Becoming a Design Leader
The Glass Is Always Empty

Bingo for Social Innovation

Bingo for Social Innovation

I am trying to use fewer adverbs in my everyday speech, but it's proving truly difficult.

I have a tendency to use many variants of these vacuous filler words. They billow in the midst of my conversational flow like empty barges floating in the ever-active sea of otherwise coherent thoughts—painfully flavoring what I say without really saying much at all.

Perhaps if I had to deposit a dollar in an "adverb jar" for every time an adverb slipped into an email, text message, or blog post, I would dissuade my language center from allowing the disgraceful -ly to attach itself to adjectives struggling to break free of my Visual Thesaurus-like thoughtstream.

(An aside: I fear by the time I'm done writing this post, I will be penniless, wallowing in an alley, having been bludgeoned to death by an angry soul wielding an unabridged Webster's dictionary. Thankfully, the red cover of the book will hide the blood spatter.)

This anti-adverbial tirade was brought to you by a recent IDSA event in Seattle entitled, "2010 Design Debate: Can Design Save the World?" There weren't a ton of adverbs that evening, but the entire talk had me ruminating on the language that we use to define and solve problems in the world of social innovation.

The IDSA event consisted of a expert panel from the worlds of industrial design, architecture, interaction design, graphic design, and user research being peppered by a well-read moderator with questions meant to delve into what was driving today's thinking in social innovation. We had professors of industrial design, architecture, and graphic design—Jason Morris, Sergio Palleroni, and Kara Pecknold, respectively—as well as Kevin Flick from PATH's Safe Water Project and Michael Cetaruk, an Associate Creative Director at frog design.

Most of the panelists had taken part in projects for the other 90% over the past year, and they all had informed expertise in using design to attack wicked problems such as nutrition, water quality, affordable transportation, and communication in developing nations. With the audience of a hundred or so designers passionate about the topic, there was a ton of brainpower in that room focused on extracting nuanced, informed philosophies from their cross-professional POVs, which could be taken directly into our practices and considered further. (That's why I wanted to attend—perhaps others had a different agenda entirely. After all, there was a cash bar and the requisite locally-sourced h'ors d'oeuvres.)

And while the event was a serious discussion leavened with wit and humility, by the time the panel had answered the third question posed to them, I was already wondering if by tackling such a large topic with so many complexities in front of such a large audience, we were encouraging an evening with a dissatisfying denouement for anyone hoping to get beyond the giganto-questions—of course design can save the world, otherwise we wouldn't be here learning how to save it!—and moving more deeply into how we can start doing what the IDSA and by extension its panelists are implicitly encouraging: getting deeply involved in some type of design for social innovation, in either our local communities or in global communities that desperately struggle with problems we can't even imagine in our Western world.

Over the past twenty years, we've evolved a shared language—specific keywords repeated over and over again, with purpose—that all of the panelists echoed, no matter what discipline was speaking. It became eerie, to the point that I began to jot down the words I was hearing, marking their frequency in a grid, which then began to resemble Bingo. My observation and the artifact that came out of it almost made me feel guilty. Bingo is a gambling game, played in parlors by people in pursuit of the big payout based on random wood balls being plucked from a metal cage. This is serious stuff, designing for those in need. "Look, David, you're not listening to the these stories they're telling. You're just getting fixated on tiny details that don't matter compared to the work that they're doing. Just put the card into your notebook and forget about it." When the debate was over, I showed the card to my friend sitting next to me, a creative director that owns her own design firm and whom is quite passionate about the subject of the talk. She laughed and said that she'd noticed the same thing.

But this card wasn't meant to be some kind of anti-social innovation commentary. On the contrary: what I was most interested in gauging was exactly how focused our vocabulary has become regarding social innovation, and how we may better transmit knowledge from those who practice social innovation to those who want to become involved with the subject. (Even the term "social innovation" is up for grabs, and not defined explicitly as the outcome of a designer's work.)

But the feeling that I was missing something kept nagging at me.

I put the card in my notebook and let it rest for a few days. It took me a good week or so to distill my inchoate thoughts into the following, which is only a first messy draft of some ideas from my notebook. I feel bad dealing in abstractions in this post, but I don't yet have the depth of lived experience to give some tangible examples from my professional life... only gut feelings and ideas, based on what I've heard and seen this past year. So feel free to add your thoughts to this:

The language that we choose to use defines our view of the world. As designers, the precision of our speech belies the accuracy of our understanding of what meaning we must communicate to others—both in the artifacts and systems we are employed to create, and in the context we must set around those artifacts to control how they are accepted both by clients and communities. This is why we often work alongside our clients and local communities to ensure we've defined a common lingo that helps to clarify what problems we're agreeing to solve.

In the world of design, our community of practitioners shows progress when new words—which represent new ways of thinking about existing modes, methods, and tools of design—begin to leak into our everyday parlance. New meaning is breathed into these words through stories, case studies, and processes that illuminate what they mean in the context of everyday people's lives.

I'm being precise about the words I've used in the previous two paragraphs, because many of the words I've used, such as "tools" and "methods," represent the forces of flux and change in our profession and in our practice. These words are the boxes in which we keep our tools, and the contents of the boxes are always being iterated.

Now, there's a delicate friction that happens in how we approach problems in our own individual ways. Our designer's toolbox, a bottomless well of creativity, is paired up with the endless complexity of open-ended problems. Both are inexhaustible—possible tools we could use and possible solutions we could propose—but we need to be cautious about resting our understanding of these topics with our limited, controlled vocabulary. We've only identified the actors on the stage, not the stories about the lives we want to improve.

Most of the words that I'd included on this de facto Bingo card represent slow to change labels that are woven into the fabric of any attempt at social innovation. The risk, however, is that we use terms like "sustainable" or "the other 90%" as rational stand-ins for the empathetic work necessary for us to laser-focus in on the needs of cultures and small-knit communities that are the foundation of how our design work may change people's behavior in a positive manner. We traffic in verbal abstractions for problems and groups of people instead of confronting terrible realities about the interrelationships between the problem and the people. The terms "Process" or "design thinking" are just terms standing in for our attempts to untangle the limitless, overwhelming complexity of natural and man-made systems that we can't comprehend in totalities, only in bite-sized nibbles borne out through our tiny designer's lens.

How many thousands of children die because of poor water quality every minute, while we wonder how to define what "water quality" means? LIkewise, we talk about "women" with certain assumptions about self-identification with communities that may function in ways that escape our everyday cultural experience. I remember at the IDSA talk when Kara Pecknold, who had just returned from a trip to Rwanda, fielded a question regarding gender on a panel that consistent mostly of men. In the first part of her response, she noted that she was speaking both for all women and for all of Canada—a moment whose irony was not lost by the chuckling audience.

But both of these examples I just shared are still abstractions. They aren't lived, observed experience of people's struggles, embedded in stories that embody meaningful change. This is what I saw least in the panel discussion, and desired to see more explicit in the outcome of the evening.

On Wikipedia, I like how social innovation is described at its highest level as "the attempt to impact the narrative of everyday life." Perhaps well-told stories are the true currency of social innovation, qualifying what those specific keywords I've tossed out earlier mean in context—not products, services, or other tangible items that corporations can advertise (another kind of poor man's story) to try to infuse them into our daily narrative.

When starting a project with any client, whether corporate or socially-motivated, we must define a shared, common vocabulary that drives how we agree to see the needs of people in the world. Then we must agree to the stories we will tell that describe how those needs will be better met. Then we formalize and create the artifacts embedded in those stories, and gauge their effect on the narrative of the world.

The world problems that we face as designers, while not numbering in the hundreds, have been well-labeled and well-considered from an academic perspective. As designers, we must become better storytellers to qualify what those labels mean in almost an infinite number of contexts. Perhaps this is where we should be guiding the conversation—in teaching those skills.

This is a more difficult problem to solve, requiring a precision of language and a grasp of lived experience that will tax even the most talented designers. But it's a more important use of time, for our profession, than considering abstract and rhetorical questions such as, "Can Design Save the World?"

No, it can't. At least (hopefully) not all by ourselves.

People who have a passion for changing the narrative of everyday life for the better can save the world. Many of them will be designers, as they have the tools to help envision that change. But it isn't just our burden to bear as a profession. If we tell the right stories about how we can influence world problems, leavened with the right artifacts to function as levers for that change, we can at least begin to encourage people to help us make those stories real.


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