Why we need a new and hyper-local model for design activism by Julie Kim

We’ve all been there: it’s another late night in the studio, and you’ve got hours of pixel-pushing and deck-polishing ahead. Your social life, if it exists, is under duress. The cramp in your mousing hand makes you wonder if it really is time to see that doctor.

Meanwhile your mind wanders from the task at hand to what you can do—what you can change about your “situation”—to close the gap between the seeming pointlessness of how you earn your living and the realization that your time and energy could be better spent doing something (anything!) more meaningful.

Like your brother who joined the Peace Corps in India. Or the industrial designer you read about who designed a new clean water system for a village in Tanzania. The architect who took a 6-month leave of absence from his job to build relief housing in Haiti.


It could be mere escapism to indulge such humanitarian fantasies but I think there’s more to it, especially for designers. It’s in our professional DNA to do stuff, to make things—and if we were trained well—to solve problems and have real impact on people’s lives. Our hands feel tied when we’re not putting them to good use.

Human need is everywhere
Humanitarian work shouldn’t require quitting your job, uprooting your life and moving to another community. The eye of the storm for social injustice isn’t always half way across the world—it’s often right under your nose in the form of an urban food desert, children stuck in a cycle of poverty, a family who lives in your back alley.

Over the last 5-7 years, we’ve witnessed an explosion of programs dedicated to applying design methods to humanitarian issues in the developing world. Some have spun off as nonprofits; others are embedded in top design firms, universities or government. Philanthropic foundations are expanding their grant portfolios by underwriting innovative, designer-led initiatives that meet their programmatic interests. Both the design and mainstream media have caught on, helping to fuel more attention to the value of designers working in the developing world—amounting to more funding, more programs, and more opportunities.

The epicenter of designer involvement in local issues is still emerging. We don’t yet have the same interest, infrastructure or investment behind designing solutions for human suffering in our own communities.

One barrier could be cultural. With definitions of community more fluid than ever, it can be unclear to which specific place, or society, we belong. With the rise of virtual communities and the mobile economy, social interconnectedness transcends physical geography. Over time, our sense of belonging to our immediate communities—the people with which we share real time and space—has weakened. As these bonds have eroded, so too has our sense of collective ownership and social responsibility.

Others may be more psychological and related to perceptions of human need. Rationally we may know that there are suffering people everywhere, but when considering how and where to devote our time and energy, we can fall into the trap of making conscious or subconscious comparisons between the plight of those suffering across the world and our own situations.

Suddenly the things you complain about or feel you “need” become trivial. Suddenly, when compared to a sick child living in a slum on his father’s earnings of $1.25/day—the World Bank’s definition of absolute poverty—the family living in your back alley in San Francisco doesn’t seem that needy anymore.

For some designers, this thought process can underscore the burning desire to plump up your savings account and get thee to the developing world. For others who can’t or don’t want to uproot their lives, it could be the quickest path to inaction.


New model for design activism

A new model of design activism:

  • is hyper-local: concentrates time, brainpower and resources to alleviate suffering in the community where you live and work. It may tap into the powers of technology, or leverage resources from afar, but the main focus should be to reconnect designers to their immediate communities rooted in real time and space.
  • leverages inside expertise: A human-centered design approach is often rooted in research, particularly ethnography, to develop user empathy. A hyper-local design activist already possesses this foundation of knowledge of his or her community. As participants in a community, our research is ongoing.
  • is flexible: either plugs design services into an existing organization or begs, borrows and steals lessons from a relevant community service program delivery or business model.
  • doesn’t try to boil the ocean: Changemakers tend to be lion-hearted optimists who set out to do too much too quickly, which can lead to confusion, burn-out or even stasis. Design activists can borrow a strategy from “lean” software development, where product managers focus on delivering essential components first, and everything (meaning: everything!) outside of this “scope” is pushed out to a later date. These constraints, designed to force action, act like bumpers in a bowling alley, keeping teams and resources focused on meeting a realistic and well-defined goal.
  • operates across sectors: While our ninja problem-solving skills, strong doer instincts, and willingness to experiment can spur amazing breakthroughs, design activists need partners in business, government, and the nonprofit worlds who are true subject matter experts and, most importantly, are embedded within the systems we want to change. Designers alone cannot save the world.
  • advocates for a more sustainable model of social change: Working hyper-locally is the most sustainable model for designers to engage in the complex process of social change. It’s different from a “project” model that requires ramp-up and research, fits neatly into a time box, and which relies on designers as outside experts. Instead, we work with the knowledge we’ve already cultivated as community members. We can sustain our involvement over longer periods of time, and develop direct and lasting relationships with the people we’re trying to help.

It’s time for designers to refocus on our local communities, put aside absolute definitions of need and suffering, and create models for hyper-local design activism that can integrate into our existing lives. The less we have to give up to do great work, the more of it we’ll do. The family in your back alley may vanish into a better life.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s