David Stairs

Dear Bruce, Following your much-discussed July 7th “reasoned but misinformed volley” about design imperialism on the Fast Company blog, you were practically cut off at the knees for your viewpoint. The folks at Fast Company were probably happy about this, but it surprised me largely because I considered your piece not only uncontroversial, but mildly anachronistic. I’m criticizing myself here. Aside from the obvious intersections (age, gender, nationality), we are actually very much alike. Atavistic, I mean. Your critics are also very much alike, aside from the obvious intersections (age, gender, nationality). Terminally hip.

Susan Szenasy, for example, once criticized me for being “old” and “cynical.” In fact, the cynicism trope seems to be a popular one when attempting to refute unfashionable criticism. And Emily Pilloton has also chided me for getting my facts wrong where her work is concerned, a similar complaint of Valerie Casey’s when I critiqued her hegemonic “designspeak” in a piece last year. One could almost wish that “corrective facts” were the only means of critical dialogue. Then I could stop thinking altogether. No more clever comments. Nary an embarrassing gaucherie, not to mention a pithy insight. Please don’t take offense at my calling you anachronistic either. It’s just that references to Peace Corps and Head Start experiences do date you in a way I can relate to. After all, I’m a former boy scout myself.

My more immediate gripe is that it has taken you so long to come around to your current point of view about “humanitarian design” and that, only now, when it has finally become obscenely popular to do so, have you spoken out. My comparable experience also came through a foreign appointment, a Fulbright to Africa. I have been criticized more times than you can shake a stick at for the same things you overheard Emily criticized for in China. But it’s a valid gripe and, as the world evolves and the economic playing-field levels, we’re bound to hear it more and more from our developing world colleagues. In fact, the “next BIG thing” will probably be a rush of innovation originating in studios in Delhi, Rio, and Capetown. All good.

When I returned from my last African residency I posted a piece to Design Observer that garnered a lot of response. Because my essay criticized an exhibit at the National Design Museum Ellen Lupton, a long time friend of the Cooper-Hewitt, called me a “smug expert.” Un-ironically, several of the projects featured in that exhibition’s catalog, including the Q Water Roller, the Life Straw, and the OLPC initiative, have fallen on critical hard times. Other similar endeavors, like the Play Pump and the Hippo Water Roller, are now considered marketing and infrastructure failures. This only reinforces what I’d written about the Western design community and its well-intentioned cheerleaders both at home and abroad. I’ve purposely refrained from joining this discussion to date because, at the risk of offending everyone involved, I don’t hear anyone saying anything new. Your original point is well taken, a little late, but better than never.

The self-appointed Design Divas’ predilection for the truth as they see it will always seem to trump good-old fashioned field experience, whether Peace Corps or Fulbright, but lack of hard experience does come back to haunt them. Maria Popova’s call to redesign our critical language was itself successfully gainsaid by one of her own commentators who suggested that we must first consider redesigning affluence. Do you seriously think anyone from the North and West will volunteer for that assignment? Meanwhile, you’ve nailed the point that everyone else seems to be overlooking: dealing with corrupt and privileged local elites (those who make even imperialism look benign), whether domestic or international, will continue to be a tightrope walk.

The human desire to “do good” is hard wired. Richard Dawkins has immortalized this fact. But everybody’s got turf to protect. So long as some of us live like kings while others live in squalor neo-colonialism and economic hegemonism will be alive and well in the neighborhood, in spite of our frequent lip service to “stakeholders.” And you’re right about another thing: designers from the developed world need to be very careful about how they “intervene” elsewhere. Remember that Arvind Lodaya once called design in the non-Western world a “cultural WMD.” This has been true since at least the time of the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851. I tell my students that, when it comes to such exchanges, especially where another nation’s cultural heritage is concerned, we are all potential terrorists. It’s not a popular message, and I frequently get shot at, but such is the messenger’s fate. By the way Maria, bottom billion in Swahili is “bilioni chini.” Asante na usiku mwema (Thank you and good night), David Stairs

13 Responses to “An Open Letter to Bruce Nussbaum”

  1. admin Says:

    First, thanks for bringing the Nussbaum article to my notice. He is not on my list of must-read columnists, and so I learnt of Emily Pilloton and Project H too – I expect her name will start being toasted in Indian design circles pretty soon (because she brings Fame and Funding; the two criteria for fast-track upward mobility). And next, thanks for writing the rejoinder in your gracious but uncompromising style.

    Only yesterday, I happened to be discussing IDEO’s recent move to India/Mumbai with a fellow designer friend. We are at a cross-institutional design workshop with faculty and students drawn together from Design, Technology/Engineering and Business/Management schools working on – no prizes for guessing – design projects with potential social impact.

    My prediction was IDEO would fail with Indian companies (or the other way round?) in India (they would be brilliant with Indian companies for western markets), but succeed with foreign corporations seeking ‘safe entry’ into India. My advice to IDEO was they should simply acquire a set of local design/consulting agencies rather than go it on their own – which was declared impossible by my friend, who has an inside track into the organization – because “they are so careful about retaining their culture.” My counter-prediction was they could succeed only if they loosen up on this culture thing and allow it to absorb from India and evolve – and have the deep pockets/staying power for as long as it takes (but no, the foreign clients seeking an India entry could fund this process for years).
    This story highlights the challenges faced by a purely commercial venture (but in a culturally-sensitive field) when translocating across cultures and contexts, leave alone design altruism – something that is the focus for a graduate program in Transcultural Design that Srishti is launching in collaboration with a French university this fall. It was precisely this perspective (Fitting your Culture to the Context rather than the other way around, to paraphrase Grandjean) why we rejected the name proposed by our French partners – ‘Cross-Cultural Design’ – which for us has come to mean design by one culture for another – i.e. imperialist undertones.

    I think the time is right for developing country agencies (why only designers?) to ‘export’ help to all those who suffer in the developed world – and much of the rationale for this is provided by commentators criticising Nussbaum (only, one needs to turn their very same arguments 180 degrees). I know you didn’t think all that much of Carolina Vallejo’s part-earnest-part-spoof “Design for the First World” competition, but something like it would make both the helpers and the helped think about the political economy of help more critically – at least, in the design domain. This issue (like many others) has long been problematised in other fields/disciplines (being associated with NGOs helps) – design is only now beginning to acknowledge it.

    While on a residency in Gothenburg this summer, I joked about starting an NGO/CBO there seeing the almost shocking divide between the native Swedish population and the Somali-Pakistani-other immigrant communities, who comprise some 25-odd % of the population but mostly confine themselves to a few suburbs. To their credit, I must say that my hosts did not get all prickly and defensive but admitted this was a serious concern that they were struggling to conceptualize – hence, my offer. We are cursed to see only ‘problems’ and get all moralistic about ‘solving them’ – regardless of what/how the ‘affected’ may think, feel or want.


    PS: I did not even think then that my off-the-cuff ‘cultural WMD’ remark would end up under a spotlight!

  2. admin Says:

    “Off the cuff” comments have a way of staying around. Designers Without Borders started as an off the cuff comment, as did Carolina Vallejo’s Design for the First World.

    Incidentally, I loved Vallejo’s project, even unto supporting it financially through DWB.


  3. c. sinclair Says:

    Thanks for this. I retweeted it to the AFH list (12K). It was a more nuanced version of my critique. Keep on fighting to good fight and keeping folks like Bruce and I in check.


  4. John Thomas Says:

    Though we ought remember not to see ourselves as guardians of how much “Western-ness” the “other” can handle. Which leads to the conclusion of I dunno, stuff.

    (And then what is “Western-ness”, what is “culture”, “border-lines”, “heritage vs. nationality”, etc. – ah the beautiful infinity of nuances reflecting the infinite variety of the human soul)

  5. Jess S. Says:

    David, can you speak to how class/socio-economics come into play in this conversation about cultural imperialism? I feel like there’s a tendency to polarize the talk into “our culture/their culture,” which seems to reduce every culture to a flat playing field, which we all know it never is.

    As in Nussbaum’s description of the “there’s an Indian solution” response from Biyani – within India, there must be many “stakeholder” groups, many versions of an Indian solution, so who determines who gets heard even within that culture?


  6. admin Says:


    I’m going to defer your comment to Arvind, who lives in India.


  7. arvind Says:

    As across nations, within every nation-state there are a multiplicity of cultures and groupings; and there’s certainly a politics across them – including that of access to ‘voice’ (and may I add, ‘ears’). Just as there cannot be a single “American voice”, there cannot be a single “Indian voice” either. However, that does not render every “us versus them” articulation, claiming to be representative, inherently invalid.
    There is an America, and there is an India – sovereign political entities made up of various constituents but speaking through a single voice – their leadership. In my view, this is what determines who gets heard. Surely, there are many voices that do not get heard (though I think that in not a few cases it’s not that they do not speak but rather that the listeners choose to not hear them) – and while this must qualify what we hear (and how we subsequently make sense), this must not discount it either. I heard Mr Bush knowing that he did not represent all (or even most) Americans, but I did not reject his voice merely because of that – it was because subjectively I disagreed with him and objectively doubted his facts.
    In the present context, I find Mr Biyani’s voice refreshingly original and broadly representative, deserving to be heard over the hype around well-meaning design interventions. I would love to hear his views being challenged intellectually or ideologically, or on the basis of facts. I’m sure that in other cases and contexts, I might well challenge Mr Biyani in the same manner.
    The first time I heard a critical voice on the problematics of help though was from a “westerner” albeit many would consider him a traitor – Ivan Illich – one voice that has sadly not been heard sufficiently, even within the west – I refer you to http://www.swaraj.org/illich_hell.htm for a taste of his fierceness. As far back as 1968, he pointed out that there is as much of a “them” within “us” as there is in the “dark corners” of the world.

  8. Mugendi M'Rithaa Says:

    Thanks David – a very sharp response indeed.

    I agree with your assessment and attitude when dealing with cultures
    other than one’s own. I believe that the people with whom designers
    interact are the best judges of the success of such benign ‘design
    interventions’. It would be interesting to hear the voices of some of
    the community members from diverse majority world contexts sharing their

    From where I stand I’m grateful that you’re still ‘part of the

    Cheers, and keep well,


  9. Jess S. Says:

    It seems to me that who gets heard is really a function of who speaks and who chooses to listen. Which in itself is a function of the institutionalized channels of “speaking” and “listening,” for which we are all responsible (the speakers, the listeners, and those doing neither). Which is, of coursing, getting slightly away from David’s original piece.
    But doesn’t all this back-and-forth (another perspective is here: http://www.designsojourn.com/this-huge-humanitarian-design-debate-is-a-moot-point/ and then there’s Bruce Nussbaum’s follow-up here: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1661894/do-gooder-design-and-imperialism-round-3-nussbaum-responds ) just boil down to: 1) Westerners/designers want to help “outside” their own culture, 2) real change and empowerment can only happen when developed from “within,” 3) therefore, designers can’t effectively change systems/people outside their own culture.
    This sounds a lot like Paulo Freire’s arguments against the banking system of education – that the oppressed cannot be reasonably taught what the world is by an outside teacher, but that they must teach themselves and transform themselves/the world through dialogue and other activities. I’m drawn to the line in the Illich speech referenced above:
    “I am here to suggest that you voluntarily renounce exercising the power which being an American gives you.”
    This, I think, is the crux of it, no? But that Western designers would voluntarily opt out of designing the world – others’ world(s) – seems unlikely and certainly counterintuitive. I’d love to see actual processes of engagement articulated somewhere among those doing this work. In other words, how are stakeholder groups engaged? How are they “chosen”? By whom? How do you avoid the institutionalized systems of dialogue that may or may not work? How does an outside entity (designer) get the culture in question to self-actualize their own solutions without playing the role of the actor/doer?

  10. David Stairs Says:

    Because of the tremendous growth of interest in altruism the problems have become more pronounced fast. It’s not that people haven’t been talking about development disasters for forty years, but that they’ve only invaded the design sphere recently. The inside/outside debate rages unabated. My tendency would be to agree with your three conclusions above with the caveat that, although they’re still “outsiders,” those who actually live in the cultures they are attempting to help have a shot at being effective.

    To answer your final questions, if I can presume to know:
    —Stakeholders are currently engaged in an informal case by case basis.
    —They are often “chosen” by virtue of need (in the case of disaster relief), or reputation (in the case of development).
    —They are often selected by self-appointed “bootstrap philanthropists.”
    —Getting the culture to “self-actualize,” as you put it, to a sustainable level isn’t easy. Egos can be large, and impressarios common.

    “Articulating the processes of engagement” has not yet happened on any recognizable level, but it’s coming. The nature of this prolonged series of arguments and counterarguments suggests as much.

  11. Jess S. Says:

    Thanks, David. I really hope to see more from designers doing this work on the ground in terms of what works, what doesn’t, and where it works/doesn’t work. I found this social interface wiki a while ago, and I’m sure something like it could exist for real-world social design approaches.

  12. Nii Commey Botchway Says:

    David, Arvind and all:

    In his book: Moving the Centre – The struggle for Cultural Freedoms (1993, Heinemann) Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o states that he is:

    “concerned with the struggle to move the centre in two senses. Firstly – from it’s assumed location in the west to a multiplicity of spheres and cultures in the world. And secondly – to move the centre of social domination from a small male bourgeois minority (still western dominated) to one that is more equal based on gender, race and religion.”

    Thus the centre must be moved between nations and within nations.

    I think a point we can all relate to?

    Even us “über designers” wanting to “save” the world sitting in “our own centres”.

    I made the same point a couple of months back on a post on the core 77 site in response to a Designers Accord summit article, where it seemed important decisions were made about “design and the world” and what “our” roles in it was and yet it seemed like there were no designers from the so called “other” parts of the world (read majority) where all these brilliant design decisions are meant to impact.

    My big problem with all this (very good) ongoing design debate is that AGAIN there seem to be no voices represented from outside the voices that have driven design for the past 100 years and more. And this I realized sitting in Accra as a “designer” and looking at the challenges we face as a continent. As designers are not even in the “top 1000” list of priorities for either our governments or the people who we are supposed to be co-designing with.

    People are just SURVIVING.

    “design”???, please that’s the last thing on their minds. And that is true for the MAJORITY of the planet’s inhabitants I am willing to bet.

    Don’t get me wrong I DO think we can (and should) use our skills for the betterment of society, but in those places where it’s probably most needed we ain’t there and “they” don’t even know we exist so forget about the “west saving the rest”, WE practically do not exist in the “rest” and I am speaking as I said as a designer in Afrika with a mom who has been teaching in rural schools for the past 20 plus years.

    Precisely the kind of schools and places the INDEX: Design for Education competition aims to serve, and she still asks me what I do, (or does not realize the scope) of what we CAN DO for a living. And ironically I am supposed to be a judge at said awards.

    So it would be interesting to have her with me to judge all the brilliant designs to see if they actually would work where they are actually SUPPOSED TO, in those places where “our design” does not exist.

    We have a A LOT of centers to move right where we sit before we can even “change the world”.


  13. arvind Says:

    I like Avinash Rajagopal’s nuanced commentary about the west/east polarity: http://littledesignbook.wordpress.com/2010/07/13/eat-pudding-bruce-nussbaum/