Design for traumatised populations and the very very poor?

Hi, I’m rather new to (industrial) design and not a designer myself, but very interested in the transformational power of design.

I’m working on a development project in a country that came just out of a gruesome 10 year war that killed 5 million people (Congo).

What I see in the field is a never-ending stream of utilitarian appliances and objects: from field hospitals, mess kits, industrial fridges, bridges and 4x4 army jeeps, to bricks and corrugated metal roofs. The NGOs, UN, Development Workers are all present with their extremely pragmatic and aesthetically numb life-world.

A very dull environment that depresses the traumatized people even more.

-I wonder what you think could / should be your role as an industrial designer in such a landscape.

-Do you think you have transformational power to alter the ‘psycho-social’ sphere in which these people live?

The Congolese themselves are extremely creative, musical, and vibrant, but they’re caught up in a logic of utilitarianism and puritanism that dates back to colonial times - this culture of mental hygiene and of a taboo on expressions of creativity is embodied in all objects that surround them.

It’s as if vast groups of people on this planet are kept as passive subjects that should not enjoy beauty.

What is your role as an industrial designer here?

Conventional wisdom has it that beauty comes last after ‘basic needs’ (food, shelter etc.) But in ‘The Substance of Style’ Virginia Postrel noted that after the fall of Saddam, people rushed out to spend what they had on haircuts and makeup, proving the conventional wisdom wrong.

So yes, I think this is a neglected area.

I think if people live in and with beautiful things, they are happier and need less things overall.

For years Industrial Designers have been proving that great design doesn’t need to cost any more that poor design, or no design.

I am working to expose my company to user-centered design, and social responsibility issues such as addressing the needs at the ‘bottom of the economic pyramid’ and ‘sustainable design’ practices.

The world is getting smaller, and designers are bridge-builders.