The ‘2014 Gates Annual Letter’ by Bill and Melinda Gates takes a refreshingly optimistic view of the changes the world has been seeing in its fight against social problems. Greater participation in social causes from doctors, engineers, academicians and researchers has helped in improving living conditions for many across the globe. However, design, within this context, still remains a fringe player, when it should be on the forefront of such change.
‘Wicked problems’, as they are often referred to in developing countries, are almost always ill-defined, unique and can be considered to be a symptom of one another. They can never have just a singular right or wrong solution, but only a good or bad approach and are at best only resolved over time. This resonates well with the design process of continuous reworking on ideas to achieve a goal—the process of constant iterations.
A couple of years ago, I worked with an NGO called Doosra Dashak located Rajasthan, India. Doosra Dashak works towards providing education to adolescents living in harsh socio-economic conditions in the rural parts of the state. This is a particularly tricky problem to solve, as one is faced with a wide variety of issues—lack of accessible middle schools, unimaginative curricula, dysfunctional schools, disinterested teachers, early entry into the workforce, social attitudes and more.
As a graphic designer working with Doosra Dashak, my role was to develop low-cost teaching and learning aids for the residential camps organized by Doosra Dashak. The adolescents I was working with belonged to families who were so poor that spending money on education was not a priority. Most of the working members of these families were daily wage laborers earning $1.50 or less each day or about $40 a month. Designing the booklets and evolving a sustainable system for their production locally within this context was huge challenge that required several trials before I could find a satisfactory solution. The booklets eventually designed could be produced with local resources at eight cents a piece.
But, in an effort to keep costs down, I could not afford to produce booklets and aids that did not engage the interest of the children. This would defeat the very purpose of the project. Adolescents usually enjoy more engaging forms of education. In field tests that I conducted, they preferred learning tools that were either visually rich or challenged them to do different tasks. An interesting fact here was that many of these children did not fully understand social concepts and constructs like countries, states, constitutions, etc. Teaching such a group of children about their rights, duties towards society, and sexual health cannot be done without keeping the limitations of their understanding of the world around them in mind.
This entire process made me realize that wicked problems have been called ‘wicked’ for a reason. They create challenges for designers by limiting resources. However, these very challenges make the task of overcoming them that much more rewarding. Being a part of a change for greater good is not just immensely satisfying but also ends up bringing meaning to the work that designers do. As a student of Design for Social Innovation, I am excited to see increasing interest shown by designers in this area, and I hope the trend continues.
Images courtesy of Doosra Dashak