putting people first

by experientia
by experientia
25 August 2007

Design for the other 90% controversy

Be the first to share
putting people first
by experientia

Design for the other 90%
Design for the Other 90%, the much lauded exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York on how design can address the basic challenges of survival and progress faced by the world’s poor and marginalised, has been severely criticised by David Stairs in a hard-hitting article on the Design Observer:

Stairs identifies three crucial problems:

Remote experience is, consequently, one of the issues curators face in mounting such an exhibition, and it is a price we, in the West, pay for our mediated existence. Too often design solutions are remote solutions, even by those with years’ work in the developing world (myself very much included). The only reference I could find in the catalog to this problem was Martin Fisher’s observation that poor families like to prepare their main meal indoors in the evening, when solar cookers are considerably less effective — an issue contradicted in exhibiting a solar stove made from bicycle parts.

A second fallacy afflicting design thinking is what I call instrumentalization, or the notion that technology can, more often than not, provide the solution. Designers are especially susceptible to this delusion, perhaps because they are often trained to solve immediate rather than long-term problems. By way of example, inventions like the Hippo and Q water rollers work well at alleviating hard work over level ground, but are less effective than a jerrycan headload over meandering, hilly, narrow footpaths. Or, the exhibition’s catalog shows an Indian man in a workplace illuminated by a solar lighting system, but ironing clothes with a charcoal-heated iron. Similarly, the PermaNet — a specially-treated mosquito net — repels bugs for twice as much time as conventionally-treated nets. Regrettably, as it was displayed in the exhibition, it did not reach the ground; this is precisely the real-world oversight that heat-seeking vectors take advantage of in Africa.

Gargantuan thinking is a third error: the need to house the world’s population, eliminate disease, and reverse global warming. (Here I much prefer Wes Janz’s onesmallproject to Bruce Mau’s Massive Change.)”

Stairs concludes:

“Is there a realistic response designers from developed countries can offer? A starting point might be to recognize that in many cases, we don’t need to remake other people or their societies in our image and likeness. The idea of design intervention — sustainable or otherwise — may feel very intrusive to people who are still reeling from 150 years of colonial intervention. (You don’t just waltz into a patriarchal society and aggressively advocate equal opportunity for women, or deliver pumps and boreholes to peasant farmers without understanding the sociology of migratory herdsmen). Living among other people and learning to appreciate their values, perspectives and social mores is an excellent tool of design research. (To their credit, both Polak and Fisher have spent considerable time abroad, not just user-testing, but living and working with their client-partners.) Education is also a wonderful access point, as is a required second language. But how many design curricula are supporting, let alone implementing such global initiatives?”

The article got 58 comments so far and was featured on the Core77 webzine.

David Stairs coordinates the graphic design program at Central Michigan University. He is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project, and the executive director of Designers Without Borders.

Be the first to share
Related Article
16 December 2014
World Development Report 2015 explores “Mind, Society, and Behavior”
WASHINGTON, December 2, 2014 — Development policies based on new insights into how people actually think and make decisions will help governments and civil society achieve development goals more effectively. A richer and more accurate …
Related Article
8 December 2014
Understanding human behaviour to improve mobile research design
Shirley Eadie, founding member and CEO of Pondering Panda, explored some of the idiosyncrasies of the human condition at last month's MRMW Africa conference [Market Research in the Mobile World], in order to help attendees …
Related Article
20 November 2014
[Book] Design for Policy
Design for Policy Edited by Christian Bason, Chief Executive, Danish Design Centre Series: Design for Social Responsibility Hardcover: 250 pages Publisher: Gower Pub Co; December 28, 2014 Design for Policy is the first publication to chart the emergence of collaborative …
Related Article
8 November 2014
Society’s sandbox
Steve Daniels, director at Makeshift magazine, explains why informal economies are the world’s biggest — and most overlooked — design research opportunity. "Informal economies are society’s sandbox, where early experimentation can take place freely. In the same way that thoughtless …
Related Article
1 November 2014
Biennale Interieur investigates homemaking in the digital age
Anna Bergren Miller provides a short write-up in Shareable on how Joseph Grima and Space Caviar explored changing notions of domesticity at the 2014 Biennale Interieur. "At this year's Biennale Interieur in Kortrijk, Belgium, British …
Related Article
1 November 2014
The challenge of connecting the unconnected
Every time we return to or sign up for an Internet service (e.g. Facebook, Google, Gmail, YouTube, etc.), writes Hassan Baig on TechCrunch, we rely on what UX experts call a “mental model” for navigating …
Related Article
27 October 2014
Five things marketers can learn from designers
Why are highly successfully companies putting top-notch designers in key leadership roles, ask David Weber and Lisa Leslie Henderson. What are designers bringing to the table that marketers and other c-level players are not? "In today’s …
Related Article
19 October 2014
Update on EU research on energy efficient built environments
The European Commission funds research on a lot of important thematic areas, and in recent years the themes of sustainability and participatory approaches have received a lot of attention. This has made way for companies …

We are an international experience design consultancy helping companies and organisations to innovate their products, services and processes by putting people and their experiences first.

19 December 2014
Putting People First blog redesigned

Experientia’s Putting People First blog has been redesigned. It is now entirely responsive, allows for easier browsing, searching, and filtering, and features larger images on the posts. The entire history of posts remains accessible as before. We are still tweaking things and welcome any feedback.

27 November 2014
Why the world needs anthropologists – an update

Why the world needs anthropologists – Coming out of the ivory tower Location: Padua, Italy, Centro Culturale Altinate/San Gaetano Date and time: Friday, 5 December 2014, 13:00 – 18:00 Padua, Italy, 5 December 2014 – The second edition of the international symposium of applied anthropologists attempts to erase the boundary between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ anthropology, […]

30 October 2014
The BancoSmart ATM by Experientia for UniCredit selected for ADI Design Index

Last year Experientia designed the interface of an ATM of UniCredit, a major Italian bank. The interface is now rolled out across the bank’s ATMs in Italy, to great satisfaction of the bank and the customers alike, since interaction speed is much faster and error rates went down dramatically. Last year UniCredit and Experientia also […]

29 October 2014
Experientia at EPIC: UX transforming a financial institution

In September 2014 Experientia gave a presentation on working as UX professionals with financial institutions at the EPIC conference in New York. The paper is now available on the EPIC site in HTML and PDF versions (free registration req’d). Abstract Application of a user-centered approach rooted in ethnographic methodologies facilitates a major European bank’s transition […]

25 October 2014
Experientia president to speak at User Friendly 2014 in China

Experientia president Michele Visciola is one of the keynote speakers at User Friendly 2014, the annual user experience conference of UXPA China, to be held in Wuxi, China, 13 to 16 November. The theme of the 11th conference is the “new era of the experience economy,” thus underlining the importance of transferring UX concepts and […]

19 October 2014
Event: Why the world needs anthropologists

An upcoming event is encouraging anthropologists to “come out of their ivory towers” and work more closely with their colleagues in the field, in order to bridge the gap between “pure” and “applied” anthropology. The international symposium “Why the world needs anthropologists” (Facebook page) will be held on 5 December 2014 in Padua, Italy. Experientia […]

See all articles