Design Cowboys

At the École de design industriel of the Université de Montréal, we recently had the pleasure to receive Mariana Amatullo from the DesignMatters department of the Art Center College in Los Angeles. Amatullo’s presentation tapped into a few workshop projects developed by students of her department. DesignMatters is an educational program specialized in what others call humanitarian design. Bringing apprentice-designers to pay attention to the problems of the most neglected and vulnerable, and to put themselves at the service of the most needing. It would be unfair to cast doubt on the intention behind such program. Who would seriously challenge the good will of those involve, students and faculties, traveling to underdeveloped countries for a few weeks, getting in touch with local communities to lend a hand in trying to make their life better. We are all appalled by the tragedy of humanity in many parts of our world and it always comes as a relief to see young adults and their tutors sacrifice themselves to try and raise the quality of life of people living in the toughest conditions. But, as we say, inferno is paved with good intentions.
The conference of Amatullo was interesting in many points. It raised a lot of questions that deserve thoughtful reflections. But two of them especially triggered me. The first is concerned with the reason behind the distance traveled to perform design. Why go so far to address the needs of populations so culturally distant, at the risk of misjudging aspirations that may very well be in total inadequacy with our own ? Why does it seems so easy to have access to such remote community ? The second has to do with the nature of the relation drawn between designers and the underpriviledged. Is design, as it is practiced in North-America, with the relation it entails between the expert and the beneficiary, is so unproblematic that it can be put to use, regardless of the context ?
In MY north western modern developed world, I have most trouble getting in touch with the underprivileged living just around the corner. I do try to have my students address the problems of those populations with poor education, facing poverty and social exclusion, but the barriers proves often unsurpassable. In the first place, when you try to tackle public health problems, legions of doctors and nurses stand up to point the unseriousness and underformalised nature of your design brief. Managers, health managers, will quickly disqualify design for its lack of scientific background. Government agents will show you to the line up where you can wait for the form to fill out before you can offer your contribution to a social program already designed. My point is, when designers succeed in engaging their skills in developing countries but haven’t got any success in helping their own countrymen, aren’t they demonstrating how socially weak their own trade is ? Aren’t developing countries the Wild West for fragile trades and professions, such as design, who find there an open field, free of powerful corporations, where they can prove themselves how valuable they can be ?
Amatullo’s conference raises another question as the projects she was presenting didn’t seem to show any differences, processwise, with any typical design projects. Apprentice-designers were designing for users who seemed to be watching passively as the projects were taking shape. From the point of view of a Quebecers, having lived its entire life in a country where the social net is quite large, assistance to needing population cannot be given so innocently. In fact, the social net raises constant debates in countries where it exists, many stressing the fact that assistance reduces the autonomy of people and increases their dependency upon a form of help that should only be temporary. A more legitimate way of helping would seem to be to favor the empowerment of those in need : to help underprivileged people find out how they can rally their own resources and be less dependent on outsiders. Else, even in the direst situation, the existence of proxies, as Alasdair MacIntyre would put it, would seem to yield a much valuable relation between members of a community, even if the life of the community doesn’t extend beyond the field trip undertaken by undergraduate students. The projects presented by Mariana Amatullo didn’t seem to address any of those questions raised by the dominating stance taken by the designer in its relation with his beneficiaries. In my view, whoever grants himself the power to help others should be much careful with the way he plans to help.

Une réponse sur “Design Cowboys”

  1. Indeed, one have to reflect on the effectiveness of the « pure good will » of helping abroad population in need, with a lack of preparation and understanding. The recent failure of the 4 billions spent in Haiti after the quake is a tremendous and powerful example, despite all the good will and generosity. I had myself been in charge for the reconstruction of a bridge in central Haiti, and it is disturbing to realize almost everything was done by non-haitian. We definetely have to combine Sociology and Anthropology along with Architecture and Engineering to demonstrate a holistic, real-life approach (real-life means theirs, not ours).

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