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Diversity Efforts in AIGA

In the AIGA Communique, they announced the establishment of a Diversity Task Force, which kicked off in Atlanta. In the description of the event, the endeavor has already made two of the biggest errors in attracting people of color to any organization. They named the first event "Color Blind" and it seems the "a-ha" moment was when people realized that diversity did not mean quotas and lower design standards. So for AIGA, I'd like to make  two points about avoiding the framing of diversity in ways that will completely sabotage your efforts before they begin.

All people of color hate the framing of diversity efforts as “Color blind.”

The “problem” of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. is never the recognition of difference (i.e. Color) but rather the “meaning” of that difference in a society which overdetermines the social characteristics of certain populations by class, education, morality, and criminality. To pretend in an “utopian” fashion that racial and ethnic differences do not exist (as in blindness) erases the unique and positive histories and cultures of people that also define who they are. Diversity efforts should be framed as removing the individual and institutional barriers that keep people from seeing the diversity of classes, educations levels, moral codes, and criminal behaviors that exists in all groups of people, not about blinding oneself to the differences that do exists and the positive “meanings” attached to those differences. 

The assumption that the inclusion of a diverse group of people means a lowering of standards is one of the greatest fallacies that keep people of color from entering “relatively” low status fields like design.

As an exceptionally gifted AA female who has studied/worked in mostly all-white settings since 4th grade, I especially find it egregious when diversity talk always turns to the fear of quotas and lowered standards. There is an assumption that (1) there are no mediocre Caucasians in the design industry or that (2) the “standards” are “just and fair” to begin with or free of bias. The fact that design is not a high-status occupation among many people of color means that the fear of lower design standards seems even more egregious and counterproductive to having the right framework to attract smart and creative designers-to-be.

So I hope there next outing into the diversity foray would be more sensitive.

August Wilson's Radio Golf part 1

Common sense versus book sense. Priviledge versus deprivation. Negros versus Nigga's. Following your life plan versus those of others. All within the context of the 1990s black experience. These were the common themes of Goodman Theater's production of Radio Golf last night.

I love the plays of August Wilson, in the same way I love the books of Walter Mosley and Octavia Butler, Branford Marsalis's I Heard You Twice the First Time CD, and movies of Spike Lee for their desire to chronicle the African American experience in America. They are all able to capture the diversity of the community, as well as our enduring quest for justice.

The themes of Radio Golf seem evermore important with the rise of Barack Obama. There is the wonderful scene in which Sterling Johnson, the voice of conscious in the play, asks Harmond Wilks, the aspiring mayoral candidate,  "Are you going to be the mayor of black people or white people?" Harmond responses that he will be the mayor of all people. Sterling laughs at that response and laments why is it that whites can have an all-white club, but when black people have a club they say, "And it won't be for blacks only."  He wonders why in a school of 1500, if the only 8 blacks kids sit together at lunch, they are "self-segregating" but no one says anything about the other 1492 kids who are sitting together.

Obama cannot afford to be a president for black people (and he has never positioned himself that way.) There was an interesting article about in the NYTimes about his tenure as head of the Harvard Law Review, during the contentious time when figures like Cornell West were being drummed from Harvard. His peers all stated that he avoided "racial" questions and would seem to appear as if he was on everyone's side.  Consensus building is a great diplomatic skill, but it does make you feel that Clinton has been the only president for black people, and that will not change if Obama is elected.  Which is not to say that I do not support Obama and that his consensus building message is not what is needed for the nation, I just mean we, black folks, could never have him as a leader to call our own.

The irony is that the needs, desires, and expectations of the black community are the ones for everyone: social and economic justice, strong family life, low crime, and true educational and job opportunity. If you met the needs of black folks (as  was done through the Civil Rights Movement), you meet the needs of everyone (except the subset of the wealthy and priviledged who do not want the aforementioned things).

Big A and little a, big D and little d

There has been some static on the Anthrodesign list about the dominance of anthropologists and their jargon on the list. This was my response to some of the issues that appear on the list every once in a while.

Since I came across the Design and design distinction at the AIGA national conference in 2003, I have thought a lot about Anthropology and Design as general human endeavors and anthropology and design as professional activities. For example, I work/play within the field of Design, but feel less confident about design. Now probably, I am a decent “designer.” And maybe after a summer at Basel, I will change my mind and call myself a full fledge designer without choking. But the heart of the matter is that I don’t feel I have the credibility to call myself a designer compared to the award winning designers I hang out with (who all have MFAs from Yale and studied at Basel). Now this is about my lack of confidence for they all love and adore me and trust me to teach “design” to their students. So to deal with this I have two possible approaches: (1) I can go to Basel and get the marker of credibility I feel I need or (2) I can get my colleague! s to keep telling me that I am a designer until I believe it. Because it is my desire to be respected and admired as a member of their professional group that drives my insecurity about design. Thus for me, the line between Design and design, Anthropology and anthropology is relative to the standards of design/anthropology that one is operating under and the extent to which those are shared by others who can evaluate those standards.

What defines the professionalization of any human endeavor is the establishment of standards. There are design standards and anthropology standards. As professionals in the field of anthrodesign, what should be the standards for the profession will always be and should be a core issue. Is an MA in anthro and MFA or MDes in design both required to be a professional anthrodesigner? Who defines those standards? Who are the influencers and who are the deciders? What I find cool is that the standards are evolving in interesting ways that are, on one hand, higher (ex. thus sadly for newbies the greater difficulty of finding entry level positions in this field) and, on the other hand, broader (ex. the current spate of job postings are asking for wider ranges of credentials across the social sciences, behavioral sciences, and design).

Everyone does Anthropology and Design (we try to understand the people around us and create possible futures based on that understanding). Yet, there are subsets of the population who choose to make their livelihood from those endeavors (anthropologists and designers). To protect the reputation of the field so that clients will buy their services and more importantly understand the value-add of those services, they, as a group, create standards that make clear the “minimal” required skills, theoretical perspectives, and attitudes toward the field. These are not random cruel disciplinary enclosures, but often precipitated by the real harm done by practioners to the reputation and effective impact on the field.

As a professional and academic discipline, anthropology has been keen on protecting its standards for reasons both positive and negative. On the positive side, it is about instilling an theoretical responsibility to knowledge production and the ethical responsibility to the populations with whom one works. Anthropology emphasizes the theory embedded in methods and practices to guard against misrepresentations and abuse of study populations. This is the self-reflection borne out of anthropology’ role in the Imperial enterprise. Ethnography may be a philosophical orientation, but anthropology is a discipline, design is a discipline, physics is a discipline, economics is a discipline. Thus they are practices to be governed. Now, journalist and the CIA may all be interested in Anthropology and the study of culture and meaning. But I find that the questions, assumptions, and outcomes of their forms of inquiry are often not the same as anthropology, although the techniques m! ay be similar.

On the negative side, standards have often been about preserving the privileges of its professional members over those who do not meet the “in group” standards. Yet, over time and due to changes in the current “in group,” the standards shift. I always laugh that the founding fathers of anthropology believe that, as an African American, I did not have the cranial capacity to be an anthropology. This same boundary marking process happens within IDSA and AIGA and the same calls of “elitism” is thrown by those who perceive themselves to be outside of the “in group,” at least until they are the “in group.” <wink>

But for a professional group to demonstrate their value to government, business, and society, it needs to be able to clearly communicate “this is who we are, what we do, and why it matters to you.” This narrative is always one of exclusion. But “no condition is permanent” and this process can be part of establishing new identities as in, “I am an anthrodesigner.” And remember that by claiming, “I am a professional,” you are excluding those who are amateurs. This is not unique to anthropology, but happens whether the fields are art, engineering, economics, or design. We all need to form group identities, especially when we need to communicate them to others of higher status and upon whose favor we rely for our livelihood. 

My point is that I do not view these discussions as a devolution, but part of the evolution of both design and anthropology, as Design and Anthropology. At stake is the reputation and thus the impact of the professions on government, business, and society. Since neither field is especially “high status” in the American government, business, and society, we’re probably are not as open with the standards as we ought to be and expand and contract iteratively. But, I do find both fields trying to approach things more expansively than before in response to the changing world. To continue the dialogue is to continue the evolution.

New Harvard President Bryn Mawr Grad

The new president of Harvard, Drew Faust, is a Bryn Mawr grad (Class of '68). I did my undergraduate degree at Bryn Mawr College.  It is exciting that a Mawrter has broken through the biggest Old Boy Network in American educational history. I was writing to someone last week that if I meet a women who is quirky, intelligent, independent, and tends to break new ground, six times out of 1o she is a Mawrter (10 times out of 10 she is from one of the Seven Sisters).

Anassa kata, kalo kale,
  Ia ia ia Nike,
  Bryn Mawr, Bryn Mawr, Bryn Mawr!

Visualizing policy design

In my AD502 Design and Governmentality class last Friday, we read Ann Schneider and Helen Ingram's Policy Design for Democracy and Mitchell Dean's Governmentality. Since all of the students are graphic design or electronic visualization MFAs, they complained about the vocabulary of the texts being too "bourgeous, intellectual, not user friendly." In other words, the vocabulary was not their patois, but someone else's.

After I gently reminded them that they, as designers, have the responsibility of translating messages among different langauges and thus need to know this vocab, they changed their tune. But they really had a hard time understanding the ideas in these two very academic texts.

So I used the World Cafe approach to get the students to discuss the ideas.

According to the World Cafe approach:
1. You set them up people in groups of four at a table.

2. You give them papers, markers, and other materials for writing and drawing. In the World Cafe world, this is accomplished through paper tablecloths.

3. Over a series of 3 rounds (each lasting 20-30 minutes), you give them a question (or a series of questions) and have them discuss, sketch, write, sing, however they chose to express themselves, the topic.

4. After the first round, there is one person who is the keeper of the conversation; the rest rotate to other tables.

5. The idea is to cross-pollinate ideas from one group to another and then have a group sharing.

I walked the students through the process and they produced these sketches, which forced them to grapple with the issues by trying to visualize them. Since I have an EV student, he produced a 3D animated model on the fly.

Below are some of the sketches:



Indian National Design Policy

India just launched its National Design Policy. I have been in dialogue with M.P. Ranjan of the Indian National Institute of Design about it. This is very exciting for India and for the rest of the developing countries. Here are excerpts from our dialogue.

Dear Ranjan et. al.

Congratulations. As I read through the release, this is very exciting in terms of setting up a comprehensive infrastructure to support design, its recognition of the importance of culture and traditions of craft production to technology and innovation, the integration of design within all levels of educational institutions, and the supporting of design professionals. I may have missed it, but what is the vision of design support for the governmental public sector?

Finally, I would love to monitor what this will mean for African design.  When I was in East Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania), I was struck by the number of African students who went to India to receive their advanced engineering training. Many of the engineering professors in the Ethiopian education system were Indian. So I would imagine that one of effects of this policy would be the promotion of the role of design in Africa. Is there any addressing of the “Trained in India” phenomenon in the discussions around the policy?


Dear Dori

You ask an important question about the content and reach of the National Design Policy in India. Yes, it will have a pan-African impact as we know that South Africa is looking at Indian design with interest and many developing nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America will now have a model, however useful, to follow if the so wish.

Design support is a less understood concept while design promotion has been the major avenue for Government support and action including the approach adopted by ICSID in many development countries. The approach that has been adopted by Design Wales and now more visibly by the Design Council, UK through their DOTT07 initiatives that are spearheaded by John Thackara are instances of successful Design Support at the highest levels of Government policy which is in my opinion missing from the Indian National Design Policy as it stands today. However it is a reasonable beginning and it will take much effort from the design community both within the country as well as in collaboration with the wider global community of designers and design researchers to bring in a much needed understanding of design as something that now transcends industry and the profit motive to include social and developmental investments and innovations that are critically needed in as a many as
230 sectors of our economy.

Breakfast with Dorie (w/ an "e")

Yesterday morning, I had brunch with Dorie Blesoff, an organization change management consultant. She is a truly amazing woman and pointed out some organizations and readings that I should follow up on.

The most exciting for me is The World Cafe methodology for deliberative and creative group futuring.   The idea is that you set up this cafe environment, introduce a key topic and question; have groups converse, doodle, and write down ideas for 20-30 minutes; move to another group for 2 more rounds, synthesize and share collectively. I think it is an approach that I want to use for the small conference and big conference, which I'm thinking of calling, "In Designo Nos Fidus" (In Design We Trust: design, policy, and participatory governance).

I am less impressed with Dr. Don Beck's Spiral Dynamics that she mentioned. This is the same ethnocentrism wrapped in the "evolution" of civilizations speak that has plagued the worst of evolutionary social models since the Great Chain of Beings. Of course the 3rd world is in the lower strata and the 1st worlds in the upper strata. It is very disappointing because if he had a more nuanced view of cultures, his model could be more useful to people who are not privileged.

More later...

Materiality of governance

As I have been trying to define for myself what design and governmentality is about, today it became clear what inspires my passion about it. I am passionate about how justice and democracy should not be abstract ideals but rather tangible positive experiences for all people.

As I discussed before, in my Design + Governmentality class two weeks ago, we read Foucault’s Governmentality essay which I framed around this quote:

Government is defined as a right manner of disposing things so as not to lead to the common good, as the jurist’s texts would have said, but to an end which is convenient for each of the things to be governed (Foucault 1978: 91).

The students had a surprising response to it. It made them sad and confused because suddenly “democracy” and “justice” were not abstract ideals but were tangible “things” that people could/should be able to touch, see, smell, taste, hear, and experience bodily. Something was lost when they were not lofty ideals. I convinced them that, as the creators of things, this shift is actually empowering because they have a direct role in the making of these concepts tangible and real to people. Then we talked about how design is the mechanism by which concepts are made tangible and real to people. If these concepts are tangible then people feel they can grasp them and change the ideals embodied through the artifacts.

The centrality of this is evident in a breakfast I attended this morning.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs sponsored an event with Paul Rusesabagina, the man profiled in the Hotel Rwanda film. Paul got up and addressed the ideals of truth, justice, and reconciliation in Rwanda. He talked about how the UN had given the Rwandan government $1.2 million dollars to train judges for truth and reconciliation tribunals. Yet in 13 years, no one was trained and less than 5000 people have been tried. He addressed how the failures of the Church, the UN, and France left the US as the only power that can bring the current government to the diplomatic table. Later he discussed with me and Mohammed, that it has to do with the fact that the US is the only force the government will listen to as opposed to the US having any special diplomatic orientation. The point is that in Rwanda, truth, justice, and reconciliation are just ideals with no material essence to them. There is a materiality of governance but the tangible object is the gun.

If got me thinking about what can design do in a situation in which you want to train illiterate people on law and justice to be able to administer law and justice?

Due to the lack of literacy in the general population, the design solution is not textual. The government controls the radio, so aural channels are not available. Photographic images and illustrations can play a role once the production and more importantly distribution challenges are addressed. I’m fascinated by what could be done with dance, especially in situations of fear and oppression. The other night we had watched the documentary Rize, about street dance in South Central LA. Built into the body movements of these young black people were their grasping of freedom and expression of the rage of the lost of friends and family to drugs and violence. Or I think of Brazilian Capoira, a martial art hidden in the form of dance. It would have to be something multimodal but tangible and real.

A young Rwandan man, now living in Chicago who attended the talk, told us about the videos he creates and puts on YouTube. Is this what design and governmentality, design, and policy, should be about? In what form should this experience take?

So what drives my desire to establish an international group on design policy, policy design, and design and governmentality are three things:

  1. Justice, democracy, accountability, openness, participation in governance should be tangible positive experiences for people, not just abstract ideals.
  2. Design (empathetic, inclusive, and accountable) is the mechanism by which concepts of governance (through policy) are transformed into tangible experiences that people can grasp, and if desire, change.
  3. The form of those tangible experiences have to be designed in culturally sensitive and relevant ways and with the direct participation of those affected by the design.

Taking criticism and equalibrium

Last weekend, I had my 35th birthday. It is a good time for reflection on how I have progressed as a person. One area in which I feel I have really progressed is in the acceptance of criticism from others. This is due to 2 things I think.

The emphasis on the communication of intent in Design

Having to criticize students so much on their failure to communicate their intent has made me more sympathetic to "misreadings" and "misinterpretations" of others.  I feel a greater burden to communicate my intent and am more open to responses as "information" not personal attack, when miscommunication happens.

Growing maturity and confidence

In Tai Chi, I am taught to never doubt my art. This does not mean being arrogant about my skills and assuming that my way is the right way, but rather it means that I should be confident that I am prepared enough to be able to respond to any situation, including the criticism of others.  If I am not prepared, then through the encounter, I will learn what it is that I need to improve upon. This has significantly reduced my anxiety levels as I assume that I can handle whatever comes good and bad, thus I can absorb and redirect any negative energy into a positive outcome.

This is a key aspect of leadership, absorbing and redirecting positive and negative energy, but it requires that the leader remains balanced.