I stumbled upon a fantastic webpage by Ehsan Nourish titled Everyone Deserves Great Design. Seemingly fed up with poor design, Ehsan reveals guidelines designers should follow in order to make products that matter. He continues by recognizing that just because a product has a social mission does not automatically make that product great. On everyonedeservesgreatdesign.com you’ll find 4 examples that are used to highlight instances where socially just concepts fail to deliver long-lasting, impactful solutions. Most of these examples sound great on paper, but fail shortly after their implementation. Furthermore, designers who create these products are often wearing a “holier-than-thou” hat that suggests they know better than the folks they are designing for simply because of their unique skill set. I completely share Eshan’s frustration here but I would also like to expand on it slightly.
Anytime a foreigner (literal or figurative) comes into a new environment to create a solution there is a certain responsibility of mindfulness and tact that must come along. The need for a tactful approach spans from consultants working with an organization to designers working across continents. The more the culture for which the designer is solving for deviates from the culture with which they are familiar, the need for sensitive consideration grows. Tact. Yes. Absolutely. But beyond that the solutions need to be mindful of how they can be truly impactful in their environments.
All of the concepts that Eshan criticizes are similar in that they are made from foreign materials by foreigners. Foreign materials that can not be locally sourced significantly decrease the long-term success of an concept. Non-local sourcing of materials is inefficient and makes it difficult to repair or reproduce concepts. Designers can minimize resource inefficiencies by empowering the locals. If local materials and the local community are involved throughout the entire design process, then the likelihood of an innovative solution’s ability to solve wicked problems increases exponentially. The local community can sustain the concept not simply because they have plenty of raw materials readily available but because they have a deep familiarity and connection with the design.
Designers shouldn’t act as prescribers of solutions. At the very least they should have a foundational understanding of the local culture and customs. Better still, the designer can be an enabler, guiding locals to create their own solutions. The difference here ensures solutions are built using the local minds, local labor, and local materials. This allows independence and prevents communities from being dependent on the designers to maintain or refine solutions. If this approach was more common, there would not be idling Soccket balls waiting for repair and locals could reengineer PlayPumps to pump as fast as the original pumps they replaced. The difference here is not between giving a man a fish and teaching a man to fish. In fact, it is closer to teaching men to teach others how to fish—which has a more profound, sustainable impact.