This will be the new decade of design thanking.
Not thinking. Thanking.
After hearing John Thackara speak last year, it really sunk in for me that design as a thankful or generous gesture—without any measure of expected reward or large-scale impact—is the huge gaping weakness within our profession. Taking small-scale actions on a day-to-day basis requires a kind of personal behavioral change that is very hard to sustain without some kind of feedback loop (or paycheck). We get lost in the work and not in the people that make it meaningful.
At the same time, I've struggled with the term "design thinking" as an end-all, cure-all to the world's ills—mainly because it can obscure the effort to convert thought into action, and action into profound, wholesale effect. We could spend lifetimes piling up all of the time spent thinking without giving voice to our thoughts.
Let's roll up thinking in thanking. Generosity comes first, not personal reward or gain. Let's consider how our actions as designers, and the actions that result from our efforts, function as a gift to others. Make this about helping others, not yourself. If you start thinking about how your project will look in your portfolio or on that fancy design blog as a case study, your heart isn't in the right place.
Let's focus on small-scale generosity and action. "Design thinking" implies big change. We have bold communities that will slowly mature, such as The Designer's Accord, that function on a fairly large scale and attempt to leverage that meme. Instead, invert that trend and consider tiny acts of kindness, embedded in micro-design efforts. What are the tiniest things we can create that fulfill a fundamental human need.
Let's carve out time to donate, and protect that time vigilantly. How much of our time we can realistically provide, free of charge? Every hour does have an impact.
Let's help those you know, and those you don't know. Our efforts should always help the bottom 90% first, finding those in our local communities and those in other areas that you can help immediately.
Let's think about what can be done nimbly, without purchased material. Deliver designs that change people's lives in a way that they can embrace or actively create alongside you—perhaps via technologies we haven't even implemented yet. Let's facilitate an ongoing bounce between informed, empathetic dialogue with those in need and immediately furnishing possible solutions. We have the tools to disseminate any kind of design to others, almost anywhere in the world. And if we start with small changes to what already exists in developing countries, we can leverage a single success into a model that can be repeated.
Let's leverage what's currently working, and supercharge it. We can see the seeds of a long-term, major trend emerging. Nonprofits such as Kiva and Vittana are focused on microloans for business and education. In what ways could these extremely powerful nonprofits be cross-bred with the engaged community of a website like Kickstarter? There are a wide range of business models that could be completely transformative.
Let's design for disruption, and cut out greedy middlemen. When most designers want to help out people in emerging markets, they have a broad swath of messy tape to cut through—and often with a hidden price tag attached. So let's be more like Google, providing disruptive technologies and opportunities that have a low cost to adopt and use. However, that said...
Let's connect designers more closely to NGOs. We haven't really understood how to take capital-D design and scale it down to everyday charity in a way that makes sense for nonprofits. So where we do introduce middlemen may be in how designers interface with nonprofits. We may need to retire the term "designer" and just take on the title "volunteer" for the lifetime of our service.
Let's make long-term commitment to monitor our effects. Making small changes can have big impacts, for better or for worse. We can't just throw a design idea over the wall and walk away from communities that we touch. We need to be a part of them, virtually if not physically.
Perhaps I'm being a little starry-eyed... but I don't think so. I hope to move these notions from a thought experiment to a set of principled examples that can serve as a sort of working template for designers. Perhaps you'd be interested in helping out?
I'm also seeking nonprofits that would be interested in piloting this notion, perhaps through the holistic participation of designers in their everyday interactions. I'll be starting first in the Seattle area, but hopefully as things progress we can expand outward.