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.
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.