Scott Boylston | Essays

Designing Design into Society

Design Ethos 2012
Participants in Design Ethos 2012 touring Waters Avenue in Savannah, Georgia. (All photos by Annie Masincupp and Tiffany Lindeborn)

What if the person sitting next to you in a design charette demanded to know why you kept referring to their neighborhood as a community of users? What if the word charette was as foreign a term to the majority of workshop participants as the phrase design thinking?

Social innovation requires social interaction, and it was social interaction that defined the range and the quality of creative solutions that emerged from the three-day workshops of Design Ethos 2012: Vision Reconsidered. Yet the intimate interaction within the six charettes demanded that some terms designers have come to embrace — and the assumptions those terms come wrapped in — were as much a focus of the iterative developmental process as the subject matter itself.

Just under half of the 240 attendees at the second biennial Design Ethos conference, hosted by the Graphic Design and Design for Sustainability programs at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), participated in the first ever “DO-ference,” a carefully choreographed model of community-focused charettes. The DO-ference workshops centered around themes that were shaped to empower residents of Waters Avenue, an economically depressed area within the hostess city of Savannah. Design Ethos 2012, in partnership with AIGA and AIGA Design for Good, was sponsored by Core 77, HP, Paragon Design, and BrightWhiteSpaces.

In an acknowledgement that design can’t resolve chronic social issues on its own, the event aligned itself with an already existing city-sponsored revitalization project. From the outset, this alignment provided a solid research foundation, a frame of reference for project objectives and intended outcomes, and an array of collaborative opportunities. The event was framed as one point along a continuum populated by past and future breakthroughs, false starts, frustrations and successes. Central questions posed by the DO-ference revolved around whether momentary gatherings of well-intentioned designers in an unfamiliar location could contribute to positive change in a complex social setting, and if so, what would such events look like, what skill sets would be preeminent, and which skill sets were best left holstered?

While proven methodologies such as Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), and NatCap Solutions’ Local Action for Sustainable Economic Renewal (LASER) were consulted, disciplines traditionally not involved in community revitalization were thrust into the center of this effort as a means of both applying a different lens to the process, and introducing these professionals to a broader scope of creative engagement.

Programming Map
Programming Map from Design Ethos 2012. Click here to download a PDF of the file.

Building a foundation of knowledge and trust
Seven months prior to Design Ethos 2012, extensive outreach, research and design exploration along Waters Avenue was conducted by several SCAD graduate classes. These classes were joined by others in the winter quarter of 2012, in disciplines as diverse as design management, urban design, historic preservation, design for sustainability, and graphic design. Through this immersion, bonds of trust with the community were developed, and an essential body of knowledge was established. And in a series of public forums that stretched over four months, the insights uncovered by this work were shared with the community, city departments, and other faculty and students interested in participating in the next stage of the project. A third round of classes beginning five weeks prior to the event shaped these insights into actionable opportunities, while preparing all involved parties for the DO-ference.

The design briefs that emerged from this preparatory work centered on empowering assets already existing within the community, rather than attempting to tackle issues that were framed by outsiders. As a result these assets — which included a local business association, a community gallery, a community center, and an environ- mental justice organization — were well-situated to host the influx of visiting designers. The classes also developed concrete solutions that empowered these community assets, even as they educated DO-ference attendees visiting the pre-event blog. These materials ranged from facilitation and data visualization tools, to brand development and awareness campaigns.

Leveraging a critical mass of design aspiration
The premiere Design Ethos conference in 2010 convened leading sustainable design and social design practitioners in an attempt to align various philosophies within these rapidly emerging fields. The first event was comprised of programming similar to other conferences, including keynotes, concurrent sessions, and panels. But Design Ethos 2012 upped the ante by inviting leaders in these disciplines to actively demonstrate their expertise by placing them side by side with community representatives. These ‘Design Voices’ performed as objective facilitators in the non-hierarchical workshop settings. They were not asked to lead, as much as to follow the lead of regional participants, including business owners, community leaders, municipal staff, and local ’systems thinkers’ like former state senators, former mayors, and non-profit executive directors.

Each workshop hosted two ‘Design Voices,’ as well as an additional visiting designer in the role of ‘Future Voice.’ The Future Voices — including acclaimed design figures such as Ezio Manzini, David Berman. Marc Rettig, and Cameron Tonkinwise — were engaged not only as regular workshop participants, but as keen observers of the DO-ference methodology, with an eye toward critiquing it for future iterations. Their observations were shared during a panel at the closing session of the full conference, as were the observations of a panel of participating community members. The juxtaposition of objective expert observations with those of the intended beneficiaries provided one of the more compelling narratives that emerged from the event.

With so many experts committed to improving the human condition through their professional skills converging on one geographic location, the DO-ference leveraged this critical mass by putting their combined skills to good use in the local context. On a more fundamental level, the structure constituted a direct challenge to those designers — this author included — who claim that design can be a relevant contributor to societal betterment through direct community engagement. It aimed to challenge some fundamental claims designers make in regards to trans-disciplinary collaboration, ‘human-centered’ design, co-creation, and design as facilitation. In this respect, it was not just the Design Voices and Future Voices who were asked to walk-the-walk; it was every DO-ference attendee who signed up to participate. And with the attendee list comprised of a variety of design professionals and students (including interior design, architecture, urban design, service design, graphic design, sustainable design, and historic preservation), the workshops constituted a fertile stew of creative potential.

Participants meeting with local residents.

Preparing visiting designers for sensitive, localized interaction
A month prior to the event, the Design Voices and Future Voices were sent reports on the Waters Avenue assets that would be the focus of their workshop. They were also introduced to individuals directly responsible for, or related to, those assets. The Volta Collaborative, a design strategy firm comprised of recent alumni of SCAD’s design management MFA, kept the dialog between these key stakeholders productive during the lead-up to the event by coordinating conversations, and synthesizing the flow of complex social, economic and organizational data. These synthesizers also played an integral role in updating workshop attendees on the process and progress of other workshops while the DO-ference was in session.

Students in a graduate sustainable practices class, meanwhile, were assigned to ‘steward the process’
of each workshop, beginning four weeks before the event, and carrying through until the end of the academic quarter, a full six weeks after the conclusion of the DO-ference. These students provided the glue that held the pre-conference preparation and the post-conference progress of each workshop together. Meetings with city department heads, community leaders, and local business owners were common throughout this period.

The design brief for each workshop ended with a question that defined the challenge for the attendees. And each challenge focused on ‘moving the stake’ for each of the assets; providing a clearly articulated next step that could be taken, combined with new design solutions, visualizations of future scenarios, and a strategic framework that empowered the keepers of that particular asset — whether an executive director of a non-profit or the owner of a community gallery — to continue the forward momentum.

Providing intimate and ongoing interaction throughout the process
On the first morning of the DO-ference—seven hours before the start of the regular conference—all DO-ference attendees were introduced to Waters Avenue and the dynamics behind the area’s present state of economic frailty through a series of presentations given by municipal staff and SCAD faculty. These presentations were followed by a panel of local activists and civic leaders that offered a frank discussion of the seemingly intractable problems plaguing the area.

Then it was time to meet the people of Waters Avenue, and learn firsthand about the surrounding neighborhoods. Attendees were separated into workshop teams (20 people each) and given intimate walking tours of the area by residents, community leaders and local business owners. They were escorted into businesses, community centers and even private homes to converse with Waters Avenue residents. The walking tours were followed by a family style lunch of local soul food, and an early afternoon breakout session on the grounds of the area’s Community Center.

The mix of participants in each charette during the remaining two days insured the input and empowerment of local community members. Confronted with a 90% minority population that was overwhelmingly working class and historically exposed to insensitive government intrusion or ineptitude, the event’s primary challenge was in developing bonds of trust among the DO-ference participants. Yet the sincere engagement of all participants throughout the three days generated a bond of trust that would be hard to recreate in other conditions. Residents critiqued assumptions and proposed solutions of the ‘expert’ designers, and every participant calling him or herself a designer had unprecedented exposure to the opinions and insights of those who would be impacted by their ideas. Furthermore, the unexpected opportunity to witness designers disagree over every issue on the table led to the realization for the local participants that divisions between designers and people like themselves were not as prevalent as expected.

Arriving at beginnings for suscessful solutions
The workshops built toward effective design solutions that could be a focal point of 15-minute presentations to the full Design Ethos conference, with the substance of these presentations marking the beginning of the next phase of work. As the workshops progressed, an initial concession that ‘not much’ could be achieved in three days morphed into a remarkable camaraderie within the groups, and a realization that the time constraints, while challenging, forced the group of odd bedfellows to use design thinking tools with precision, yet in less dogmatic, more free-wheeling fashion.

The solutions that emerged from the workshops were as diverse as they were pragmatic. Charged with developing a solid foundation for future successes, each team created a breadth of deliverables that ensured resiliency for ongoing development, and targeted and empowered local champions for each proposed solution and their future stages. The solutions, which ranged from strategic frameworks, service scenario tools and neighborhood leadership programs to fully executed branding campaigns and fund-raising tools, are now in the hands of those who can benefit from them the most, and those who can best steward their future development.

But perhaps most importantly, the event served to refresh and energize the already existing change agents along the corridor who had grown disillusioned with the slow moving, city-led revitalization. The design thinking process, which alienated a few community members at first, became a catalyst for sharing future visions. Participating residents left the DO-ference transformed, and committed to using the new dialog and exploratory tools with smaller groups of their neighbors. Community participants learned how to engage in the design process on their own terms. This held true for the designers as well — an understanding of how to effectively work with a community proved more valuable than a portfolio piece of a superficially executed community project.

The results have been presented to the City of Savannah Community Planning & Development Department and the Assistant City Manager’s Office. On-going presentations, design development and community gatherings continue to build capacity, and strong partnerships have emerged as a result of the conversations started over the last 6 months, and the 3-day DO-ference have provided those partnerships a keen focus, and a strategic framework to work within.

Along with empowering local institutions, advocates and citizens, Design Ethos has applied other methods to ensure the longevity of the work that arose from the workshops. Summer and fall 2012 SCAD professors, for example, have aligned their classroom pedagogy with further project development. Two local design studios — Brightwhitespaces and Paragon — have each committed to 60 hours of pro-bono design work for the organizations that were the focus of the event. Furthermore, SCAD students who had never walked through the neighborhoods along Waters Avenue are committing themselves to further develop the work that was started. Updates on each of the projects will be posted on the Design Ethos blog, but the ultimate goal of the DO-ference — to empower local assets to do the work they’ve always aspired to do — means that many of the richest human interactions resulting from this endeavor will continue to be experienced in the intimate spaces between residents along Waters Avenue.

The six collaborative projects that were the focus of the Design Ethos 2012 DO-ference were unique in their cultural, social and professional diversity, and the frank dialog that both drove the process and resulted from them will resonate for years to come along the Waters Avenue corridor. The DO-ference concept embraced the notion that a certain level of unfamiliarity with the details of a chronic problem, when tempered by empathy and deep respect for local knowledge, can be a catalyst for creatively overcoming seemingly intractable issues, and lever- aged this outsider objectivity by providing enough context for fruitful conversations about ‘designed’ solutions to occur between local residents and visiting design practitioners.

There is much talk of design performing as a catalyst for positive change. But in such conversations, the focus is frequently on the solutions rather than the process. Design Ethos’ insistence on the design process as being as essential to any forward motion as the solutions opened the door to a different kind of design dialog between practitioner and ‘user.’ The level of surprise as to what could be accomplished within three days by a group of former strangers was palpable toward the end of the event, and this was not despite the friction created by bringing such a diverse array of stakeholders together; it was because of it.

Friction creates energy, and if designers interested in social innovation come to the realization that the fric- tion of bringing uncommon groups of stakeholders in a struggling community together in an environment that is refreshingly different than what the majority of them are used to, the human friction that results can gener- ate enough positive energy to alter the trajectory of that community’s wellbeing. In this sense, design for social innovation, and design as facilitation, could mean introducing human interaction as the necessary friction for a transformative energy to emerge.

Design Ethos 2012, in partnership with AIGA and AIGA Design for Good, was sponsored by Core 77, HP, Paragon Design, and BrightWhiteSpaces.

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