time where you design. The more you observe and participate in a culture, the better you can assess whether the design outcome will be beneficial and sustainable. Becoming informed about all these layers (economic, environmental, political, social, cultural...) will help reduce the potential for inappropriate or misguided design. Ideally, we'd be doing this in our respective cultures. Naussbaum rightly points out that we can learn from others in this globalized reality we find ourselves in. When we understand how design impacts other cultures and communities, we can ensure we do right by our designs. To do this, exchanges of ideas and information could help us design in our context. Unfortunately, many design projects that fall into this camp tend to rely on grants or donations in order to be implemented. And this can affect the amount of time required to do research and design testing. And so the cycle continues...

Design education could offer people the skills needed to allow for localized solutions: My recent visit to Rwanda to work on a project revealed that many university students would love the chance to study design (which is not currently offered in any of the schools there). I hope to participate in some way to offer courses that could allow this aspiration to be realized in the future (and had some good discussions as to where this might fit during my last trip). Because there are limited budgets for such an endeavor, design projects continue to include designers from other parts of the world. I would love to find a company that could help fund the development of an education program for a local university that may want design but not yet have the resources to make it happen. I have a lot of respect for the work of Professor Ranjan at NID in India. I envision the same for my Rwandan friends who want to make an impact in their villages through design.

(Image sourced from Design For India Blog)

Addendum: Emily Pilloton's great rebuttal!

07 July 2010

We're on week three of the Design for Social Change course and we started the class with a brief discussion about "sustainability" as it relates to our design considerations. As you can see from the images above, the interpretations are varied (a visual reminder of how broad and complex this can be!).

Links that were presented in class (but in no way exhaust the topic):
Cradle to Cradle
Ask Nature
Okala Guide
Designer's Atlas of Sustainability
Objectified Film
78 Questions

Bonus material (or stuff we didn't have time to cover):

Story of Stuff
The Living Principles
The Natural Step
The Power of Time Off

We're at the halfway point of this intensive course and I am looking forward to seeing the concepts that will emerge from the research process!