In 2011, Project M teamed up with an entity called Common—an umbrella for social entrepreneurialism created by Alex Bogusky, the advertising superstar who abandoned that profession to pursue greater-good initiatives. This led to an idea dubbed Common Hoops, which involved guiding local youth through a process of creating basketball backboards from reclaimed materials. An upbeat video shot in Greensboro depicts one such backboard installed in a playground not so far from Main Street. It does not depict the people in nearby homes who demanded that the new backboard be removed immediately: They didn’t like the idea of the playground as a gathering place. As of my last visit in October, there is no backboard in that Greensboro playground. – Rob Walker. Read his article on Fast Company.
I vividly remember sitting in on my first design critique at La Roche College. Professor George Founds was overseeing the critique of several upper-level students, who had designed travel brochures for a destination in Costa Rica. George asked one of his students what kind of flower he had used on the brochure’s front cover. The student didn’t know. George then asked whether or not the flower was actually from Costa Rica. Again, the student didn’t know. At that point, holding his patience, George went on to lecture about the importance of understanding the destination’s flora and fauna. Or, to put it another way, why it’s important for designers to understand the context of the place and the people whom they’re designing for.
I reminisce on this anecdote because I think the basketball hoop story touches on something similar. As I read the paragraph above, I can imagine Professor Found’s reaction: “How could you be so presumptuous?” he would ask. “Have you taken the time to understand the needs of your audience?”
I’m a firm believer in learning from failure. But the truth is, metaphorical basketball hoops go up everyday in the design world, especially in the realm of “design for social good.”
What I see in these projects for good, or “design for good” as AIGA calls it, is a lack of understanding. More often than not, it seems that a group of designers gather together, decide what they think is cool or different and then just go for it. Then they present the results that occurred in the short-term back to the design community from their own perspective and the cycle continues. But, what about asking locals, who took the basketball hoops down after Common put them up? What was their understanding of the situation?
A need for understanding.
Ben Shahn wrote that “form is the very shape of content.” I’ve maintained this as my personal mantra over the years, taking it to mean that form is the “visible shape” of my understanding. The better I grasp an understanding of my client, the better the results will be. Because of this, I spend more time on understanding than I do on any other part of my process. Initially, I come into a project with my “opinions,” as Peter Drucker puts it, “which are nothing but untested hypotheses and, as such, worthless unless tested against reality.” I test my opinions through extensive research which usually includes interviews, in-the-field experience, and a lot of reading. Often, I drop my original opinions and form new ones several times throughout the course of the process. I work closely with my clients, avoiding attempts to appease them with something “good,” but rather to come up with the best solution based on my new found understandings. My solutions are often accepted because I have a firm understanding of my clients; not because the solutions are cool or trendy. Of course, there are times when I don’t hit the mark. My client knows it and I know it. But instead of just tweaking the solution, I recognize that I’ve probably misunderstood the problem, and therefore dive back in to gain a better, or different, understanding. So far, this method has proven fruitful.
These days, “design for good” projects are a dime a dozen. Perhaps it’s time to gain a better understanding of what “good design” actually is. I believe the best design starts with really understanding who we’re designing for. Then, and only then, can we expect our work to have a shot at being good, and if we’re lucky, game-changing.