Some Future Voices of a Design Ethos
By Hannah du Plessis
Design is an established discipline with much credibility. Designing in the social field is not. There are inspiring stories of design changing social situations, but no established practice. Learning anything new requires that we pay careful attention to the whats, hows and whys that inform our work. SCAD’s Design Ethos conference in Savannah this past April provided designers one way to pay careful attention by hosting a 3-day series of community-based workshops called a DO-ference.
The workshops were broken into 6 themes, each theme with a focus on expressed needs of an economically challenged are of the host city of Savannah. Scott Boylston, founder of Design Ethos, and the “Do-ference” team, in all their wisdom, created a special role on each team called the “future voice.” Their purpose was to take a step back and tell us what they observed so we can continue to hone our skills, creating healthier futures for all of us.
My role was similar, yet different in that I moved between all six teams. I focused on the experience of being a designer on a community project. As teams worked together, there were moments of conflict between our mental models and the sticky reality of things. For me, these moments and the questions they evoked were the gold of the DO-ference.
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1. We are trained to come up with solutions.
“Now what?” said one of the students, “If I come up with a solution for the community, I am not giving them the opportunity to learn to do it themselves. . . how should I help them then?”
When we “solve a community’s problem” for them, there are possible dangers:
a) Since there is no way that we can fully understand the whole system, our actions can create unintended consequences;
b) Since the solutions come from us and not the community, chances are slim that the community will have a strong sense of ownership;
c) When we show up as outside experts that “know what to do,” we reinforce the message that the community needs us, that they can’t do it themselves. We continue the cycle of dependence and disempowerment.
But we can help as designers, in many ways. When a community has gone through the process of realizing who they are and what they need, we can work with them to bring their vision to life (i.e. “empower the existing assets” which was the DO-ference goal). If we want to work in the solution area, can we shift our focus from being experts with answers to facilitators that enable? Could our process include taking communities on journeys of discovery where they see, create and embody their own possibilities?
2. We are trained to fit outcomes into our deadlines.
“Building trust? . . . Who knows how long that will take.” Yes we can work with deadlines when wood and steel comply to our ideas without protest. But let’s be honest. Any process of transformation has a will and a timeline of its own. Think about a time of great change in your life (losing a loved one, changing cities or jobs, shaking off a habit), or look at models of transformation. Sustainable change in behavior is preceded by incremental shifts in perception and lifestyle and, even though we can intentionally design for these shifts, it still will take the time it needs to take (regardless of our rush).
How do we reconcile our need to harness time into neat semesters and billable timelines with the organic complexity of life’s processes? How do we let go of our need to control, befriend uncertainty and learn to work with the dynamic process of life?
3. We are trained to work with physical material.
A piece of paper is easy to understand and work with. It does not remember events or have the mental models and emotions. People do. And when people work together, we notice that there is much more than the eye can see. There are unspoken power struggles, fears, feelings of inadequacy etc., etc. that are often the real issues that block a better future from being born.
During Design Ethos there were moments when a community member voiced a concern about distrust and when a person from SCAD tried to address the history of racism. But the room did not really know what to say, so nothing was said and the project carried on.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if part of design training was for us to understand ourselves in relationship to each other? Why do we sometimes feel small and insecure? Why are we blinded by our judgements? What do we do with anger, anxiousness or resentment? Could we learn to create a safe space where we can honestly talk about those elephants in the room that trample our good intentions without warning?
4. We care deeply and want to see a thriving world for all of us.
Oh, there is no font big enough to show the heart-warming goodness that I witnessed at the DO-ference! The appreciation, the care and the great commitment (especially between SCAD faculty, students and locals) was a clear indication that we are – how ever awkwardly – moving towards a more healthy and resilient future.
Seeing that there is so much enthusiasm and so much at stake, what else can we learn?
This is not a rhetorical question. Over the course of the next few weeks, the 6 DO-ference Future Voices will post their insights on the Design Ethos blog. These future voices include the Design Ethos keynote speakers David Berman and Ezio Manzini , as wall as Sara Jo Johnson, Dianna Miller, Marc Rettig, and Cameron Tonkinwise.
Each of them has so much to offer to the discussion.
Hannah du Plessis is principal at Fit Associates in Pittsburgh, PA. She was founder of Swart!Architecture and interior architecture in South Africa and lectured design in various countries. She holds a masters degree from the Institute of Design, Chicago. She can be read on the blog she shares with Marc Rettig: Springbok and Radish.