The Creative Coast’s blogspot is Savannah’s sounding board for local thinkers, innovators, wanderers and wonderers. Guest bloggers share their thoughts, opinions and creative noodling from all over the map. This week’s blog is from Scott Boylston, professor of Design for Sustainability at SCAD, and founder and president of Emergent Structures, a Savannah-based non-profit organization dedicated to reducing the land-filling of building materials through innovative re-purposing projects. Read on as Scott pulls back the curtain on the design world …
I’ve been a designer now for a quarter of a century. I’ve seen fads come and go in the field, and I’ve watched the design world argue with itself about all manner of things. Yet, as much as I’ve always loved the discipline, I’ve never been more excited about what direction it was taking than I am now. Design is maturing. And, while some of the ideas I explore below have always been a part of the design fabric, a more deliberate and strategic approach to them is at the heart of my optimism. Because design is such a broad field, it is often misunderstood by those outside it. Below are three observations about the field that aim to satisfy some of the curiosity that non-designers have about it.
1) Design Can Help Level the Playing Field
Approximately 250 million adolescent girls live in poverty around the world. These girls are married off before they become teenagers; they get pregnant early and often; and they fall victim to assault, abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases. They also do the lion’s share of labor while owning almost nothing. These trends play out in places like Bangladesh, and Nigeria, to name a few. And statistics show that such systemic oppression destroys more than just the lives of these young girls; it destroys the chance for these countries to escape the negative economic cycles that haunt them. The lesson seems to be: as goes the female gender in a culture, so goes the culture.
One of the primary goals of the Nike Foundation has been to alleviate these pressures on pre-teen girls. Nike Foundation turned to frog, one of the world’s most highly acclaimed design firms, to help develop The Girl Effect, a program that empowers young girls in developing countries through direct involvement in creating the solutions. Through co-design (or participatory design), and other design tools and methods, young girls in the program have learned how to develop powerful communication networks between themselves and other girls in similar situations. frog developed a Community Action Toolkit (CAT) as a result of the partnership with Nike Foundation, which was released last month.
The toolkit is not just about empowering girls; it’s about empowering any group of people in need of such empowerment. As of last week, for example, frog began a collaboration with a Sustainability class at SCAD to pilot the toolkit right here in Savannah. The partnership includes Gatorball Academy, an organization founded by former Harlem Globetrotter Gator Rivers, which is committed to the holistic mentoring of at-risk populations, with an emphasis on basketball, gardening, obesity and diabetes prevention through healthy eating, exercise, and self-empowerment. Updates on this process will be posted on the Design Ethos blog.
2) Design is About Getting Other People To Do The Work
We’re all familiar with the proverb about teaching a man to fish, yet in many professional fields the last thing a practitioner wants to do is teach anyone the ‘magic’ behind the curtain. The how, after all is their domain; it’s how they make their money. And, when people think of design, they usually think of iPads, logos, or websites. They never think of the process of design as important. Designers themselves often fall into this same trap: it’s always about the outcome. Yet, over the last few decades, writers from Malcolm Galdwell to Daniel Pink have recognized that the way in which designers approach a situation makes all the difference in the world. And usually, the more challenging the problem, the stronger the need for a creative process to address it; a process that is as rigorous in its own flexibility as it is in its insistence on results.
Participatory design, as its name implies, is a process by which design tools and methods are shared with those benefiting from them most, with the idea that those ‘users,’ once exposed to design thinking, will adapt their efforts and goals in a way that best suits their own needs; participatory design is a process of empowerment through design; and some of that empowerment is design knowledge itself.
Participatory design was at the heart of SCAD’s Design Ethos DO-ference of 2012, where design experts from around the world were invited to Savannah, not to design for the Waters Avenue community, but to design with them. If individuals who are intimate with their own living situations have the opportunity to mingle with people who have dedicated their lives to thinking in unorthodox ways through a deliberate (yet adaptive) process, and the specifics of this collaboration are designed and managed creatively, the results can be as unexpected as they are satisfactory.
There were surely enough ‘concrete’ outcomes from SCAD’s Design Ethos to make all participants grateful—and many projects continue their development even now, eight months after Design Ethos—but the real power of the event resided in its ability to transform the perception of the participants’ own capabilities in affecting change in their own communities, and providing them with an intimacy with the methods and tools they could use in order to do such work. Design Ethos, by the way, also caught the attention of frog, thus making the above collaboration possible.
3) Design is Focused On The Possibilities That Lie Beyond The Design
A blender is designed with a particular purpose in mind. Yet, we don’t often think of a blender as an object that creates a great party, even though there wouldn’t be any hope for a good margarita without one. So, even as design can take us from a present situation to a desired situation—from one who cannot frappe a drink, to one who can—it also opens up the future to more ambitious possibilities. Some might even say that the function of a blender is NOT to make a blended drink at all as much to make a party.
When design is taken out of the consumer context and applied to a civic one, the same can also be said. For instance, a greenhouse can be created to help special needs high school students learn how to grow their own produce, but what other things can be achieved because that learning is being accomplished? Whether we are talking about a blender or a greenhouse, such answers depend on the intentions of the people who use it, as well as on the people who designed it to begin with.
Emergent Structures, a non-profit that I co-founded and lead as its president, is creating a greenhouse from reclaimed materials that will serve special populations in Savannah’s public high school system. Of course, the idea is to design a beautiful and functional structure that can house the program, which will be run by Design for Ability, a new non-profit organization, and a Savannah High School career coach.
But, as important as that training is to our objectives, so is the horizon of potential that can be realized from the structure’s presence. Of course, when I say this, I mean the improved likelihood of a life-long vocation and self-reliance for the kids that the greenhouse serves. But, I also mean the neighborhood that will benefit from a new community hub, as well as from a source of fresh vegetables in an area that’s been designated a food desert. I also refer to the creative process by which the greenhouse came into being serving as a conduit for broader conversations about collaborative efforts in the city of Savannah and beyond.
The construction of the greenhouse, which is being generously supported by IKEA, Hardin Construction, and Southern Pine Company, is also the focus of a Kickstarter fund-raising effort, which will end on February 1st.
So, design is maturing. And like a Live Oak, as the design field matures, new branches grow and develop their very own eco-systems, even as older branches continue to grow and prosper. Some branches will wither, some will break off, and some will slow in growth, but the overall health of this thing we call design will continue to prosper. And, through all of this, there is much to celebrate!