In response to Bruce Nussbaum v Emily Pilloton in the debate Is Humanitarian Design a New Kind of Imperialism? they both make good points although I do agree Nussbaum needs to do his research.
I love design and I love travelling so it would be great to combine both and do design work overseas for entirely selfish reasons — but I do accept Nussbaum’s criticism that the motives and intent behind people delivering design services in other cultures can influence the effectiveness of their design work.
However by following a rigorous evidence-based design methodology with an aim to implement a solution that is desirable, feasible and viable in the local context then I believe designers can contribute in a meaningful and positive way in any situation regardless of their attitude and reasons for being there.
To extend Nussbaum’s argument sighted designers shouldn’t be designing for blind or vision impaired people; non-cognitively impaired designers shouldn’t be designing for cognitively impaired people.
I think it’s absurd to expect designers to stay within the confines of their own cultural silo because apparently they are unable to empathetically and sensitively embed themselves in another culture in order to apply their design expertise.
Designers are facilitators. There’s no place for cowboy designers, lone wolves who storm in, make a mess of things and leave again. Like a catalyst, we guide others who truly understand the situation to develop the solution without us actually being part of it. It would upset me for someone to point to something I’d been involved with as a designer and label it as mine — it’s a group effort. If someone attribute a design exclusively to me then I’ve done something terribly wrong.
Even though Nussbaum’s blog post did get my blood pressure up a bit I do concede he’s got a point — about bad designers. I don’t believe such criticism can be levelled at good designers who make the effort to design and implement sustainable solutions that are relevant to the local context and that are adopted. Hell, I have to deal with the same problems of user adoption and uptake with web applications here — it’s no different. I’ve seen business software deployed with no user consultation or support and be outright rejected even though the developers believed people could be forced to change. I think the “imperialism” angle is overplayed. It really is just about good v poor or unethical design.
As far as the debate goes I think Emily Pilloton spent too much time defending the reputation and good work of Project H Design rather than clarifying Nussbaum’s argument although she did have this to say:
I cringed, but nodded along, agreeing with his assessment that too often humanitarian design is a scattershot “fly-by-night” occurrence in which Designers (with a capital D) swoop in with their capes and “design thinking” to save the poor folks.
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