Becoming More Human II: Designing Responsibilities

With statements like “Homogeneity is the devil”, “Let’s not turn our backs on the things that are hard to fix” and my favorite, “The constant state of stress as a way to create [hustle] is bullshit”, Stewart Scott-Currant’s talk on The 5 Responsibilities of Being a Designer provoked strong feelings toward a designer’s purpose.

Designers finally have a seat at the executive table. Now what?

What aren’t we doing?

In a world where we have an app for everything, (I mean everything), the biggest critiques that fall on designers are our efforts towards big problems. Even Silicon Valley’s concepts like Universal Basic Income left some infuriated, suggesting SV’s arrogance toward the proletariat. Despite the progress in our technology, our world is still stricken with poverty, hunger, disease, and inequality.

It’s isn’t that we aren’t working towards these big problems. It’s that most of us don’t know how to start solving them. We spend our time testing, watching analytics, and researching the latest interfaces, but a majority of us are disconnected from these problems. Most of us don’t experience these moments first hand, so unless they impact us directly, there’s little chance that we will actively search for them.

Good news is, we’re trying. Let’s forget the things we aren’t doing for a second.

What is a designer’s role at the table?

Some say ‘to represent the user’ and others say to ‘create better product’. One thing is for sure, we’re communicators. We’re here to give voice to perspectives, through interactions, visuals, and experiences. A good designer designs opportunities to layer collaboration and growth.

Where is our focus now?

In reading and speaking to working individuals in various fields, I’ve observed emerging themes from three core sectors:

  • Education | Design as Inclusivity
  • Social Engagement | Design as Enablers
  • Technology | Design as Compassion

Education | Design as Inclusivity:

It’s time for us to redefine education practices. How can we increase quality education for the masses? How do we eliminate the education gap?

  1. Access + Opportunity: US education expenditures increased 6.4%, largely driven by a 63.7% increase in finance, late, and interest charges for student loans to $157. — Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rising cost of education is limiting access to quality learning opportunities for the majority. Noam Chomsky refers to this in Requiem for the American Dream, “In the 1950s, it was much a poorer society than it is today, but nevertheless can easily handle the free mass higher education. Today, a much richer society claims there aren’t any resources for it.” We can bridge the comparison to the development of Vietnam, which holds one of the highest literacy rates at 94%. In my recent trip to Hanoi, locals explained that the government drives resources to educational programs in order to increase literacy across all communities. In rural areas where the youth must compromise school over work to support their families, the government offers monetized support to make sure no one gets left behind. Despite differences in government, we cannot deny a mindset that a well-educated community removes barriers and empowers themselves to actively face challenges and develop solutions. It is possible for us to expand quality education across the board. How can we design opportunities to make sure we do?
  2. Support + Scale: Learning comes in many forms. Instead of the old model where standardized tests and an education bias leans toward one learning ideal, we must support the different ways individuals learn and discover personalized models. Open-source projects and technical schools like Khan Academy allow individuals to move at their own pace, but how can we provide this level of personalized support early on? Increasing investments in Edtech and programs like Alt School have been blazing a trail for progressive education building. However, these schools that treat subjects like technology, emotional intelligence, and design as an equal to traditional subjects like english and math, are placed in big US cities like San Francisco and New York. The majority of students who need access to these types of programs aren’t located in these areas. In order to reduce the amount of students who fall behind, we will need to design more dynamic schools that encourage integrated education.

Social Engagement | Design as Enablers

How do we enable others to engage?

According to the 2016 Millennial Poll Analysis Report by CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), this election had the same percentage of the electorate young voters as 2012. This is a clear disconnect from the increase in vocal engagements expressing a “high level of skepticism” in the fairness of the political system. According to the report, their feelings toward personal impact through institutional systems dissuaded their votes.

On one hand, social platforms like Twitter and Facebook Live increase interaction. Now how do empower civic engagement and prompt the mass towards mobilizing actions? How can we increase opportunities to support individuals’ desires to go after real, hairy problems?

Technology | Design as Compassion

I was on my way to upstate New York when we passed by Troy. Our driver indicated the rise in crime and drug-abuse rates corresponded to the loss of work. The dismal sight of empty industrial buildings narrated with stories of disappearing jobs left a deep impression. “I was lucky. My manager told me I was teaching this to someone in India so I saw it coming.” The sad part was, with the expected rise of autonomous cars, I realized he didn’t see this second wave coming. This isn’t anything new- we are all too familiar with the stories of accelerated job loss in Detroit and other Midwest cities. So what is the responsibility of technology and how does it correlate to its intentions?

If one of the intent of technology is to free humans from the automation process, then it is directly responsible for the disruptive labor market changes causing an expected loss of 5.1 million jobs over the next 5 years, according to the World Economic Forum’s report in Davos. What we hear from this are loss and opportunity. Pieter Levels called it “a collective existential crisis due to automation.” What will these people do? On the other hand, will they spend their time searching for their passions? How can we ease this anxiety? How can we design a bridge for the next wave of jobs?

“Are we helping the few, hindering the many?” — Stewart Scott-Curant

The bottom line is, these issues aren’t just for designers. This is for all of us as a collective. As Stewart put it, “we don’t embark on the process of design alone.” Designers don’t have all the answers. We must be collaborative. See this as an opportunity to work together to solve complex problems beyond our everyday world. Embrace ambiguity, because no one has the answer.

I’m working on a meet up in San Francisco to tackle big problems, a little at a time. If you or someone you know is interested in participating, sign up here!

The ‘Becoming More Human’ series is intended to welcome open conversation through sharing moments where we understand humanity through our current vulnerabilities. Read Part I here.