David Stairs

Young boys on the beach in Allepay, Kerala, India

Designers are frequently talking about skills and aesthetics, practice and theory, and these are important topics. But when it comes to politics, man can they get it wrong! I suspect it has more to do with privilege and cultural blindness than purposeful discrimination. And yet…

In September Co. Design ran a piece highlighting Tim Brown’s address at the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative. This made perfect sense, since Linda Tischler of Fast Company Magazine was the other keynoter. Brown, the CEO of IDEO, talked about global firms serving the developing world through social impact projects in which he stated, “But by being embedded, we can get insights to ideas that may lead to products or services that that market may need.”

Now, you might think, “Yeah, sounds good to me. What’s wrong with helping less fortunate people and benefiting along the way? It’s a win-win.” And you might be right, but for the not-so-subtle recurrent domination memes salted throughout Brown’s presentation. For example, Brown talks about poverty alleviation as a matter of market development. But, while he admits developing world markets don’t always behave like those in the West, he fails to address the issue of the fantastic imbalances they have created in places like India, where 600,000,000 live in poverty yet, due to a combination of corruption and wealth concentration, the rich continue getting richer. Another example, taken from IDEO’s work in Kenya, describes the development of a mini-brand by IDEO workers in the field as better than what someone back in San Francisco might have come up with. Yet branding and brand placement do not attack poverty at its root, but only at its leaves. And this, what Brown calls “embedding,” is what used to be known as living abroad, and yes, it has always been the best way to get to know a place.

The trouble with this design biz-speak is that it returns us to the same sort of exploitative mindset, previously known as colonialism, that it took over a century to escape. This couldn’t be clearer than where Brown talks about using the developing world, that sad consortium of failed states and disadvantaged peoples, as “a lab for first world countries” whose solutions “can often help industrialized countries rethink entrenched products or services.” We’re squarely in the Land of Hegemonic Language here, where thought leaders and change makers run interventions with their social development projects to save or, in this case, serve the poor from/into a fate worse than themselves. Only, I don’t know of any disadvantaged people, other than the privileged elites running such countries, who would be fooled by Brown’s doublespeak.

What IDEO hopes to do through its social initiatives, so brazenly labeled with a dot org suffix, is to steal as much as they can carry. Ivan Illich observed this years ago when describing an academic from MIT shooting pictures in the barrios of Mexico City to take them home to an incubator. Ultimately, the idea was to repurpose what he’d learned from the disadvantaged about designing within severe constraints to try to sell it back to them with a new patina. I’m going to be presenting at AIGA’s BLUNT conference in Norfolk, Virginia April 13th. There are a lot of papers scheduled to be given by distinguished designers and design of topics ranging from critical theory to contemporary practice. But until designers step back and reexamine the profession’s language in terms of its neocolonialist memes, they can talk all they want about saving the world and never get it right.

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project