David Stairs
“The subordinate place of history, theory, and criticism in design education is concomitant with the difficulty most designers have in envisioning forms of practice other than those already given by the culture.” –Victor Margolin

Turf Wars

When Victor Margolin published those words in 2002 in his Politics of the Artificial I chastised him for being too tentative about change. It seemed to me at that time that the design world was on the verge of embracing socially relevant design, one of the new forms Margolin was advocating for. I had just returned from two years overseas. HOW magazine had published an article about my initiative starting a 501(c)(3) called Designers Without Borders, and there had been a mild ripple of interest, mostly from younger designers ostensibly looking for alternative design practice opportunities. This was the era before Speak Up and Core 77 had made blogger/activists out of a majority of the designers in North America. Designmatters was a new program at Art Center, not a New York radio broadcast. Design for Social Impact was Ennis Carter’s studio in Philadelphia, not a Rockefeller Foundation initiative to “explore fresh business models for systematically engaging with the social sector.” And Ideas That Matter, seemed, well, like an idea that really mattered. It’s only seven short years ago, but I’m beginning to think of it as “the good old days.”

Nowadays, on any given afternoon, I am reminded how different things are. Social networking has struck the design world with the force of the Indonesian tsunami bringing changes of sorts, but no guarantees of lasting change. For example, the nomenclature conflicts referred to in the preceding paragraph have grown exponentially, resulting in unnecessary and unwanted turf battles. I never imagined I was being terribly original when I named DWB back in 2000. God knows there’s Reporters, Engineers, Doctors, Lawyers, and probably Janitors Without Borders. What I did do, at least, was conduct a Google search before claiming the domain name, which is more than this group at the New York Institute of Technology bothered to do. And while I’m happy to concede the acronym DWB to Catherine Wentworth at Designers Who Blog, I’m less likely to bless the Norsk Form group Design Without Borders. They have worked with the art school at Makerere University since 2005, or about five years after our first association there. I met their representatives during my last stint in Uganda (2006-2007) and can personally attest to their generally naïve and uncooperative approach to development through design, but you wouldn’t know this from their online presence. And even they have competition for their domain name! For all our talk about “planning,” human beings don’t plan very well in the collective sense— civilization is just too complex. The beauty of the hives’ single-minded purpose doesn’t translate to people. As Americans we are raised to love independent choice, but this is precisely what leads to disaster when applied on a global scale. And it is no different with social design, where competition for the Internet “commons” is much more prevalent than cooperation. Add to this the fact that 98% of designers when asked say they want only to design, not plan, write grants, fund raise, correspond, or do any of the nine-hundred other nitty little things necessary to helping less fortunate people and you’re left with a large, well educated audience wearing blinders.

GEAR UP critique
Mariana Amatullo at Central Michigan University, April 2009

Uncritical Mass

My friend Mariana Amatullo is fond of saying that, where design assistance for the world’s troubles is concerned, “more is more,” and on a good day I very much want to agree with her. But the amount of available funding seems to be in inverse proportion to the deluge of books and blogs devoted to “the cause,” which are beginning to overload my circuits. In addition to Cameron Sinclair’s Design Like You Give A Damn are recent books by David Berman (Do Good Design), Emily Pilloton (Design Revolution), and forthcoming from Peleg Top (Designing For the Greater Good). Do a Google search of the latter title and you’ll hit a long list of related-by-sentiment-but-otherwise-unrelated courses, companies, and design coalitions. The blogosphere is even more bloated. Design 21 Social Design Network, not to be confused with The Social Design Site, (the only design site to make the list of 100 Best Blogs for Those Who Want to Change the World) beat Change Observer out of the box by at least two years. Its lists of organizations and individuals include, again, my Design Without Borders friends from Norway, Socially Conscious Graphic Design, and the Designers Accord, a group that refers to itself as “The Kyoto Treaty of Design.” All these organizations could fall under the self-definition rubric of Designers Accord: “The Designers Accord is a coalition of designers, educators, researchers, engineers, business consultants, and corporations, who are working together to create positive environmental and social impact.” Didn’t forget anybody there, except maybe the world’s have-nots, whose lives all of these professionals are ostensibly working with the zeal of missionaries to improve.

Part of the problem has to do with saturation. The best way to spread an ideology (or organization) these days is to give prospective participants a sense of belonging and having a job to do. George H.W. Bush branded it forever in his infamous “Thousand Points of Light” speech, where he tried to justify government indifference by encouraging personal volunteerism. Problem is, where everyone’s a volunteer there’s considerable redundancy and little or no coordination. Just check out the AIGA Who’s Who list of “consultants” at Project M’s site. They’re achieving what I’d call a critical mass of celebrity endorsement. (Project M is an initiative where young designers “do social good” by ponying up $1500 or more in a sort of altruism by subscription scheme. I suppose it feels better than paying the same amount of money to attend a national conference.)

Any number of organizations would like to corner the title of “advocate supreme” in this online world game. Designers Accord claims 170,000 signatories, while Design Observer, always proud of its numbers, boasts millions of page hits per year. AIGA, which oversees the Aspen Challenge (design the future of water indeed!), is married to ICOGRADA and ICSID, and collaborates with INDEX (talk about consolidating politically correct power!) even has competition from its own baby aiga’s. The AIGA San Francisco chapter’s started running a competition entitled cause/affect, “a biennial graphic design competition which celebrates the work of designers and organizations who set out to positively impact our society.” Given that competitions are part and parcel of design education in its currently ossified form, many designers fix on the unfortunate idea that entering competitions is the best way to help people. And did you ever meet a designer who had set out to negatively impact society?

A linked sampling of “feet on the ground” mom and pop (and sometimes more) design organizations

Developed World Guilt, or Fashion Fetish?

If this blur of hysteria begins to make you feel a little woozy, join the club. I’m all about helping people, spend much time doing so, and I agree with Mariana that there’s more than enough pain to go around in this world. The people trolling the net and re-posting RSS feeds for the pleasure of their Twitter “possees” are just engaging in a big circle jerk. But beyond such dim sighted initiatives something else lurks: the sudden widespread enthusiasm for social amelioration through design. It’s so terribly trendy to care, about the poor, the environment, and every form of “betterment” that I begin to assume we must be selling more design by fetishizing social relevance.

In reference to this weblog some people have asked me, “What the hell does Design-Altruism mean anyway? Do you really think altruism is the solution for social problems?” And I’ll answer, “Of course I do,” which gets me into many long-winded debates. Others may wonder whats to complain about; after all, designers, design students, and educators are finally paying attention, or so it seems. But I’m also interested in celebrating younger people who have acknowledged and are working respectfully to bridge the nearly impossible divide that exists between the haves and the have-nots in this world. Arvind Lodaya put it cogently, ironically in response to another Margolin article this time on D-A-P, where he politely pointed out the limits of the design world’s understanding of and ability to affect society’s power imbalances.

My concern with the popularity of Facebook design groups and socially conscientious design blogs is that, rather than muster wider awareness, they will cause both a false sense of general accomplishment, and result in donor-fatigue. The growth of a category of what are called “slacktivists,” people who use their interest in design/politics to justify joining online groups and building websites for remote non-profits, fails to address the world’s problems with feet-on-the-ground solutions. Such solutions must be, in development parlance, sustainable, not as an international set of environmental standards like Designers Accord is trying to push, but as a continuing physical presence in the world’s “difficult” places. A two-week seminar, or a three-week “design camp” might be fun and informative, but ultimately, it is just more of the design-for-profit-business-as-usual mentality where busy people tear themselves away from other more lucrative commitments for brief-but-expensive feel-good professional gatherings. As a faculty member who leads semester-long socially based projects, when the semester is over it is often hard to sustain student interest and momentum in the project. Ironically, in graphic design education there are now so many people attempting to do this, one no longer really needs corporate sponsorship to “ignite change,” although much more could be said about differing definitions of what change should entail.

According to Wes Janz, “For way too many people, ‘changing the world’ is equivalent to ‘controlling the world,’ ‘telling the world,’ ‘educating the world.'” He goes on to say, “I don’t see many people understanding, as I said to Tyree Guyton, that we can change the world by being changed by the world. It’s always, my terms, our terms, our intentions, our actions, our ideas, and in the end, it’s just the same designer-as-hero bullshit to me, whether in Malawi, Kosovo, or Muncie.” I seem to have painted my idealism into a skeptical corner by asking the question, “What are we doing with this social design trope?” Are we really helping the world? To the design devoteé the answer to this last query is an unequivocal “yes.” But there are certainly more questions that need asking than the ones those who believe design will save the world are willing to ask. Personally, I continue to do what I’ve been doing all along, and try not to be distracted by the membership organizations. To me assisting flesh-and-blood people matters, not LinkedIn group sizes or number of site hits or strings of Tweets. These latter items will continue to factor to funding organizations that must justify their portfolio management quantitatively. And where they might make a difference, they can be part of the mix (some online examples, like Simon Berry’s ColaLife initiative, have been successful).

At the end of the day isn’t it the person with the most mud on his or her shoes, not the one with the most conference speaking engagements, who is doing the important work? Then again, perhaps Wes Janz said it best. Describing a recent social design presentation he attended he said, “…And, you know, it’s all good, an orphanage in Sri Lanka, house inspections in Mississippi post-Katrina, a community center in Kenya… But I just got sick of it and had this idea that you should change the name of DWB to Designers With Borders. As in, maybe there should be some boundaries, some active awarenesses that we are unqualified, or unfit, or unable to work borderlessly.” I think he’s got something there.

David Stairs is editor of Design-Altruism-Project.

28 Responses to “Arguing With Success”

  1. raymond Says:

    Your words have been ringing in my ears for several years, now. What are we doing, on whose dime, and who benefits? Do we need another conference to tell us to save the world? Are we involving the have-nots in the discussion or just talking at and about them? Do they even want or need to be ‘saved’? and from what? Are we looking at cultures thousands of years in the making and asking them to be like us? Are we commoditizing the have-nots? What’s so important about what ‘we’ have to say, anyway?

    I teeter back and forth over joining and leading and ask everyone to question either as a means of moving forward. Maybe we ought to just leave everyone alone. Step back and let the have-nots contribute what they want to the conversation, and if they don’t want to join, let them not join, let them converse amongst themselves as they always have, as they have seen fit to do, and don’t chastise them for it.

    The mud on my shoes is worth far less than the mud on theirs.

  2. Joshua Reese Says:

    Captivating article, Dave. I use the word “captivating” not as a superlative but in earnest because it is with similar intentions that I had begun my MFA research, using your project and Project M as touchpoints. Now I’m not sure where I stand, as the “social change” battle-cry doesn’t seem to attach to anything significant. This may not make much sense, but it seems the more people get behind a movement, the more the movement resembles adding vaseline to a once clear lens.

  3. Victor Margolin Says:

    You are right about too many people talking the talk and not walking the walk. Yes, the airwaves can become cluttered with good intentions and no action. As one example of laudatory action, I would like to cite the Rural Studio, an architectural studio started by the late Samuel Mockbee at Auburn University. Students working in the Rural Studio build homes for people who could not otherwise afford to build their own. Habitat for Humanity is another example. I suspect that there are quite a few activist design projects, perhaps more in the area of building than in product design. I am skeptical of the IDEO designers who proclaim their social conscience for having gone to Africa to design a better device of some kind some where. But there are designers from developed countries who have helped people in the developing world. I share your cynicism about people who talk and do nothing but it would be worthwhile to identify and promote those situations where something is being done. Otherwise, it would be too easy to become cynical about intentions to design for the social good.

  4. Kenneth FitzGerald Says:

    An excellent post that will reliably be misinterpreted as saying that “designers shouldn’t be altruistic” rather than succinctly pointing out how altruism is being used for self-aggrandizement (you forgot to mention the founding trope-r: Bruce Mau and “Massive Change”) and has become bandwagonesque. Good luck!

  5. Felix Desroches Says:

    Great thought piece, if a little cynical (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing!).

    While I also tend to value mud-on-boots, the truth is that without the higher level players, there would be no funding, organizational support or political will/drive to even let the boots do their thing. As with all symbiotic relationships, it’s a delicate balance of give and take.

    I always figured that DWB really meant Designers Without (traditional) Borders, meaning that the basic premise is right – we just happen to have lost our way and it’s time to get back on track.

  6. arvind Says:

    One fundamental barrier in my experience of debating this issue lies in the deeply-ingrained attitude that I’ve encountered in most west-educated or -following designers (and non-designers alike): even the slightest hint of diminishing the “three C’s” of comfort, cleanliness and convenience (Elizabeth Shove: http://www.amazon.com/Comfort-Cleanliness-Convenience-Organization-Technologies/dp/1859736300) evokes passionate reactions, typified by the comment “Are you trying to take us backwards?!” Shove demonstrates the mismatched curve between growth of these three qualities in everyday life and its increasingly marginal value but exponential environmenal cost. In this scenario, altruism also seems like a completely inadequate substitute for what really needs to be done. Clues to that I get from Gandhi and several other doer-thinkers, who are the real design exemplars. As long as we remain subscribed to the modernist-positivist idea of progress, the good life and scientific positivism, we cannot come up with truly alternative ideas. As Einstein said famously, “Those who created the problem in the first place cannot be expected to solve it.”

  7. JB Says:

    ..and it’s not just designers helping where they can :

  8. Wes Janz Says:

    To follow the reference to the work of Auburn University’s Rural Studio in western Alabama, in one of the country’s poorest counties, and in the spirit of Design-Altruism-Project . . .

    It must be said, as someone who’s overseen just one full-scale design-build project: the body of work completed by the students and faculty of the Rural Studio is beyond impressive. The publicity the program has garnered and the influence it’s had on architectural education throughout the United States are evidence of the good work they have conceived and completed.

    It must also be acknowledged that it is the case that every design-build project done in poor neighborhoods or communities, for (apparently) distressed persons, by well-intentioned students, professors, and practitioners throughout the U.S. is viewed as an unqualified success. Every one.

    I visited Rural Studio projects twice in recent years, in Newbern, Mason’s Bend, and Marion. During a driving tour to the Gulf Coast in December 2007, we stopped in Mason’s Bend to visit several houses there, along with one of the Studio’s signature projects, the Community Center. I didn’t recognize it. The project’s signature elements—car windshields (purchased in Chicago and driven to Alabama)—were gone, apparently no one could figure out how to keep fungus from growing on them. Weeds invaded the main entryway, there was dust or dirt or rubble on most surfaces. And a full-size, worn mobile home was parked immediately alongside–and by immediately I mean three feet away. When Sam Mockbee called this building “as cutting edge as any piece of architecture that you can find in the United States,” I don’t think that he’d imagined that it would fall into such disrepair just five years after its completion and that it could be seen, at worst, as a grand failure, or at best, of no local consequence.

    For a photo gallery, go to: http://www.flickr.com/photos/onesmallproject/sets/72157617064738454/

    (It should be said that a colleague, on a more recent visit to Mason’s Bend, said the glass has been replaced with a slightly different detail, that the weeds were removed, but the trailer remains. It is the case that such projects and places have trajectories.)

    Still, maybe the “cutting edge” that the Mason’s Bend Community Center provides us is a chance to ask: what went wrong? We must evaluate all these projects, being honest and open regarding not only the successes, but the failures as well.

    One set of evaluative criteria must have something to do with project authorship and ownership. Is it our project–where the students and professors take the lead, present the building as a kind of gift to the local community, and then leave and go on with their careers and lives? To the best of my limited knowledge, this is the case for most university-based programs as the students’ experiences are the primary concern. There’s a basic disconnection here that must be addressed. In many cases, we’ve simply shifted the geography of the architect-as-hero from the city to the country, from the uptown development to the rural chapel made of used tires (another signature project of the Rural Studio).

    Too often, the same aspects of privileged positionality are being played out without being acknowledged as such. A lot of this activity looks very familiar to the very conventions it is supposed to challenge.

    Can we shift the emphasis, to cause such processes and works to belong to all involved, both today and in the future?

    Is it their project–the local people–and do those with architectural knowledge provide support for local needs, identities, and futures?

    How do we cause a building to belong to the community first, and then to the architect, or the locals’ memory of the architect? I suggest we ask: Is a building what is needed? What is the local building culture? Who are the locals and what are the local ideas about the construction process? We know which local people were there at the beginning; who will be involved in the future? What sorts of commitments are we architects willing to make to the local community and people? Do architects appreciate that architecture can do only so much?

    Engaged architects are trying. Still, it seems, most do architecture on behalf of someone else: see Habitat FOR Humanity, Architecture FOR Humanity, or the “Design FOR the Other 90%” exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt (which David has written about in his piece “Why Design Won’t Save the World”). Architects tend to see people as consumers of our knowledge: we design for them, we teach to them, and we give to them. They receive from us, they thank us, and they consume (i.e., pay for) our knowledge.

    Or the architecture is done for the architects (or architecture students), first and foremost. Such is the case at the Rural Studio where the first sentence of the mission states that the primary intention “is to enable each participating student to cross the threshold of misconceived opinions to create/design/build and to allow students to put their educational values to work as citizens of a community.”

    I’m not saying this is wrong. It might be considered to be wonderful. I’m just pointing out that tension exists between a university program’s objectives and what might be appropriate for a local person or people, and that we don’t talk about this at all.

    Within such well-intentioned and very important initiatives, it can be suggested that the designers’ best intentions often do not begin with local understandings, talents, and needs. Agency is not extended when design is done FOR someone else or one’s self, if “they” consume (purchase, use, accept, take, appreciate) what “we” produce, if what is given is what “we” believe is best for “them.”

    Four years ago, four fifth-year thesis students of mine proposed to design and build a pavilion for a church in Muncie, Indiana. They found this energy in themselves after I brought Suzan Wines and Azin Valy of I-Beam Design to Ball State to lead a four-day Timber Pallet Workshop. The four–Jason Barisano, Kyle Hardie, Ryan Hinz, and Ben Luebke–spent a lot of time with the congregation organizing fund-raising pot lucks, asking if any of the parishioners could contribute their own skills, trolling locally for free materials, overseeing Saturday construction events, and the like. I had little to do with this energy, except to set out large questions, ideas, approaches, and to work to keep the energy rolling. I’m confident this project is and will be successful: it is a building the parishioners wanted for a number of years, a building the parishioners–adults and children–helped design and construct, and a building that is obviously an active part of the church’s culture (weddings and baptisms are held in it, as are small services, study sessions, meetings, casual conversations, and Sunday get-togethers, and the landscaping plan has been altered to pull the pavilion into the larger site and complex).

    For images of the design process of the pavilion, see: http://onesmallprojectwiki.pbworks.com/Pavilion%253A-Muncie

    Maybe there’s something important in these basic notions of need, involvement, and local sourcing.

  9. Mariana Amatullo Says:

    I commend you for making all of us in this field reflect with your thought-provoking piece and I am humbled to have Designmatters at Art Center in the mix and in the context of a dialogue that I believe is necessary and healthy to advance the field and keep us all honest.
    I like to say to our students that this is not work for a good cause necessarily (or charity) and if nothing else, it is harder, more demanding and necessitates our starting from a perspective of huge humility. This is why we embrace it so seriously at the college, you cannot ask for a more rigorous challenge to take up from an educator’s perspective. 7 years plus with Designmatters, I remain always in awe to my fellow colleagues in the Art Center faculty and project partners who make the process and outcomes happen, one project at a time.

  10. admin Says:

    Readers might also find Arvind Lodaya’s 2002 paper “Reality Check” pertinent to this discussion. It can be found here: http://geocities.com/lodaia/paper_rchk.htm

  11. cameron sinclair Says:

    I know the rules of CC:ing all – but I HAVE to break them and say. Wow.
    Great, great piece.

    My biggest criticism in recent months is the willingness for the media (both
    online and print) to make everything a ‘happy puppy’ story when someone says,
    “I’m designing for good.” There is an article on designing bad – creating
    change for the worse. I can name a bunch of ours that we’re a real f’up.

    As a result, for the past year I’ve been trying to organize a conference on
    failure as there seems to be this impression that in the non profit world –
    you must have 100% success record. No one actually doing the work believes
    this and it is always a sign when someone tells me how great their ‘do-gooder’
    projects went – I usually ask “for who?”

    I find David to be a source of grounding, a constant reminder of asking the
    question why? Thank you for this piece, for me it was a well-timed read.

    We are in the midst of changing our ‘metrics’ after a year of being swayed
    by certain potential funders to show numbers or ‘impact’. Fortunately we had
    a project partner, who already funds us, who called BS on this – as the push
    for numbers goes up, the quality goes down – the mission and intent is
    diluted. Our ‘metrics’ are no longer about numbers.

    Anyway thanks again. Kudos for being part of the small collective of
    critical thinkers and doers in this space.


    PS. DLYGAD was written by the whole Architecture for Humanity team (much to
    DAPs’ chagrin). With 12 contributing writers it was amazing to see them
    argue for us (Kate and I) to put our names on the book. I can’t take credit for that.

  12. Single Maria Says:

    Thanks for the post. I am a designer. Not the famous one. But I do what I like I don’t worry.

  13. niti bahn Says:

    Your last two paragraphs make the point. Thank you for writing this and questioning everything.

  14. john thackara Says:

    Thanks, David, for adding useful energy and background to this timely discussion.

    But let’s not beat ourselves up too much about the story so far. Sure, a lot of design-to-do-good projects are driven by unclear – or even, sometimes, base motives.

    But in my experience, people will tell you pretty damn quickly if they feel they are being patronised, or expoited, or not listened to.

    I wrote a while back about my own conviction that, as designers, we can usually do more good in our own backyards than in foreign parts.

    It is, in principle, great that colleagues donate their time and expertise to projects such as $100 laptops, emergency shelter, and mobile hospitals. And pledging to do good, and be good, is a relatively harmless thing to do.

    But I’m indeed troubled by the words “poverty alleviation” and “social impact”.

    Those words — like the word “development” — imply, to me, anyway, that we advanced people in the North are under some kind of moral obligation to help backward people in the South “catch up” with our own advanced condition – and that we have to use brute design force to do so.

    The most powerful lesson for me, after 20 years working as a visitor on projects in India and South Asia, is that we have more to learn from smart ‘poor’ people on things like ecology, connectivity, environmental ethics, or shared devices and infrastructures, than they have to learn from us.

    But we still have a lot to offer – so long as we do so respectfully, and in listening mode.

    I made a reading list, after a lecture in London, of some texts that spell this out better than I can:

  15. Koz Says:

    Nice Stairs, very nice. Now I am looking forward to the http://www.starbuckswithoutborders.com website and a Twitter page to go along with it!

  16. Kevin Murray Says:

    In most cases your criticism seems to hit the right target, but I’m wary of its consequences.

    Most philanthropic gestures are vulnerable to the allegation of ‘tokenism’. Often clumsy attempts to include a diversity of backgrounds in an activity lead to a counter-reaction where it seems better to stick with the people we know.

    I’m with John Thackara that we need some kind of reciprocal relationship in these collaborations to ensure that they are meaningful. This means for every Design for the other 90% we should have something like a Craft for Our 10%. Modernity can never adequately account for the rootlessness than makes it possible. If we can find ways of packaging out modernity in design outreach then we should be able to accept some tradition and meaning in return.

    The great opportunity about the Kyoto Protocol is the acknowledgement of two worlds – rich and poor – and that a solution to climate change must reflect both. Rich can’t speak on behalf of the poor.

    It’s important to keep the conversation open.

  17. Agroblogger Says:

    A stark reminder of the importance of perceptions and actions in the open design movement. It floors me to think of open design as a fashion trend, but when I ponder it, it really doesn’t surprise me, I suppose.

    I’ve always conceived of the movement as a path to personal and communal liberation, and in that sense I’ve thought of OSAT and distributed fabrication/design as a step towards a silent and insidious revolution. Corporate structures are undermined by true swadeshi; in this sense, the fictitious schism between First World and Third dissolves, as a general model of technological innovation moves us towards swadeshi.

    Is our movement one of craftspeople and local activists, or are we just social butterflies with ADD?

  18. Deja Says:

    I am a bit disturbed by your idealistic and negative generalizing of the movement of design for social change. I agree it has become popular and perhaps even trendy in some circles to be a “socially conscious do gooder.” But isn’t this a good thing? Everyone who joins in might not be actually doing something, but at least they are acknowledging they care. That said, many people are doing something and they are getting their shoes muddy.

    I worked at an agency where nobody cared about socially-conscious design. It was all about bigger clients and bigger profits. Those designers didn’t set out to negatively impact society, but they didn’t care what the impact was. Frankly, it was depressing to me. Isn’t it better that people care?

    I’ve always been motivated to do work that is a positive contribution to the world, long before I ever knew about the Designers Accord or Ideo. I’ve traveled all over the world and I’ve done loads of volunteering that I feel has made an honest difference. I feel your statements above are belittling to a vast amount of well-intentioned and successful work that is being done as part of this so-called social design movement. To me, it’s refreshing how many initiatives and groups are popping up with the intent of social change.

    I don’t know any of the big players, such as Valerie Casey, Tim Brown, or others who attend speaking gigs and expensive conferences (and it does annoy me how the Aspen Summit is so exclusive), but the people I know are part of this for the right reasons. They are not trying to “fix” the other 90% or the developing world. They are simply taking responsibility for the impact of their work and trying to create work with a meaningful and positive outcome for whomever/whatever it effects.

  19. admin Says:


    The road to neo-colonialism is paved with good intentions.

    David Stairs

  20. Kieran Says:

    David, thanks for this important and timely post. I’ve been following the discussion here and on Design Observer over the last few weeks and it’s not before time that this subject received some critical reflection. The attitude that design which is well-intentioned or done for a perceived ‘good’ should be exempt from any kind of criticism is troubling and it’s admirable to see it being challenged.

    The rhetoric that has developed by designers ‘working for social change’ has often struck me as naive, and grossly arrogant in some cases. Constant evangelical celebration of design in the ‘design will save the world‘ vein, has blinded many designers to the fact that may not be best equipped to do the good they intend to do. It also has the effect of belittling the smaller, more local and less heroic work that they could be engaged in within their own communities.

    “The road to neo-colonialism is paved with good intentions.” – Indeed, although Ivan Illich put it a little less politely when he said ‘To hell with good intentions’:

    This controversial address to well-intentioned American students volunteering among poor communities in Mexico in 1968 is pretty harsh in some respects, but provides a valuable lesson in understanding the social complexities of doing such work. He also celebrates the quality of being humble – a quality that would be good to see more of in design.

  21. Nii Says:

    It ACTUALLY SHOULD NOT BE Design FOR the other 90% as I realised some time ago its design WITH & BY the 90%. Anything else is bulldust. And this coming from a “designer” in the “other” 90% geographicaly but in education, training and otherwise might just as well be as “lost” as the rest of the “10%” who “design for the other 90%”

    It is the wise person indeed who knows that they do not know.

  22. Abby Says:

    Our generation of designers (in our twenties, possibly early thirties) have not only a sense of entitlement, but feel we are also have a responsibility to make our voices heard. And while I applaud the activism, I too wonder where this attitude comes from. In a sense, it is fashionable to show that we care, more than it is to actually care. We publicize our efforts through our blogs, tweets and personal websites. But does this contribute more toward narcissism than actual social change? I think it does. As long as we have someone paying attention, a group willing to follow our efforts and pat us on the back for our noble attempts, we are fueled and our efforts continue to grow into new and exciting endeavors, which lead us to think we really are changing the world. At least, we tell ourselves, we are trying, and that has to count for something, right?

    Now, more than ever before, designers have come into the foreground of society. We are no longer the individuals behind the design, instead we place ourselves in the foreground, saying, “Look, this is me, and this is what I’ve created. This is what I’ve contributed.” Maybe we should step back and let our work speak for itself. And—if it’s truly successful—we will have made a difference in the world without needing the recognition for it.

  23. Collaboration Fail | Appropedia Blog Says:

    […] Stairs of the Design Altruism Project argues that many collaborations aren't actually collaborative. In a sobering post, he notes that people […]

  24. arvind Says:

    What John Thackara says needs perhaps to be realized and acted upon by those of us in the developing world first. We have innumerable examples of sustainable and socially responsive innovations and business models in our midst, that are only being systematically wiped out by the forces of development and modernisation – mainly, because they don’t ‘look’ modern or sexy enough – we, like the rest of the world, see these as messy, dirty, unattractive spaces. Instead, we persist in regurgitating obsolete fantasies of western-style lifestyles to ourselves and our younger generations. Eventually, we’re peddling imagery and symbolism – designers, media and policy makers alike.

  25. opinion: found it late, but it might change my mind « dovetailing Says:

    […] found it late, but it might change my mind This has to be the one piece of writing about the whole issue of social design that really put things […]

  26. Letter from Baltimore: The Humanitarian-Design Debate | Metropolis POV | Metropolis Magazine Says:

    […] normally get it seems to have hit a critical mass, and with it comes the inevitable backlash. In an entry written last fall on his Design Altruism Project Web site, David Stairs lit a firestorm of debate when he argued that […]

  27. Susan Charlotte Says:

    This is a comment on the popularity of social media and its resulting ‘false sense of accomplishment’ and ‘donor fatigue’.

    According to Jonathan Yang, in his The Rough Guide to Blogging (see reference in the ‘Book’ page at http://susancharlotte.wordpress.com), in 2006 there were between 8 to 30 million blogs lurking about the web. And according to Technorati (www.technorati.com) around 100,000 new blogs were created daily (again 2006), making for a doubling of the blogosphere every 5 months.

    These statistics indicate that by 2010 blogs would be a dominating online force, except for the fact that many blogs ‘die’ after a single post (remain inactive cluttering the ether) and apparently, according to Yang, only 10% of blogs are updated regularly.

    As part of my studies as a Graphic Design student I am required to set-up accounts broadly across the social media network and generate traffic to my site, This is an exercise in marketing our own work, learning how to set up marketing tools for clients, ‘controlling’ our own online presence and professional collaboration.

    I’m relatively new to the whole online world and it interests me that I’d never heard of Blogs until last year, when, as students we were required to post homework on class Blog sites. I first thought that bloggers blogging to other bloggers are only preaching to the converted. But the phenomenon is increasing so rapidly that masses are being converted daily.

    Much of it seems to just be a way of sticking a hand up to be seen in any way.

    In my reading I came across this passage recently “Orwell concluded in his “Pleasure Spots” essay by arguing that we need solitude, creative work and a sense of wonder as much as warmth, society, leisure, comfort and security, and that “man only stays human by preserving large patches of simplicity in his life.” (p.333, Clarke, Thurston,2001, Searching For Crusoe, A Journey Among The Last Real Islands, Ballantine Publ group,USA)

    I’m wondering how this is possible for many people now with the time required to regularly update sites, and keep in touch with their many followers? How does this phenomenon affect the human requirement for solitude and simplicity?

    Although I sound negative about this concept, it’s just the initial impact of the eye-opener. I am also realizing quickly, the benefit of collaboration among designers, especially the ability to raise and discuss issues with a broad audience.

  28. Christer Says:

    “he Norsk Form group Design Without Borders. They have worked with the art school at Makerere University since 2005, or about five years after our first association there. I met their representatives during my last stint in Uganda (2006-2007) and can personally attest to their generally naïve and uncooperative approach to development through design”

    Those are some very harsh words, I’m sitting at a lecture with this group right now (rudely typing away on my netbook) — could you be more specific?

    Incidentally, this group was also established in 2001