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The Design Difference: Using Design to Conduct a Problem-Solving Workshop

In the second part of our series, we share the process and tools that helped a group of designers create ideas for an underserved urban community.

GOOD was asked to attend The Design Difference, a charrette held by the Japan Society, Common Ground, and the Designers Accord. In this series, we're examining design solutions to social problems and ways for designers to contribute pro bono work for the proposed solutions. Read the first post here.

Design is a process made for solving problems. Yet in the last few years, that process has come under fire when designers have attempted to solve problems that have little to do with their own experience. Last year, Bruce Nussbaum stoked a vicious debate when he wondered if designers working to solve problems in developing nations might be part of a new breed of imperialism. And it's happening right here at home, too. In 2007, I covered Project M, a group of designers working to bring clean water to rural Alabama, where a third of the population lives in poverty. The program was successful in the sense that it raised money, yet the group of outsiders were criticized by angry local residents and, as a New York Times article outlines, some efforts were not well-received by the community itself.

This idea of "parachuting in," or the effectiveness of designers working outside of their own cultures, was part of what The Design Difference charrette hoped to examine. By concepting ideas for Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of New York's most underserved communities, the group's leaders also hoped to understand how using design as a tool for problem-solving had evolved.

"Designers used to rely on their methodologies and tools to create empathy, but as an industry, we've reached the limits of just imagining the situations of others," says Valerie Casey, founder of the Designers Accord, who organized The Design Difference. "This charrette is part of an ongoing exploration into how we might get better at using our craft in more purposeful and relevant ways."

To help, Casey enlisted John Peterson, founder of Public Architecture and The 1%, an initiative that asks design firms to donate one percent of their annual billings to pro bono projects. In Peterson's experience of seeing hundreds of firms working for marginalized communities, the mistakes made from parachuting in are less about designing outside one's cultural framework and more about not having the necessary team in place to do effective work. In Brownsville, our local connections were built-in. "We chose to work closely with an informed and deeply-embedded client," says Peterson. "Greg Jackson and Common Ground were the conduits into the Brownsville culture, which was unfamiliar to the most of the design team."

In addition to Jackson, the organizers were careful to bring together an extremely diverse group of designers and non-designers, ranging from residents of Brownsville who could offer the most personal accounts of what has worked in the past, to Japanese residents who might be able to bring an outside perspective from another culture. Five countries were represented, with live translation bridging any language barriers. "I think the two critical aspects of this charrette was that each participant had direct experience working with community of need, so there was a great sense of humility to balance the optimism," says Casey. "In addition, each participant knew that this event was part of a longer journey and conversation."

Human-Centered Design

After an immersion day spent in Brownsville, meeting residents and activists, the group gathered at the Japan Society's headquarters in Manhattan for a full day. We were divided into small groups of about eight participants, and listened as Casey reviewed the insight we had gained through our conversations and observations the day before. I remembered the stories from Jackson and other residents about shootings and vandalism and began to feel a sense of despair. How could design honestly help with Brownsville's larger, complex societal issues of poverty, violence, and drug use?

My reaction wasn't unusual, says Casey. "When faced with the abstract and seemly intractable issues around sustainability, designers often ask for specific direction about what they can do," she says. The goal for the charrette, she says, is to provide an entry point to a very real, basic needs where designers could contribute constructively.

Casey encouraged the group to step back from such specific problems and focus on two strengths of the design process: human-centered design, which caters to the needs of the user; and systemic thinking, which looks at solutions within a larger context. Both would prevent myopic investigation of data-driven facts like drugs and violence, and focus on the larger, people-driven conditions that could make Brownsville a better place to live. Therefore, we would focus on larger issues of improving food, health, and housing, rather than "stopping crime."

Also crucial was the fact that not all solutions would be equally-weighted when it came to implementation—some would take longer than others. So Casey created a grid where the larger categories (food, housing, environment, transportation, health, retail,) were paired with various timelines (three weeks, three months, one year), and assigned to each group. So while one group was concepting solutions for improving health that could be implemented in three months, another group was thinking up ideas for housing solutions that could be implemented in three weeks.

The timeframes gave great guidance for narrowing lofty ideas into what would be possible to achieve. Each group was given about 30 minutes in which to tackle a specific combination, then we'd be asked to switch to another assigned category and timeframe. This prevented potential burnout from banging our heads against the same problem all day.

The format of the brainstorming, or ideation, exercises moved from an unedited, uncensored burst of ideas (divergent thinking), into more actionable, physically-oriented solutions (convergent thinking). Each group began the brainstorming period by layering a page with quick ideas—or pieces of ideas—jotted on Post-its. Over time, common themes or similar trains of thought were grouped together and built upon, and the best three to five ideas were drafted into more specific concepts.

Turning Ideas Into Action

This cascade of ideas, not a prescriptive mandate of what Brownsville must do, showed that the group was sensitive to the fact that there was not one single solution, says Peterson. "There was no conclusion, which would have been an unrealistic goal in my opinion," he says. "The abundance of actionable solutions offered fresh insights to the people on the ground and didn't try to suggest that there was a quick or simple solution." To further clarify our thinking and turn those ideas into solid, action-based initiatives, we were asked to draw our concepts, or make a quick-and-dirty prototype of what this idea would look like out in the world. We were also asked to list the desired outcomes, and how those outcomes might be measured.

But perhaps the most important part of the charrette was a built-in dedication to follow through that might manage to transcend the pitfalls designers face when working in underserved communities and developing nations. Instead of creating a series of fanciful computerized renderings, or grand ideas that needed funding, we created simple but detailed, visually-based initiatives that built upon the work of our established contacts at Brownsville Partnership and Common Ground. "Our instant gratification culture, which is largely manufactured by design, was shifted in this charrette," says Casey. "We were able to deeply understand the years of effort by the Brownsville Partnership, and could see how this charrette is part of a process, not its end point."

In many ways, the charrette highlighted the way that designers have shifted from creating things to creating ideas, which Casey has also seen through the Designers Accord's work. "Three years ago we focused on evolving our design practices by applying the principles of sustainability to the objects we were creating," says Casey. "Now we are applying our craft to create the kind of content and change in a way that supersedes 'design,' and is utterly more connected with society at large."

At the end of the day, we posted our concepts around the room, marveling at the range and diversity of ideas. Some of the same objectives had a dozen different ways to achieve them listed beneath. Some of the concepts were the same, but had completely different goals. Casey then went through and organized the concepts thematically, from transportation ideas to crowdsourcing projects. At the end of the day, the group had hundreds of ideas grouped into 27 concepts for Brownsville and five major themes. Each of the participants voted for their favorite ideas, which would then be consolidated and streamlined by Casey and Common Ground into actionable initiatives for Brownsville.

Thanks to Valerie Casey and the Japan Society, you can download the all the charrette tools here to organize your own problem-solving workshop: Here's the Workshop Outline (PDF), the Brainstorming Map (PDF), and the Concept Worksheet (PDF).

In part three, we'll see the concepts that were prototyped for Brownsville and give you more information about how you can lend your time and services to the initiatives.

Read all three stories in the series here.

Photos by Ayumi Sakamoto

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