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Values/Design/Experience at the IRS

Yesterday, I gave a presentation, Values/Design/Experience, to the IRS. There were over 40 people in attendance, including, Ms. Denise Fayne, director of Media and Publications and the Frank Keith, Director of Communications and Liaisons.

The presentation was part of the celebration of the IRS graphics group's Design Management Project accomplishments. My presentation blurb was the following:

How does design translate your organization’s values into internal and external audience experiences?

Designed memos, forms, brochures, websites, advertisements all mean something to people. This meaning is not just about the information conveyed but about the values experienced. Dr. Dori Tunstall will engage you in a conversation about how design translates organizational values into internal and external audience experiences. Dori will show you how values-based anthropological and design management approaches can positively affect your department’s performance, morale, and communications both internally and externally.

There reception of my message was very positive. The IRS directors were nodding their heads at all the right points.  I kept those who would normally fall asleep awake with my enthusiasm and  “passion” for the topic. What makes me happy as that the IRS people found it inspirational. A core message was that the IRS has a unique mandate in American democracy; it collects the revenue that funds the common good. There were small things that people appreciated, such as the use of subtitles/captions on my slides to support those with hearing impairments. I learned this from my student, Leilah Rampa, who did that on her presentations.

People kept asking me how I got into the design and governance thing. Basically, I realized that I am a true believer in the idea of democracy. As the first generation of African Americans to be freed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I see it as extending the civil rights movement by bringing it from a position of outsider protest to insider process.

I think the Values/Design/Experience framework is a good one. Each government agency has unique values depending on its core intention (count citizens, collect revenue to fund the common good, prioritize issues, serve justice) within American democracy. I hope through design and anthropology to help make those intentions real.

So here is the link to the lo-res version of the presentation  Download Valdesexp_prez_final_lo.pdf (PDF 1.4 MB). Enjoy, leave comments, but please do not cite or circulate without authors permission. (smile)

American Values and Design

I just came from seeing the movie Sicko by Michael Moore. I found it a very engaging critique of the American health system. It felt less heavy handed than his previous film, Bowling for Columbine, although the camera, in an Oxfam commercial effect, seems to focus too much on people crying. For those who do not know, Sicko is Michael Moore's documentary/expose on the lack of universal healthcare in the US. It deconstructs the myths behind why there should not be universal healthcare in the US by exposing the maximization of profit over care in the HMO system, and the effectiveness of universal healthcare in Canada, Britain, France, and Cuba. By the time you are done, you really want to move to France although one wonders what affect  President Nicolas Sarkozy will have on universal healthcare, the 35-hour work week, 5 weeks minimal vacation, 6 month paid maternity leave, practically free child care, and the services in which new mothers are provided a helping, who will do your laundry.

Besides reconsidering a move to France, what it really made me reflect on was American values. Perhaps because I am giving a presentation on Values/Design/Experience next week at the IRS, it helped me refine three specific points regarding design and American governmentality:

  1. The valuation of your life (or that of your kids, community, or nation) over that of others is the root of all evil. Thus, the valuation of profit over the lives of others should be a one way ticket to the Inferno.
  2. The core value of any American government agency should be democracy, or strengthening the power of the people. In the same way that speed is the core value or "brand essence" of Nike.
  3. Design is the translator of these values into tangible experiences for people.

The valuation of your life over others

This past week in my 365 Tao Daily Meditations written by Deng Ming-Dao, there was a line about how "every person should be equally valued as a human being." I thought a lot about how evil happens when we say that my life, my family's, my community's, my country's life has more value than this human beings. In the case of health care, there seems to be an attitude by the Health Industry, that their profits are more valuable than the lives of human beings. This is discussed ad naseum in the film the Corporation. Yet what became apparent in the section of Sicko about the HMO industry was how, starting with the pact between Nixon and Henry Kaiser in 1973, the government became complicit in the industry's murder of people due to denial of service.

It puts into perspective for me, what is happening at the Cook County Bureau of Health Services and the patient billing and payment policy. The conflict between the Bureau staff and even administration I would say, who are focused on providing care, and the government which seeks to fill its budget deficits. Although the idea of the policy is to get those who can pay to help subsidize those who cannot pay, there is a higher costs involved with patients and dcotors worrying about money as opposed to health, that makes the contrast with Canada, Britain, and France seem so stark.

The Value Democracy

In the movie, this British labor gentleman states that there are two ways to rule through fear and through demoralization. He goes on to say how in France, the government is afraid of the people, while in the US, the people are afraid of the government. As I said, next week I am giving a presentation at the IRS, and part of what I want to talk about is the value, democracy, and what it means to translate that into tangible experiences for people. Democracy is government by the people governed. I had an interesting discussion with a friend about the removal of the barrier between the government and the governed, because the governed are the government itself, not an alien other. Thus, the brand of any government agency should be people's participation of the "conduct of conduct" of governance. This means people's involvement in the formation of law and policy, in the citizen-centered design of government artifacts, and the evaluation of those policies and artifacts as they impact their lives.  The message of any government interaction should be one of, "I am the government and can make positive change."

Design as translator of values into experiences

AIGA expresses this idea of design as the intermediary between information and experience. I prefer the metaphor of translator  because it further defines the role and the requirements of being an effective designer in the government sector. The designer as translator has to have in depth knowledge of both cultures whose values are being translated. She has to know the nuances of each language in both their connotations and denotations for various sub-cultures in the group. She has to select the right word, image, symbol, material, to align the meanings of both languages to achieve communication.  She has to do so with the understanding of the full gravity of those choices to avoid any diplomatic incidents. Because through her efforts, the abstract becomes tangible and people can then react to it, positively, negatively, or neutrally, but they respond to the experience her words create. What is being made manifest is more than information (which assumes a decontextualized neutrality of meaning) but values. It is values that people experience, not information.

For America, we really need to look at our values, particularly our value of democracy, and how it embodies the idea the "everyone should be valued as a human being." For design and designers, we need to align all of our decisions towards the manifestation of that value, democracy. As an African American woman, born within the first generation of that group to truly be born free (due to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), I carry the hope that it IS possible for our government agencies to embody the value of Democracy or at least I am willing to work towards it.

15 lines of Fame in Chicago Red Eye

So for those who did not have enough on lap dancing and Flirty Girls Fitness, I got literally the last word on the subject in yesterday’s Chicago RED EYE in a story, Workouts Gone Wild written by Kyra Kyles. It is a balanced story in terms of presenting the views of women who enjoy the class, the owners of the gyms that offer strip and pole dancing classes, the men who feel they can benefit from women taking the class, and me, who talked about the wider social ramifications for young women and feminism. But then again, I might just like it because I got the last word. Tee hee.

Design As Margaret Mead

Marc of SFU posted a comment on my blog that I would be interested in Bruce Nussbaum’s posting on how CEOs Must Be Designers.

There was one part of Bruce’s posting that caught my attention, or more likely caused my heart to stop because it exposed the ambivalence I have about design, particularly “design thinking” and what I would see as its potential act of colonization of anthropology and other disciplines.

So the section of Bruce’s post that interested me is this:

The empathetic tools of design can bring business people, educators, urban planners, hospital managers, transportation developers—everyone-- into these communities to understand their values and rules, their needs and wants.

That’s Design As Margaret Mead, Design As Anthropology. Design is so popular today mostly because business sees design as connecting it to the consumer populace in a deep, fundamental and honest way. An honest way. If you are in the myth-making business, you don’t need design. You need a great ad agency. But if you are in the authenticity and integrity business then you have to think design. If you are in the co-creation business today—and you’d better be in this age of social networking—then you have to think of design. Indeed, your brand is increasingly shaped and defined by network communities, not your ad agency. Brand manager? Forget about it. Brand curator maybe.

Then there is Design as Peter Drucker or Design as Management Methodology. Design is popular today also because Design Thinking—the methodology of design taken out of the small industrial design context and applied to business and social process—is spreading fast.

In Marty Neumeier’s the Brand Gap, he has an exercise in which if you can replace the name of a different company into the logomark or tagline, it fails as a mark or tagline:

The empathetic tools of design anthropology can bring business people, educators, urban planners, hospital managers, transportation developers—everyone-- into these communities to understand their values and rules, their needs and wants.

Tools of empathy fail as the differentiating the brand of “design” from that of anthropology. Owning to poor communication of Anthropology’s part, many do not know that “tools for empathy” is the anthropological brand. But in fact, the development, refinement, and recreation of tools of empathy has been the reason for existence and modus operandi of anthropology for nearly 150 years. So I wonder if/why/how design is/seeks to colonize/ be colonizing--not hybridizing or synthesizing-- anthropology?


CAVEAT: Now, understand that I am a completely hybridized designer/anthropologist. I’ve spent now just as long in my design habitus as I did in my anthropological training. So the questions I pose are not about designer bashing, which would be schizophrenia as this point. But the metaphor of colonization opens up possibilities for teasing out how future scenarios of design and anthropology’s engagements can play out.

An oversimplified story of Design and Colonization

Once upon a very real time and place, there was a group of people called Design. Design lived on an functionally substantive and aesthetically beautiful island called Isle de Craft. Design lived happily for a long period of time making beautiful and functional artifacts. One day, two explorer groups called Digital and Globalization washed upon the shores of Isle de Craft. Design was exposed to a whole universe of things it never dreamed of. More efficient ways of doing things and more competition for its crafts. There was intermarriage of the groups and these Digital Design and Global Design and Digital Global Design offspring (Design 2.0) felt uncomfortable with the old ways of Design and felt the Isle de Craft was too small for the work they wanted to do. There was a lot of resentment among the old Design people and sometimes Design 2.0 were prosecuted. In addition, the population boom made the Isle de Craft overcrowded.

So these Design 2.0 and some of the old Design people sought new lands to explore who they are and what they could do. The desire of course was to find unoccupied lands, so they could build their societies anew, but there weren’t any. Thus, some of the groups landed in the land of Anthropology. The chief of Anthropology sent her children Ethnography and Anthropometrics to meet the new visitors. The Design 2.0 were weary and ill from their travels. Ethnography and Anthropometrics brought them healing foods and balm, then introduced them to the rest of the Anthropology people. Some said kill them for they bring disease. Others said we should take care of them and mate with them; we have something to learn from them. The latter group won, but the former group constantly eyed the visitors with suspicion.

Design 2.0 got better and began to build their homes and society in the land of Anthropology. Some Anthropology people liked the look and feel of the new homes and moved in with Design 2.0, sought to learn their ways, and see how they could create new things together to invigorate the old Anthropology society. Some Design 2.0 people liked the methods and society of Anthropology and moved into those villages to learn their ways and see how they could create new things together to invigorate Design 2.0. Others established trade routes between the Isle of Craft and the land of Anthropology, traveling back and forth, sharing ways and understandings. For a while, everything seemed prosperous.

Then, there was a global famine that affected the Isle of Craft and the Land of Anthropology. Being an island, the Isle of Craft was hit harder. Many fled the island and came to the Land of Anthropology. They were also weary and ill, but these Design 3.0 people were different. They learned how things were done in their new lands, but then went around rebranding everything “design.”

Anthropological research methodologies or even the hybrid ones developed by both anthropologist and designers were branded “Design Research” and the origins erased. They kept addressing poor Ethnography as Contextual Inquiry, much to her anger and chagrin. The understanding of organizational structures and services to support them were rebranded  “Organizational Design” and “Service Design.” As the famine increased in the lands, Design 3.0 declared that they were the only people qualified to perform these new things and created new gated cities on the most productive lands where only Design 3.0 people could live and work.

This process also began to happen in the Land of Business Administration and the Land of Politics.

What happens next, choose your own adventure...


As a person deeply committed to the hybrid theories, methodologies, and practices of Design Anthropology, there is a lot of danger I feel in design seeking to claim territory that is already inhabited by others. I deeply understand the desire to expand the practices of design from craft production, but perhaps the way to think about that process is not in the form of Design 3.0, which claims all advances as design and where “Design as Anthropology” surplants and erases the memory of Anthropology or other disciplines.  I try to approach it as Anthrodesign, Designanthro, or Design+Anthropology. Design should not feel so insecure about its craft origins. People need crafts and its a valuable part of construction of humanness. Anthropologist, beyond archaeologists who do perform craft production, should improve the craft of their communication and experiential artifacts. New times may require the acquisition of new skills, but those skills have a history and intentionality to them, which needs to be recognized.

Bruce Nussbaum in the same post talks about how design is hated partly because it is misunderstood, but also because of its own hubris. That hubris leads designers to make statements like, “Designers have an intuitive understand of what it means to be human.” But not being aware of how its actions can be read as colonization, Design 3.0 risks the insurrection of the natives whose lands and practices they are seeking to take as their own. And unlike European contact with the Americas, Design 3.0 will find the natives of Anthropology and Business land have more respect from the deities of Business, Government, and Society. The land grab  for ideas and methods might backfire and the deities punish Design 3.0 for its hubris.

There is no Design as Margeret Mead, but there is an Anthrodesign by which the skills of “professional” design and anthropology are developed in persons and groups to a complementary balance. Margeret Mead is actually very much an anthrodesigner. Her work paid attention to form as it did to content. She and Gregory Bateson were some of the early pioneers of using visual methods of photography and video to do Anthropology engaged with designing new future possibilities for society.

Perhaps that is what the two disciplines should be aiming for.

Efficiency in government services

If you want to understand the possibilities for efficient and effective government, one should visit its department or bureau of Business Affairs and Licensing.

On Monday, I went to the City of Chicago Dept. of Business Affairs and Licensing to get a business license for independent consulting. This was the most effective and efficient government service experience that I have ever had.

The Website:
The department website had a business license wizard that walked you through a series of questions to the page with the right forms that you needed to fill out. This was accomplished through 5 questions and I got the correct PDF form. (They did not have the online fill able PDF or it would have been a perfect process.) I filled out the form and went down to the office. You are allowed to schedule an appointment to visit the office online, but I figured I did not need to do that with the holiday approaching.

The Office:
At the office, I waited in a line of 2 people to meet with the information person who asked me about the type of business I wanted a license for and printed out a number. In the waiting area, there were 10 or so people. I was glad a brought a book, except, by the time I walked across the room to get to a seat, they called up my number, which was also displayed on the TV monitor with CNN.

I meet with the Davina, the financial counselor, who asks me a few questions and types in the information from my form. She prints out another form and highlights the questions I need to answer. There are 5 yes/no questions about my “office” and property, and 4 questions on tax related stuff. She tells me that I am to fill them out there so I can ask any her questions. I answer the questions and she types them in the system.

She tells me that because of my zip code, my application has to be approved by planning as opposed to zoning and that with the holiday, I will know by Friday. Then I should come in and review the approval and pay the $250 fee. Then, I will get my business license that same day.

The entire process in the office took less than 15 minutes.

The moral of the story:
Governments can be extremely efficient and effective when it comes to generating their own income. The City of Chicago requires all business to get a $250 business license for profits and $50 non-profits. If you rent or own a space, have a car, need to put signage on the walkway, need to use the sewage system, doing business as another entity, each item is an additional fee. While many other Chicago agencies seem mired in incompetence due to corruption, the experience of the Dept. of BA and L was the model of good citizen service and I left feeling good about the government. If only that could be replicated at the DMV.

Happy 4th of July!

From second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.


Response to Design Observer post "Why is this font different from other fonts?"

This is the response I posted to Jessica Helfand's June 26th post to the Design Observer, entitled "Why is this font different from other fonts?" Her essay was about type "ethnicity," cultural stereotyping, and ethics in design. The gist of her argument was there is an ethical dilemma in the use of Faux Hebrew, Faux Mexican, or Faux Hindu typefaces. She asks the question, "What’s the difference between a celebrity making an unforgivable racist remark and a typographer making a font that clumsily perpetuates a cultural stereotype?"


My response:

How do design artifacts (ex. typefaces) enable self-definition and self-determination in relationships of unequal power?

I really appreciate this article and the discussion generated around it. When design is increasingly concerning itself with issues of diversity, the questions posed by Jessica are important to addressing the openness of the field.

How do the design decisions that designers make (our intentions) as they become manifest in specific environments (restaurant menu vs. job application) affect the receptions by diverse groups of people (positive, neutral, negative) to ideas of self and other, within a context where everyone is not given the same access to the agency to define themselves.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Helvetica story is that it was designed with the intention to get away from the national ethnic markers of many European typefaces. It is the Euro of typefaces. In the context of centuries of infighting among European nations, this was important in helping to define a new identity for Europe as international, not national.

Yet, that same Helvetica in the context of an African government form could be seen as colonialism. Through this so-called international typeface, Europeans are trying to transform the "disorderliness" of specific African identities into an imagined rational, ordered, European identity.

Ethics is about the mitigation or elimination of possible negative consequences of one's decisions. This requires the imagining of how design can hurt as well as help. Beyond PC-ism, the goal is to try and do no harm, especially to the weakest among you.