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July 2007
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September 2007

Homeownership and subprime loans

Scouring the headlines this morning, I was trying to decide what to write about. The environmental crisis in China? The debate about health care insurance for middle class children? My new apartment and neighborhood?

I decided to write about homeownership and sub-prime loans because the NY Time's featured Chicago in their story on the Drop Foreseen in Median Price of US Homes by David Leonherdt and Vikras Bajaj. Having moved into a new apartment, I can talk about why I rent but not buy homes.

Sub-prime loans

The news has been reporting on the negative economic effect of the current housing crisis as foreclosures increase across the nation. It seems that the housing boom was predicated on providing balloon mortgages to those who could not afford them or cannot afford them now.  What has been disturbing is that none of the "experts" predicted this. What is the point of being considered an expert if you cannot predict anything. There is another article about the Countrywide Financial and how they persuaded people to take loans by promising, “I want to be sure you are getting the best loan possible."  They were very successful and people bought into the American dream of homeownership, and now the dream is fading.


I've never bought into the American dream of homeownership. Even in kindergarten, I never wanted to play house. There are some assumptions about life-style's that are part of that dream that I do not buy into because I believe that everything you own, owns you. I think it is strange that housing prices are such that it takes a 30-year mortgage to pay off a house. That is half a lifetime to be tied to a long-term loan. Culturally, of course, US people do not stay in one place for 30 years, at least in the middle class doesn't. I really don't imagine being in one location long enough to accrue great equity in a home, which I don't need too much of. I do not have children or plan to. I contribute the maximum on my 401Ks and retirement.

I know that not everyone share these assumptions, but it seems immoral that the dream is so high that for many it's becoming a nightmare.

Response to DO post "Why Design Won't Save the World"

Guest writer, David Stairs, posted his review of the Cooper Hewitt, Design for the Other 90%, exhibit in the August 20 Design Observer. David is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project and the executive director of Designers Without Borders, so he knows what he is talking about. The gist of his review is:

As it stands, this design showcase on Fifth Avenue in New York City seems removed from the exigencies of the world’s poorest five-sixths. Until designers and design curators spend more time in self-evaluation they’ll remain far from encouraging the dialogues or the learning that would bring about effective change for the billions who really are in need.

My response to the posting seems to be a call for a Human Subjects Review for design.

Context is King

There are so many interesting threads to untangle resulting from this post. As a design anthropologist, I really appreciate David's sensitivity to the limitations of design itself and the potential hubris that is always lurking in "armchair" altruism and philanthropy. Context is king, and it becomes "your chosen Deity" when you design for a context you don't truly understand.

Daniel Green's framing of the potential sources of failure for a design being sometimes functional and sometimes contextual is useful here.

Design always needs to be a true partnership between those embedded deeply within the context (yet knowledgeable of other relevant contexts where the problem exists) and those embedded in the design solutions. This is true whether it's a Fortune 500 client who understands her business context (functionally and culturally) or an Indian peasant who understands his fields (functionally and culturally as well). This has to be an equal partnership, which is sometimes the challenge as pointed out by J., Akh, Ryan Nee, and others.

Yet, satisfice is a dangerous proposition when you are dealing with people's basic survival (whether economic or cultural). When I conduct research, I have to complete a detailed Human Subjects Review to show that I am approaching my project with an idea towards (1) respect for persons through informed consent, (2) beneficence by listing the benefits and the risks associated with the project, and (3) justice in the selection of research participants. Design, given its potential functional and cultural impact on societies, should be held to the same ethical standards. (See the Belmont Report of 1979)

Of course, something akin to this is listed in AIGA's Standard for Professional Practice, but there is no review board to stop potentially unethical designing.

becoming who you wish for

As I was cleaning out old boxes today, I came across the original proposal of incorporation for D4D in 2002 and my wish list for the new president of D4D post-Bob Zeni.

  • National reach (being able to put us in contact with people on the national level)
  • Consensus builder (being able to pull diverse directions into a clear vision that can be shared by all)
  • Have experience on a national platform (I am new to this and afraid of which steps to take, thus would value from experience).
  • Passionate
  • Accountable to the interests of the group, especially the board.
  • Synergistic (can bring together diverse domains and see big picture).

It is cool to think that several years later, I’ve become in many ways that person that I described, first with my work with Design for Democracy, but especially now on the international level with my work with In Design We Trust/Design Policy.

So be careful who you wish for, you might just become her.

Intentions and consistency

Every morning I read meditations from the book, 365 Tao Daily Meditation by Deng Ming-Dao.  Its also available at 365 Tao Digital Dharma as a podcast. The meditation for today was consistency which made me reflect on the work of Lauralee Alben. Here is part of my meditative response which I thought was interesting enough for public consumption...

One of the life changing people that I’ve met is Lauralee Alben. She is this amazing designer, who doesn’t design objects but rather organizations and more importantly people’s lives. She is another person with whom I had this instant connection. We ended up spending over 6 hours together talking from 6pm to midnight. We also seem to resonate at the same frequency. When I went to conference in Pasadena a few months back, people who met me and knew her kept saying that we needed to meet, not knowing that we had been introduced by my friend Parrish. 

Lauralee changed my life because she introduced me to the concept of “intentions.” So I never use the word “goal” anymore, which implies a single-mindedness in both approach and outcome that leads to inflexible thinking. I use the word “intention,” which while preserving the sense of the desired outcome leaves open the approach or path that you take to realize it. As she told me, “Your intention is always in the form of a question.” So lately, my intention (my Tao) has been, “How can I create a space for interdisciplinary knowledge that supports positive social change?.”

This shift in thinking changes lives because it eliminates the possibility of failure, which I always thought of as the result of a lack of imagination based on the expectation that there is a single way to get to a single outcome. It opens up the possibility for collaboration because you can align yourself with people who share the same intention, but you can maintain different approaches. But most importantly, it provides you a clear perspective on the current meaning of your life, which allows you to be open to new experiences but find you way back to the main road.

Yet, consistency is key. I had a friend who was extremely inconsistent. She’d say that she would do something or be somewhere and back out last minute. She was constantly distracted by something or someone else, which ended up wearing down my sense of self-worth, because I could not believe that “buying a $1 gold fish” was more important than being somewhere when she said she would be. Given the fact that I am pretty low-maintenance anyway, I ended up terminating the friendship because this person lacked the ability to determine her priorities. Her inconsistency demonstrated to me that she did not value herself or her own perspective and thus would never value me or our friendship. Since then, consistency is something I look for in friends, because it means that while you can have fun and be silly, you both also know what matters. Sharing a sense of intention about what matters is the root of any friendship.

It is also the key to leadership in that I have learned to attract/gather people who share intentions, yet leave them to their own devices on how to get there. It is sometimes a hit or miss, but I am learning to be more discerning.

10,000 page views

Today, I hit 10,000 lifetime page views. Minor milestone since starting the blog a little over a year ago. It's not Google, but for me its more than I expected. Tee. hee.

It probably means there is need for a refresh. I'm wanting to add links to other blogs that I admire.

Clearview typeface: case study in design policy

Reading today’s NYTime’s artlcle, there was an article, The Road to Clarity, by Joshua Yaffa, about the typeface, Clearview, and its quest to replace Highway Gothic on American road signs. It’s a wonderful example of interdisciplinary design, with engineers, graphic designers, and usability experts working together to solve civic problems, in this case of clarity of information in the wee hours of the morning on long American highways. It also shows great perseverance in working with the Federal government in bringing about systematic change. This is a tale of frustration and slow triumph. It took 10 years for everything to be developed, accepted in 2004, and now finally implemented. <smile>

I hope my work does not take as long.

Perils of being a state employee

As faculty at University of Illinois at Chicago, I am an employee of the State of Illinois. I have adapted to being part of a government bureaucracy, but did not realize what it meant to have the State as your boss. Illinois had tremendous difficulty passing the State budget. The Senate only passed one proposal today. If it does not pass today, then we State employees do not get paid.

UofI President White had sent us emails telling us to continue working when the budget was not passed by July 31st. It seems so strange.

The budget crises reminds me of why it is important to make governance more accountable and compelling to people. There is no transparency in the Illinois budgeting process, and by bringing it up to the deadline for State workers to get paid, they reduce the likelihood of dissent. Who wants to be responsible for teachers not getting paid?

The budget includes no money for CTA, which seems short-sighted, given it is the lifeblood of the major city. They are wanting to propose a casino for Chicago which is a sin tax against the poor and middle classes who gamble, instead of raising taxes for everyone as part of the common good.

The pork barrel aspect of the budget is more complicated. Its about the allocation of money for local projects, which seems valid in that the legislators would know what local priorities exist and should have some discretion in funding them. There needs to be a rebranding of that practice in some ways. Yes, it gets abused, but the oversight should be on developing processes by which the priorities are decided, not on whether there should be funding provided.

But as Winston Churchill said, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

Design Anthropology's distinct character

Just completed today a NSF grant proposal for a workshop on Design Anthropology, with Allen Batteau of Wayne State University. I had Roberta Feldman read a draft and in the discussion about her comments, she proposed to me what makes Design Anthropology distinct from traditional design and traditional anthropology:

What you are doing, based on your work with Design for Democracy, is trying to take social meaning and process and tie it to the act of designing, tie it closely to the actual decisions that designers have to make. You provide useful information and methods to inform specific design activities.

Design Anthropology is able to accomplish this because it was developed in the crucible of design practice, as opposed to academia. It had to be practical (or it would not survive), and used the tools of design itself to make sure its knowledge was "actionable."

But sometimes people forget how hard fought the synthesis was. I remember the early projects at Sapient in the late 1990s, where people ended up yelling and crying all the time because the synthesis of anthropological thinking and design thinking was so painful.  Thus, Design Anthropology really represents the "bi-racial" child of academic anthropology and the practice of design.

What is interesting for me is what happens when you bring it back to the academy, which is my mandate. For me, it's not about democratizing methods like ID at IIT, which is a noble pursuit. The Dean, whom I ran into today, said that something about how I, representing the academic field of design anthropology, elevate the intellectual discourse of design so that design can be at the same level as engineering and business. I would say that it gives designers the confidence that comes from a sense of deep topical domain knowledge to engage in those conversations.  At least, it is my intention to train designers to feel they can.

So I think I can articulate, with Roberta's help, the distinct character of Design Anthropology in ways to justify its academic existence.