It might be uncomfortable to admit, but similar situations can often be spotted across the developing world, where similarly unsuitable donations have been made by visiting designers and architects wishing to contribute to a good cause. Since the 1970s, when Victor Papanek (1985) urged designers to become conscious of their social responsibility for the people of the third world, design interventions have increasingly taken on the form of progressive grassroots activities, for which they have been acclaimed. Under the popular term humanitarian design, designers, architects, engineers, and development professionals have been providing design-based solutions to problems of water purification, electricity, emergency shelter, social housing, education, health, hygiene, micro finance, environmental issues, landmines, and so on (Architecture for Humanity, 2006; Bell & Wakeford, 2008; Berman, 2009; Johnson, 2011; Pilloton, 2009; Smithsonian Institution, 2007).
There is a question, however, whether such good intentions always result in positive consequences. Critical analysis and reflection on failures in humanitarian design practice have been rarely discussed. Only a few commentators point out that so-called “do-good” designs tend to be limited to mere technical fixes, while, at the same time, imposing cultural imperialism on the people and communities of developing countries (Johnson 2011; Nussbaum 2010). According to Johnson, the movement around humanitarian design holds a “modernist faith in the capacity of science to improve the human condition… [with] technological remedies for problems rooted in imperial histories and neoliberal restructuring” (p. 448). It is also noted that such capital-oriented, technology-aided top-down interventions might pose the danger of creating inequality among the communities they are seeking to help (Gramajo, 2014). Indeed, opinions were already being expressed in the early 1980s that designers visiting developing countries appeared to be “sweep(ing) into a native region like white missionaries, forcing their wisdom on the “natives” (Papanek, 1983, p. 153). Similarly, while there are an increasing number of design toolkits seeking to have a social impact, it should be questioned how relevant, adaptable, useable, and productive they might be in the real world (Kimbell, 2013).
What’s missing in all of this rhetoric on humanitarian design emerging from the OECD world? For starters, no acknowledgment of any of the following issues:
It is only through this local engagement and shared investment that the humanitarian design process shines. It is through this personal connection to place and people that the human qualities of design rise to the top of the priority list, through which our clients are no longer beneficiaries, but experts and co-designers right there with us.
We all have to learn how to be citizens again: citizens first, and designers second. Citizenship is inherently local, defined by our connection and commitment to the places we best know and most love.
I am concerned with moving the centre in two senses at least. One is the need to move the centre from its assumed location in the West to a multiplicity of spheres in all the cultures of the world. The assumed location of the centre of the universe in the West is what goes by the term Eurocentrism, an assumption which developed with the domination of the world by a handful of Western nations.
The second sense is even more important [...] Within nearly all nations today the centre is located in the dominant social stratum, a male bourgeois minority. But since many of the male bourgeois minorities in the world are still dominated by the West we are talking about the domination of the world, including the West, by a Eurocentric bourgeois, male and racial minority. Hence the need to move the centre from all minority class establishments within nations to the real creative centres among the working people in condition of gender, racial and religious equality.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1993) in "MOVING THE CENTRE – The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms"
Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders. Ideally, these people define their role as service. Actually, they frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money and weapons, or "seducing" the "underdeveloped" to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement. Perhaps this is the moment to instead bring home to the people of the U.S. the knowledge that the way of life they have chosen simply is not alive enough to be shared.
If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don't even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. And it is profoundly damaging to yourselves when you define something that you want to do as "good," a "sacrifice" and "help."
A good case study: The typographic “controversy” (in quotations because it was only controversial for a small group of fancy designers) that erupted when NBA players wore T-shirts with “I can’t breathe” printed in Comic Sans on the front. It was a campaign in solidarity with the family of Eric Garner, a black man choked to death by the NYPD for a minor infraction. Some designers were incensed by the initiative’s use of a typeface deemed ugly, inappropriate. They expressed their typographic disdain at a social movement as if it were a run-of-the-mill client that needed to be educated rather than a vehicle for real social impact that could, it must be said, even expiate design’s anxieties as an elitist profession.
Perhaps the professionally trained design world would benefit from a willingness to accept non-modernist, vernacular contributions to social design. This might construct visual languages that are grown by the movements (or marginalized communities) first and refined by designers in second instance. Reversing power structures by giving constituencies a say in how they want to be represented does not imply a lack of agency for the designer. It’s simply a different formula, one less imperialist.
For the Comic Sans, design-educated haters looking for political relevance, an exercise: Use Comic Sans, Curlz, Brush Script, Papyrus. Understand why people respond to it. Accept that social constituencies (not clients but constituencies) have made a choice that should be respected instead of ridiculed. Show what can be done to harness prejudice into a different language altogether. Challenge yourself to dismantle what the (Ivy League?) man has told you is ugly, uncouth, primitive, savage. Finessing popular voice into a missive of power, an aesthetic of revolution, doesn’t mean you have to dumb your design education down. It means you get to throw out the notion that the populace is dumb, that popular concerns can only lead to (design) populism, and that the formally educated have all the answers.