Is Design for Social Change Undemocratic?

Interesting topic.

“Design for Social Change” or “User-Centred Design” is democratic if people have a choice. And they have the choice not to participate. But sometimes the choice is between a rock and a hard place, so it’s not perfect (“you can have clean water if you sing these hymns”). Good Design takes that into account.

Democracy, however, isn’t “you get a say in everything”, it’s you decide on representatives to do something for you based on their policy/ principles. Can you imagine having to vote on every aspect of every motion in parliament?

Good design takes into accounts peoples needs and wants- and this is where it gets sticky: wants.
The hand hygiene example is a good one; no-one wants preventable infected people in hospital. Some people want government policy to be the big stick that punishes those who don’t wash their hands, and other people want the government to stay out of their lives and to allow the market (ie. private insurance companies) to work out a way to encourage hygiene. How can you design a solution that meets both needs and wants?

The Jamie Oliver school dinners example; he has a solution that failed the users wants in the US, they didn’t want someone coming in and telling them what to do, even though everyone knows there is an child obesity/ food problem. This quote is from this article:Jamie Oliver: Taking the revolution to president | Salon.com

_“We don’t want to sit around and eat lettuce all day,” local radio DJ Rod Willis told Oliver when the chef appeared on his radio show during the first episode. “You come to town and you say you’re going to change our menus and all that. I just don’t think you should come in here and tell us what to do.”
_

Is political leaning a ‘culture’? Is implementing a left-wing ‘big government’ solution on a right-wing ‘small government’ group “bad”? Tough question.

you’re right, the American form of democracy is not a true democracy. It is a constitutional republic. In large forms of government this system makes sense for efficiency of government. I want to be clear on the difference between political democracy and democratic design. Democratic design is taking the tools of design and giving them to the masses, empowering them to dictate the outcomes of a given project, though not necessarily through design by committee.

But if I had to compare it to governmental democracy, it might go something like this:

Representative: A company with an in-house design department sends out market research teams to find out what their customers want. They send the design team feedback, and the customers trust the designers to represent them in their desires to make products they want or need. The difference here is that designers are hired arbitrarily by the company, not elected by the customers.

Democratic: A company gives the tools of design to a customer or group of customers and asks them to design something they would like, which the company would then produce. The customer’s direct involvement circumvents the representatives within the company.

I know, it’s not a perfect example…

To respond to your last question, I think political leanings definitely do define culture. I believe it is always wrong to arbitrarily impose big gov solutions to small gov groups, and vice versa, without adequate representation and due process. If Big City Gotham went to Itty Bitty Smallville and tried to outlaw happy meal toys, it would go over about as well as Smallville’s trying to impose unrestricted smoking laws in Gotham’s restaurants. As one of the central themes to the American Revolution, no laws can be imposed without the consent of the governed, the opposite of which is slavery.

Well I suppose the underlying theme here is design for social change, or political activism with a little traditional design mixed in. I imagine it got a big bureaucratic oversight committee that commissioned an advertising company to design all kinds of print and multimedia to spread the word. Then the commission granted an overpriced contract for a certain type of hand sanitizer station and distributed them nationally with a little bit of help from OSHA to make sure things got implemented properly. So design was in there somewhere, I’m sure, but as part of a larger campaign.

According to this article by Jennie Winhall posted on Core77, all design is political. http://www.core77.com/reactor/03.06_winhall.asp

There has been a shift in conventional politics; a realization that top-down policies no longer work and that public services in particular must be redesigned around the user. Conventional policy makers are not readily equipped to do this. Designers are…"

"Policymakers are in desperate need of the skills designers have to create desirable, practical solutions to society’s most pressing problems.

In other words, politics needs YOU."

What this really means is that a top down approach directly from government doesn’t work, but if government can inject a little designer-user relationship, then policymakers can do a little back-door top-down policy implementation. Why does design have to become the arm of some political action committee?

I’m from Wisconsin, so I believe in direct democracy: primary elections, voting for senators, referendums and recall elections. I think it can work, it’s all about scale. If we had a car make in every neighborhood, it could respond to each customer as an individual. I’d rather prefer that.

When talking about democratic design, where the user gets direct input into the product they will receive, I think it’s useful to look to other fields of design for examples. In the fashion world “democratic design” already exists, and has for a long time with tailoring at the low end and bespoke at the high. You just have to pay more, and there’s still a professional guiding the final design. The other way is to make your own clothing, which is the only way you won’t need a professional, just tools, materials, and hopefully some skill. On the other end of the technical spectrum is the automotive world where you can buy a car off the lot, customize a few options, or get a quite customized Maybach, etc. But even the Maybach, which ain’t cheap, is built on one of their standard platforms because it takes a shitload of work by professionals to get that right. And you’re still picking from options, not designing components, because they take time, expertise, and infrastructure to make (though perhaps could be made one-off for even more money). And don’t pretend there are many (if any) people who make truly custom cars from scratch, because they’re starting with stock components like engine blocks and brakes.

So in those industries “democratic design” exists, it’s just all high end and still driven by designers & other professionals (unless you’re making things yourself, which requires skills, tools, possibly stock components, and, if you don’t have enough of those, a lowering of standards). For product design, rapid prototyping may bring down the cost some, but I have a feeling standards will have to be lowered in order to deviate much from these examples. I would enjoy being proved wrong though, if the future was one where people valued things (moved away from disposable) enough to get things (somewhat) custom made, resulting in more designers designing for smaller groups.

But Democratic Design, or even User-Centered Design, isn’t the same as Design for Social Change. I guess it could be a social change, but, as I see it, the end goal of Design for Social Change is social change. Any products or physical artifacts are means to that end.

First, thanks for the references. I’ll get to them soon.

Again, you are slanting the solutions to one side which I think is a terrible mistake for designers. e.g., “They don’t just want electric power, they want it cheap, and solar panels are not cheap.” Cheap is only 1 driver. They want power without pollution, air or water, and they definately don’t want it in their back yard. Just like your other examples, limiting yourself to one driver will limit your solutions instead a taking a broader view. Do you design a disposable razor or do you design a means to remove hair from your face? The results of that change in drivers will yield vastly different results.

Actually, by only offering a disposable razor, you are doing a top-down cattle herding approach. You are changing behavior - 100 years ago people didn’t throw away things after 3 uses, now they do. That’s why I prefer the broad view and the individual can choose. A true design democracy puts forth all ideas. Some will stick, some won’t. You judge the idea one way, I do it another and everyone else judges it their own way. You seem to want to censor ideas you consider “change personal behavior”. I say let them stand or fall on their own merits.

Incorrect.

I don’t know who taught you statistics, but you cannot directly correlate a population increase with a rate change in preventable infections.

As a matter of fact, all key opinion leaders in the infectious disease field are in complete agreement that what they have tried in the last 10 years and last 150 years have done absolutely nothing to lower infection rates due to contaminated hands.

Before anyone else replies, I realize that as part of a non-“design for social change” process the object can be seen as a means to an end (I don’t want a car, I want a way to get to a different location quickly and comfortably), but I still say the end for “design for social change” is different from typical democratic or user centered design. Really, I don’t see them as mutually exclusive, I see democratic or user-centered design as methods, and design for social change as a category of design (though maybe category still isn’t the right word).

Edit: too slow on the draw

Actually a great deal of getting people to increase hand hygiene involves design and design research. 10 years ago the thought was to put an alcohol dispenser on every square inch of the hospital wall. They thought that you will have the convenience to sanitize your hands at any time.

Needless to say, that didn’t work. Now in conjunction with medical research, caregivers know when and how often to wash their hands. Design then can remind them when and give them a convenient opportunity to do good hand hygiene. After time, behavior is changed and good hygiene becomes a habit and invisible to the end user.

I’m with Mr. 914. Design is design. It is accepted or not. Behavior change happens everytime you introduce a new product. Labeling one user-centric or democratic is silly. Wringing your hands about the motives of the designer is also silly as those motives have little to do with the success or failure of a product.

Direct user input does not need to be expensive. I had a sport coat made for me two years ago. $250…nut much more than a cheapy at La Baie (Macy’s type department store in Canada). Also, in many villages in the developing world there are still craftspeople who make tools, jewelry etc as people demand it. Moreover, they will make these objects to the user’s specs & modify or make a new one until the user/client/consumer is happy. This stuff is dirt cheap and made using local materials that are often 100% biodegradable.

I think it would be a neat project to design something like a keyboard for one person using no standard parts. What would it look like? Would it be flat? Would it be rigid? I hope someday that all design becomes direct-to-user. It would be amazing work.

First, thanks for the references. I’ll get to them soon.

Again, you are slanting the solutions to one side which I think is a terrible mistake for designers. e.g., “They don’t just want electric power, they want it cheap, and solar panels are not cheap.” Cheap is only 1 driver. They want power without pollution, air or water, and they definately don’t want it in their back yard. Just like your other examples, limiting yourself to one driver will limit your solutions instead a taking a broader view. Do you design a disposable razor or do you design a means to remove hair from your face? The results of that change in drivers will yield vastly different results.

[quote=“thirdnorth”]
The hypocrisy comes from the top-down cattle herding approach of changing personal behavior under the guise of user centered design.
[/quote]

Actually, by only offering a disposable razor, you are doing a top-down cattle herding approach. You are changing behavior - 100 years ago people didn’t throw away things after 3 uses, now they do. That’s why I prefer the broad view and the individual can choose. A true design democracy puts forth all ideas. Some will stick, some won’t. You judge the idea one way, I do it another and everyone else judges it their own way. You seem to want to censor ideas you consider “change personal behavior”. I say let them stand or fall on their own merits.

That’s funny, you said almost exactly what I said before.

This is not what I’m saying at all. In a truly democratic design process, anyone would be able to design/produce/promote whatever kind of product they want, free to fail or succeed on their own merits. I think you and I agree on this approach.

The difference is see in your razor example is the introduction of disposable razors was most likely not a social experiment. Rather, it was an additional option on a drug store shelf. You could still use your traditional razor. There was a choice, you had options. Market forces decided that disposable razors would win out. Since then, we’ve had all kinds of options to remove hair from the face. There are hair removing chemicals, electric razors, traditional “old school” razors, laser hair removal, electrolysis, waxing, plucking, etc. Disposable razors still win out (like the Mach 5). I’m not saying that a perfect society should ONLY offer disposable razors.

Ok, so social behavior changes after the introduction of a successful product. This is to be expected. But the Design for Social Change movement is different in the way it seeks change. A group of designers pairs with local planners, politicians, and societal ‘experts’ to define what to them is a more ‘preferable’ way of doing things. They rely on legislation to impose change. The goal is not to add more choices, it is to put a product in place and then legislate success.

Take San Fran for instance. People are generally happy going to the grocery store and use plastic bags. The city bans plastic bags. Residents enjoy taking their kids to McDonald’s and the kids like the happy meal toys. The city bans toys in happy meals. If these were truly left to market forces, to “stand or fall on their own merits”, plastic bags would have already been replaced, McD’s would save money on making crappy toys.

http://www.sfenvironment.org/our_programs/interests.html?ssi=7&ti=6&ii=142
http://blogs.sfweekly.com/thesnitch/2010/11/happy_meal_ban_passes_--_with.php

In Chicago, there is a problem with childhood obesity (not uncommon to other places). The solution is not to provide more choices of healthy foods, it is to ban home-made lunches.

For parents whose kids do not qualify for free or reduced price school lunches, the $2.25 daily cafeteria price can also tally more than a homemade lunch. “We don’t spend anywhere close to that on my son’s daily intake of a sandwich (lovingly cut into the shape of a Star Wars ship), Goldfish crackers and milk,” Northwestern education policy professor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach told the paper in an email. She told The Lookout parents at her child’s public school would be upset if they tried to ban homemade lunches.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/yblog_thelookout/20110411/us_yblog_thelookout/chicago-school-bans-homemade-lunches-the-latest-in-national-food-fight

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-04-11/news/ct-met-school-lunch-restrictions-041120110410_1_lunch-food-provider-public-school

How is this allowing a product/service/system to “stand or fall on their own merits”?

Remember that group that provided women in some remote village with rolling 50 gallon water tanks? They did it so the women wouldn’t have to carry water on their heads, and could increase water carrying efficiency. The women loved it and it changed their culture immensely. That’s good! It was freely and voluntarily adopted. This is the approach I approve of. If they had gone in and passed laws saying ‘this is the new way’, I would have been opposed. Yet it seems Design for Social Change is headed in this exact direction. At least in the US.

The Hippo Roller- great product. http://www.hipporoller.org/

Design works out the needs and wants, and providing a solution that met those (regardless of government policy). Everyone’s happy and is benefiting and it appears to be one of those “I can’t believe that no-one thought of this before” products that really hammers home the value of good design.

Imagine this scenario. Some people are resistant to the Hippo Roller- i.e. “this means my wife and daughter can now spend less time collecting water, and now have time for school- I don’t want them to go to school and get educated, because they will move to the city and leave me” (or for any other cultural or misogynistic or ignorant reasons) so large sections of a society reject it. The Government can see past this and so passes a law promoting the Hippo Roller, or passes a law making education for girls mandatory so the Hippo Roller is adopted by stealth.

Opposition to this kind of government policy is to me is nuts. If everyone can see that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, why get stuck on party politics? The ‘don’t tread on me’ position can seem almost fundamentalist, rather than a pragmatic approach.

So this brings up a good question, is there a primary difference in designing for a mainly want based system (developed nations) vs a mainly need based system (developing world)… understanding those are gross over generalizations.

Personally, I don’t need a hippo roller. But in other parts of the world it may be one of the most impactful objects in a person’s life.

Good point. I wasn’t looking at it from this perspective. It’s true that there are times when culture changing laws are necessary. In your example, one person’s actions impede the rights of others. Your scenario makes me think of the targeted laws that chipped away at slavery leading up to the civil war. The 3/5ths Compromise allowed the northern states to limit the number of representatives the South could send to congress, establishing an anti-slavery majority, and setting a path to abolish slavery altogether. While not centered around product design, the tactic was similar in that it took an indirect approach.

We are in agreement that legislating design can be perilous.

But what makes you think designers are driving this legislation? Are they sponsoring the bills? Are their names attached to the bills? Is it the Dieter Rams Law that bans plastic bags? Is Design for Social Change a nefarious group bent for world domination?

And sometimes legislating change is good. The hand washing is a perfect example. But instead of making law you must wash your hands with this product, they took the broader view of you must stop preventable infections. Just like instead of designing a disposable razor, design a means to remove hair from your face.

In a broader sense, I am for laws that prevent people from limiting my pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. An example you brought up, obese people raise the cost of healthcare. As a healthy person in an insurance pool, I am paying for that increase which is someone else’s choice. Making a law saying you have to eat this certain type of food is silly. But passing a law that says you can’t take a personal excemption because you are obese does make some sense to me.

This is relevant to the prediction of the driverless car.

So what if design for social change is undemocratic (which I don’t think it is), being right and democratic don’t necessarily go together.
There is also this false connection between the market and democracy as if it actually promoted it nowadays. Democracy or other
desirable states of affairs do not rank in the market. What ranks is reducing costs and increasing revenues for corporations for the sake of a competitive market.