Are designers too eager to innovate?

Following the aftermath of the Titanic in 1912, a new federal Seamen’s Act was passed that required more lifeboats to be retrofitted on ships. In 1915, three years after the tragedy, another passenger ship in Chicago capsized, claiming 844 lives in what was later coined the ‘Eastland Disaster’. Cause: too many lifeboats retrofitted, to the already unstable Eastland ship. The Michigan Steamship Company and Jenks Shipbuilding Company of Port Huron both failed to take seriously other safety requirements making new lifeboats standards ineffective. Adding to this, legislation was not planned around existing designs of ships and neither were the latter modified to accommodate more lifeboats and made safer overall.

Much of today’s design process emulates the lead up to the Eastland disaster. We want to solve problems without completely understanding the system and the consequences of our solutions. Businesses in this fast changing world are too eager to innovate and disrupt and the pressure has landed on designers to keep up. This pressure pushes us towards solutions which are not as mindful, responsible and systemic as they should be.

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Butterfly Effect

Recently, I conducted a design workshop with 5th graders in NYC. The theme of the workshop was designing for an emerging problem: urban waste and landfills. At least 3 groups came up with the idea of shipping the waste to another country or better still, launch all of it into outer space. While I had never thought of this possibility even fictitiously, and just for a moment may have even laughed at the naivety, what immediately worried me was how our instincts work when we solve problems. We are eager to get rid of the problem till it stops affecting us personally. We want to design bandages, and not solve at the root.

We saw a similar situation making history recently. President Trump’s travel ban on citizens of 6 countries citing security concerns is unarguably the most important political example of extreme action of myopic vision (keeping aside how fundamentally reprehensible it is). The repercussions across the US and the backlash that followed simply illustrates, among other things, lack of systemic approach and no heed paid to the consequences of the decision.

It is not just when design solves problems, but how design creates new products and experiences for the future. Niantic’s Pokemon Go became a revolution last year. It normalized the blurring lines between digital and real life and got millions hooked on. While we designed intending for people to engage with the beautiful world around us, we forgot the real world comes with a big of share of unsafe and dangerous environments. App users were attacked, robbed, and rare pokemon sightings caused stampedes and traffic jams. The game became responsible for serious, unforeseen and unintended consequences.

The instinctual, agile thinking in today’s design processes and startups, worries me like that of the naivety of the 5th graders. Designing without thinking about the bigger system and consequences is incomplete and dangerous. Design should be able to parse out extreme consequences of our solutions as part of its process. Designing while wearing a critical and mindful hat is key.

Wrong kind of Empathy

Humans designing for humans is a causality of our mirror neurons. We feel others’ pain like it is happening to us and materialize that empathy by creating products and services that provide protection and comfort. Even though designers largely have noble intent, who decides what problem needs solving or what is really inconvenient?

UX designer Goran Peuc writes in this article about how people want their clothes washed without doing their own laundry. Although Goran may be speaking from personal experience and in a way empathizes with a sample of people, his assumptions might not meet some others’ sentiments, for whom mundane and daily activities are the essence of life. Not everything has to be solved and made better.

Design philosopher and critic Cameron Tonkinwise writes how sometimes design innovation can overlook true empathy. He writes, “Even when design innovators are sympathetic to the daily constraints that might cause people to miss better ways of doing things, there is a wider danger.’ He explains further, “There are plenty of people burdened by tasks that could be facilitated by designed products and services. Invariably, these are precisely the people who cannot afford those designs. …” In this, I find an important point we need to think about — are we, as problem solvers, often projecting personal fears and preferences in the values we embed in our design solutions?

Cultural Relativism is one of the first concepts taught in anthropology and is the idea that a person’s beliefs and activities should be understood based on that person’s own culture. Making recommendations on living life better to a culture different that yours is highly condemned in the field. Design has the power to impact lives if it comes from deep understanding of human psychology and behavior, but is more effective if we design while respecting and celebrating our differences as human beings.

A popular documentary ‘Babies’, by Thomas Balmès, follows four newborns through their first year after birth in four different parts of the world. Just through a video montage, it beautifully showcases the diversity and relativity in our cultures. What is appropriate for someone in Japan may not be for someone who lives in Africa. As designers we must borrow these best practices from anthropology and practice sincere and honest empathy for cultures and demographic different than our own.

Hyper ‘People Centrism’

Another side to the wrong kind of empathy is too much empathy. We land up creating too much stuff to cater to the never-ending needs and desires because we over-empathize. Design was designed to keep only people at its center. Designers are too caught up in alleviating every anticipated pain of people that unanticipated impact on the environment is easily overlooked.

Artist Chris Jordan’s work “Running the Numbers” makes it easier to see the impact through visuals depicting statistics. For instance, every fifteen minutes in the US alone, 410,000 paper hot beverage cups and 2,000,000 plastic beverage bottles are disposed. As a developed country, we seldom let convenience be traded for anything else. Sadly, a lot of our efforts are in retrospect and to fix what we did not account for. Kill The Cup, a facebook campaign on minimizing coffee drinking waste (cups, sleeves, straws) is one of the thousands of well intended efforts to fix.

When we create something to the count of millions, isn’t it absolutely fundamental to think about where it ends up after use? The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) that became part of a European law in 2003, imposes responsibility for the disposal of electronic and electrical waste on manufacturers or distributors of such equipment. This directive not only improves the behavior of consumers, it also makes manufacturers mindful of the afterlife of their products. At the very least, products would be designed to be efficiently disassembled and recycled.

A fifth of the world population residing in developed countries consumes 4/5th of the world’s resources. We do not consider carbon emissions while ordering small household products on Amazon. We do not think while switching our plastic I-phone covers every month. We want convenience even if it means endless packaging and waste. Buying a $2 shirt from H&M is only possible because the person who sewed the shirt in Bangladesh is heinously underpaid.

Not Psychics, Builders

Some impact and consequences are just not in our control, we could say. Yes, no one can predict the future but we can design it.

In 2013, United Nations published a report on food security endorsing entomophagy (eating of insects) as solution for our protein consumption and reducing our reliance on the meat industry. The solution was intended to eventually end problems of food security in Africa and Asia. The simplicity of the solution was suspicious though. Food systems are inherently complex and the answer to a very crucial problem of food security could not seem so superficial and one-dimensional. So after much investigation and enough evidence, I decided against endorsing this future, through my project.

While crystal-balling is a waste of time, we can be intentional and cohesive about the future we are endorsing and creating through our designs. Design involves decision-making about how things would work in a certain future. We are intentional about the values, features, tone and branding we create. When we create, we also endorse. Eventually what will matter is how we collectively decide to imagine our future.

We are always going to create for a time ahead of us. As beings who are incredibly uncomfortable with uncertainty, we find comfort in predicting future trends. As designers we must exercise caution while conforming or shaping our solutions to fit into the mold of where the world is seemingly headed. Eventually, our future is not determined by technology and giant companies, but the collective values we embed in our solutions.

In the coming future, we may not have the time to vet every decision and account for every possible implication. It is not going to be about being meticulous in the process of design. It will be about occasionally breaking the process routine, stepping back, questioning ourselves and sometimes saying no.

Vidhi Goel