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Values/Design/Experience at the IRS

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.


Yoko Akama

Hi Dori,
Thanks again for your clarification. I hope you weren't 'offended' by my questions. I am clearer on your definitions and role of the designer. I am uncertain whether you actually understood my critique and the point I wanted to make, but it has been a useful discussion from my point of view.


Dori Tunstall

Let me be more explicit. No I emphatically don't think the values are determined. My first recommendation to the IRS was to conduct research to determine what the values are for its internal and external audiences. From there, it is the designers job to figure out through an iterative citizen-centered design process (with research/design iterations) which images, words, forms, etc, best communicates the values as positively interpreted and experienced by different audiences. The designer is the translator because it is through their design decisions that values are made tangible, thus contestable, and hopefully then part of shared positive experiences.

There are many democracies. My specific case study is American democracy with which I am deeply intimate, but is not the idea model for other cultures or countries.

Yoko Akama

Hi Dori,
Thank you for actually spending time to consider my comment and I am pleased that you've responded. From reading the post you suggested and your pdfs, it seems to me that your definition of 'values' and the 'translation' of them assumes that these values are already clearly defined, and that all stakeholders are in accordance with them.

My understanding of values are that they are not clear-cut – often they are very difficult to define, and particularly difficult to 'rank' how one is more important than the other. I agree that there are certain social values that are held important - but here again, I think it also becomes complex when one begins to dissect how an individual / family / community / culture / society may define and express those values.

It is because I define values from a position of it being very complex and 'grey' that I question the role of 'translation' by the designer. My perspective is that a designer, as a citizen, an individual and who is part of the community, have as much to explore which values are important to them, as much as the client and potential audiences. To me, design is a way of manifesting these values and the process of designing is a process of negotiating the values amongst the various stakeholders.

I guess what I am most interested in (and where my research is situated) is the process prior to the slides you have put together for the IRS. Or, perhaps, it sits alongside them... because I think the process of designing ie, the thinking, making and reflecting and crafting, is inextricably linked with the process of negotiating how and which values are collectively manifested through the final outcome. Through the discussions, making and critiquing, certain values may be illuminated which may have not been made explicit before.

What are your thoughts in light of my 'interpretation'? I am also curious about your 'Yin Yang' themed paper. I'm looking forward to our on-line discussion.

Dori Tunstall

Hi Yoko,

I checked out your blog and we do share common interest. I am writing a paper on the Yin Yang of Design and Anthropology, which seems to fit within your topic.

The answers to your questions about design and value are provided by another post I did based on a presentation I gave to the IRS. http://dori3.typepad.com/my_weblog/2007/07/valuesdesignexp.html
Download the presentation and we can talk more about it.

Quick response is that society and democratic institutions define the values. Designers are translators because they use the tools of design to match the expression of the values into tangible experiences for the multiple audiences. Designer's are never neutral in that they make choices and decisions, each choice has an impact on what prevails or what is edited out. At best, a designer can balance multiple perspectives and approaches, but the pose of neutrality (like that of objectivity) is just that a pose.

Democracy is an abstract value which has to be interpreted through other functional and symbolic values that people can "feel" such as efficiency or common good. There are various forms of democracy and its values, which are all culturally determined in their ranking and meaning. So first step is to bring people together to define the values.

Again, this is elaborated in my presentation. Then, let's talk.

Yoko Akama

Hi Dori,
I have come across your blog through 'word of mouth' and recommendation. I am pleased to know that the network of design-research bloggers are growing!

From reading your posts and attending your presentation at Wonderground, I have felt that our approaches to design has many overlaps. You could read a succinct statement of my research in my blog http://raws.adc.rmit.edu.au/~e48618/blog/?p=136.

However, I also notice remarked differences between us and I felt that I should comment on it to see if it might be a useful way to generate discussion.

On reading the above post on 'design as translator', it raised a question, 'well, what about the designer?' I agree that designers manifest their knowledge of the cultural groups of who the communication affects, through design. I also think that the point made about design as a process that manifests and communciates values is really good. However, I question whether 'values' can be 'translated', whose 'values' are we talking about and what this implies?

Put simply, I question the use of the word 'translator'. My interpretation then is that a designer is a neutral, objective person that priviledges other people's values over others (perhaps, clients or audiences), in order for it to be 'translated'. But if your statement of democracy 'valuing everyone as a human being', is enacted through design, does not the designer also count as one such human? How will the designer's values be 'valued'?

Another question concerns democracy as a value to promote, as opposed to democracy as process. They are inextricably linked and it is easy to confuse the two as we both live and participate in a democratic society. However, should democracy be more valued than the values and ideals of other cultures/society? Instead, could the process of democracy be a way to understand, negotiate and discuss varying values amongst different stakeholders?


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