April 17, 2017

Discussion Session 4.17.2017 – Indigenous Design

How might you improve your own design process to better reflect place-based design?

Discussion Leaders: Tammy Tarng, Monica Looze, Lisa Li, Manya Krishnaswamy, Jesse Wilson and Delanie Ricketts

  1. Thanks for your participation everyone! We felt it helpful to look at our processes for becoming quickly accustomed to Pittsburgh as we delved into these projects. What worked for you and what would become a helpful set of guidelines to use moving forward and for future transitions that we may undertake?

    Some conclusions that we reached:
    – Passing on knowledge at the workplace
    – Longer term projects than current, corporate structures allow for
    – Speak with your elders
    – Read local newspapers (paper, not digital)
    – Think of one idea way you would like to interact with a new city and do it
    – Examine the intentions of a particular project
    – Use a variety of tools & cultural probes

    • Me, Jesse, Minrui and Michelina are the team food. Throughout the project, I’m glad to have Jesse and Michelina in our team to guide us to learn more about Pittsburgh. It gave me a holistic view of food system not just of Pittsburgh, but across the world. For the future consideration, we talked about:
      -More concrete case studies throughout the semester to dig the project deeper
      -Connect to communities (interview, field visit, etc)
      -Conduct more research on the topic. (We mostly did secondary research but more exploratory and evaluative research is needed)
      -Use various research methods to explore the topic
      -Consider corporate’s view/stand along with out topic

  2. Our group’s topic was the lack of healthy food in Pittsburgh. We appreciate we have Jesse and Michelina who have a local background. Our conclusions on how to improve design process are:
    1. The design process could be longer, which can give us sufficient time to do research;
    2. Read more concrete case-studies;
    3. We need to do field trips, even taking a stroll and observing people in Pittsburgh would help. How can we design a solution all based on our assumption?
    4. We should talk to local residents, understand their daily life and needs.
    5. If possible, reach out to local experts in certain industries.

  3. I thought we had a fruitful discussion in our section. What I ultimately took away from this topic is that designing for place when you are not a “native” is hard. It is also difficult to define what “place-based” actually means in terms of scale, temporality, culture, technology, climate, land, and the built environment, Indeed, place is a multi-faceted concept that requires systems-level thinking on multiple levels of scale. In terms of process, I think that being aware that place is nebulous and ill-defined is important to understanding what it ultimately means to design for place. Keeping the complexity at the forefront can help inform more robust research methods and foster a sense of understanding. It will help provide a shield for deleterious downstream effects of myopic design.

    I’m still quite skeptical that using the term “indigenous design” is useful for this discussion though. Perhaps it was not the point of the lesson, but I think not mentioning the problematic nature of that phrase and the assumptions embedded within it is irresponsible. Our discussion veered into looking to the past, without acknowledging that indigenous people are *still alive*. If we are going to look to “traditional” ways of designing, we should acknowledge that and perhaps listen indigenous voices instead of old anthropological texts written by white men.

    • As Monica said, a place-based solution is a multi-faceted concept and for me, it is kind of an organic, tailored solution for communities. For us, designers I believe we should always keep in mind about what is the culture, climate, and the environment is like when we are designing “something”. We need to focus on how our design will interact with all stakeholders in the community as well as the living space but it is hard to ask people to behave in a designed way all of a sudden. To overcome with this, I believe design methods such as participatory design offers us to incorporate the community better in our design process, and actually, enable the community to design the things that they want to use.

      • I totally agree Meric. I think part of a successful place-based design is to involve the local/community to co-designing for themselves. We as designers should be the facilitators in the room that help different stakeholders effectively communicate with each other about their visions for the future.

  4. Michelina Campanella April 22, 2017 at 4:24 pm Reply

    There were several rich comments made about how we could reimagine the design process in our section. From our discussion, it seems like there are two main themes that emerged, changing the design process at large and restructuring the class environment, specifically for transition design.

    To start with the Transition Design class, it may have been helpful to flip the course on its head and begin with a case study that was predetermined before classes began. As Minrui mentioned above, it would have been helpful to have field trips around Pittsburgh to get a sense of place, and having “cases” picked before class would have given us an opportunity to take directed field trips, talk with experts, and get first hand experience with our wicked problem rather than relying on our assumptions. After examining the case study, it would have been helpful to then create our wicked problem maps grounded in a real life example. I think this method would be beneficial as well while doing the readings and other lectures and activities throughout the semester because it would allow us to make connections and also imagine possible solutions which would support more thorough and impactful proposed solutions for the final assignment.

    As for the design process as a whole, we discussed the problematic nature of working as a designer and being beholden to stakeholder demands, and how those often conflict with the values of transition design. We also touched upon the fact that designers are typically working on multiple projects at a time, and that accruing projects and finishing them quickly for our own profits and resume builders are often more important factors in our work than coming to meaningful solutions.

    The readings for this class were focused on indigenous wisdom and place-based design, and this type of ‘design’ is a much slower, life long process rather than the type of design we are preparing for. Should we think of design projects more like a life long pursuit that we take up over generations? Apprenticeship models were brought up as a means of transferring projects from one person to the next, as well as taking more time to find the ‘right’ person for the job rather than making the person fit the job. These types of questions start to unravel the basic tenets that our society is built upon, like freedom of choice, capitalism, and the pursuit of the individual over the collective, which becomes a chicken or the egg scenario. Perhaps a shift in the design process will arise from a shift in societal values, or from taking on new types of projects and that they will mutually reinforce each other over time.

    • I appreciate Michelina’s comments and agree that it was difficult to dive into the area of Affordable Housing in Pittsburgh without knowing much about the city. If we had begun the class by doing a case study or meeting with a relevant activist/ public official/ affected community member it would have been much easier to ground our research in relevant information.

      One thing that I like to do when I move to a new city is to subscribe to and read the local paper (but I’m ashamed to say I haven’t done that in Pittsburgh thus far). Seeing what topics are covered lets me know what is important to the community and quickly helps me understand a place. It also makes it easier to connect with neighbors and other residents because you know what issues are relevant and possibly on their minds. Finally, if you hope to register to vote in a new state, this is one way you are guaranteed to understand local politics and what issues each candidate supports.

      Additionally, I find that volunteering with a neighborhood group is a fantastic way to develop a sense of place. I was very fortunate to have a big farmers market in my neighborhood in Chicago. Through pitching in there I met many people of all ages and abilities, learned more about the history of the neighborhood and became active in public hearings for development and redesign in the area.

      If I move again and become a practicing designer in a new city, I aim to use these strategy to help me become more rooted in a place quickly and hopefully become a more authentic and place-based designer.

  5. I am kind of struggle about the idea of place-based design. On one hand, a solution that have potential to scale up is more ideal. On the other hand, a place-based design mean that it could be fit more into the local community rather than provide a external solution. I believe that identifying the characteristics of local community means that we could further localized our design solution. However, how to immerse into local community and build trust with local people is a great challenge for designers. Besides these practices, designers should have the mindset that they are not solution provider but a facilitator for local stakeholders to co-create design solutions.

    • Jeffrey, one of the most important and surprising thing I learned here at CMU is the role designers can play beyond just being designers. We are as a group, jack of all trades, so we are actually great facilitators during conversations that involve multiple parties/stakeholders.

    • Hi Jeffrey– this is exactly why I believe we need to design flexible frameworks in which local communities are given the tools to design themselves. You could spend a week or two getting to know a community or place, but you would not develop the deep personal connections and knowledge that you would need to truly produce localized design solutions. Rather, I believe that we need to co-design frameworks for people to take control of designing and creating themselves.

  6. I’d like to echo what others have already said, in talking with my group on the affordable housing issues in Pittsburgh, it is hard to fully understand the problem as “outsiders.” Place-based design seems like a great approach for these type of wicked problems, and perhaps given more time, the approach could have been explored further. As Jeffrey said, building trust with and immersing oneself in the community can be a challenge — it can take a long period of time to build that relationship. I think that each of these wicked problems could benefit from a longer timeframe that would allow a proper exploration of the problem and perhaps allow a relationship with the community to be established. As a group of designers, not from the area, we needed to make a lot of assumptions in regards to mapping our wicked problem. I also love what Jeffrey said about being facilitators, I’m taking social innovation with Hannah and Mark right now and they talk a lot about building a relationship with the community and building trust. This approach is more about creating a safe space for the community to design for themselves, not have designers come in and design a solution for them.

    • MacKenzie, I’ve been thinking a lot about our social innovation course in relation to this topic as well. In the class, Marc and Hannah are trying to equip us with the skills to become effective facilitators of empathy and dialogue. As others have expressed on this thread, it can be challenging and it can take a lot of time to immerse oneself in a community that you’re unfamiliar with, so I think this is an interesting way to reframe the role of the designer. From this perspective, it’s our role to help groups identify their own needs and to create the conditions for them to experiment and create together, instead of designing directly for them.

  7. Scott Dombkowski April 22, 2017 at 6:10 pm Reply

    I can think of several ways my own design process can be improved to better reflect place-based design. For example, I have spent five years in Pittsburgh. During that time, I have been involved in community-based projects, but for all of them, there seemed to be a middleman or intermediary that connected us with the community. That middleman would then pass on information and experiences. It was the rare situation that you could go out in the community and experience as authentic of an experience as possible.

    I also have questions on how effective knowledge can be passed on from one person to another. Just how much of that knowledge acquired by the person with the knowledge is experience based? Is it effective for one person to tell stories of their experience? Will the recipient of those stories be able to effectively utilize the lessons learned by others?

  8. Our discussion on Tuesday was productive and unexpected in great ways. When we were planning the discussion for Indigenous Design, we had a lot of questions and hesitations on how to approach this: how do we define place-based? How do we define an indigenous culture? Place is such a personal definition, that we decided to start at the core and hear what the class had to say about how they scoped it. For instance, nature as a reference point for place-based knowledge and letting it inform designers since it is what transcends generations.

    It was also interesting to hear some discussion on what to take away from indigenous design: there are so many different ways that studying and trying to learn from various cultures can sway.

  9. Towards the end of class, Hajira brought up the difficulties and contradictions of designing for places that we’re not a part of. A place is such a personal thing and, as designers, how can even begin to understand them and then design for places without being presumptuous? Even if we ideally do anthropological research, we would never have the same knowledge or sense of place as the residents. I think the best things is to equip the residents with the tools that they need and let them take the reigns because they probably know more about the place than we ever will. Before starting any project, designers should just talk to the locals and observe to get a sense of the place. The inhabitants of the place should be involved throughout the whole process, not just be included but *involved.* There should be an emphasis on co-creation during research, ideas, development, etc.

    • I agree with other people in thread, one of the most difficult thing as a designer is designing for a community that we are not part of. As a social designer, that is usually the case and it’s hard to navigate that position without showing up with prejudice and assumptions. In those cases I like to think that the designer’s role should be closer to a facilitator and provide spaces for conversation for community members and catalyze existing local efforts. Sometimes the hardest thing for us as designer is realizing that maybe we shouldn’t design anything and provide skills to others that do belong to the community.

    • I agree with Denise and Silvia. I’m also in the Social Innovation class MacKenzie and Monique mentioned above, and I think the stance Marc and Hannah take as “facilitators” more than “designers” is an important one. The course is very much focused on taking ourselves and our biases as designers out of the picture to help the community itself arrive at a solution. In examples from their work, Marc and Hannah will intentionally bring together groups that may be in opposition to each other in order to help them come to some sort of compromise and solution that (ideally, I suppose) best meets the needs of everyone involved. They are quite emphatic about facilitating and not imposing design solutions. I think this is what place-based design needs to be more about. As outsiders, I don’t see how we can design for a place without (as Denise said) not just the inclusion but the involvement, the active participation of those who will be directly impacted by the design solution. Perhaps for next year Marc and Hannah would be good guest speakers to have teach this segment.

      • Thanks Denise, Sylvia, and Hajira for bringing up this idea of designers being facilitators. I think this is a good way to think about the role of the designer when designing for a place that the designer is not from. Hajira, I particularly liked your example of the role of a facilitator being bringing people together. When planning this class I reflected on my own experience and saw the the best example I could think of in terms of place-based design was the work of an affordable housing organization I used to intern for. The role of the organization was to bring together policy makers, for-profit housing developers, nonprofit service providers (e.g. food banks), and community organizations (often churches) in order to come up with sustainable affordable housing solutions that would best meet the needs of the community. I spent a year with this organization and found their work to be incredibly effective and inspiring, and I think their awareness of their role as facilitators first is what made them so successful.

        I also like the idea of bringing Marc and Hannah in to teach this segment. As one of the discussion leaders I found it a much more difficult topic to lead than my previous topics. Since what “place-based design” means is so dependent on context, it is difficult to talk about it in the abstract. Bringing in guest lecturers that can provide some specific examples of what “place based design” meant in different circumstances would have been a great addition to this class.

        • I think the points raised in this thread are salient. As we discussed in class, feeling a sense of place is made up of a bunch of factors – temporality, emotions, memories, people in a place, lifestyles and beyond. As designers trying to do place-based design, I’m somewhat skeptical that we can adopt a sense of place within any place that we are working. However, we can design being aware of place and make sure place-baseness is an inherent part of our process. In order to do this, I agree with the points made above by Silvia et al, that the role of a designer is place-based design is perhaps most appropriately as a facilitator more than anything else. I can see this being a challenge for some, as it most certainly requires “letting go of the reigns.” However, perhaps it also points to a need to develop “designers” and “design skills” distributed throughout communities, so trained designers are not required to be helicoptered in. Maybe design should be a core discipline taught within our primary and secondary school systems ;).

  10. Ashlesha Pradeep Dhotey April 22, 2017 at 11:56 pm Reply

    The discussion was really interesting. Like Monica said, what I took away from this session is that designing for a place is hard and more so if you are not a native of that place. I believe that no place can reveal everything about itself in a short span of time and thus while designing for a place it’s very important for designers to understand and accept this fact. The ideal way is to collaborate with natives and indigenous people. This possibly is the best way to approach designing for a place. One could also look to nature for all the answers as that’s a place that can reveal all the necessary data. Having said that, I am still can’t say I completely understand “designing for a place” accurately. I feel that designing for a place needs a multidimensional perspective and definitely has multiple layers to it.

    • I agree with you Ashlesha, designing for place is really difficult since we as designers are more often then not parachuted into different places. And like you said, it is almost impossible to learn about a place, in the depth, that we would like or should in a short span of time. So I think it is important to actively involve the local resident to co-design.

  11. I’ve recently got intrest in participactory design after having a workshop with Elizabeth Sanders in Brucu’s research method course. When I asked how design process incorporate local thoughts and knowledge for a better place-based design, I thought participactory design can be one of the method for it. This design method is used in explorative phase and generative phase. For explorative phase, it allows designers to understand a user’s emotion and mental model. For generative research, designers can prompt participants to envision and create a service or product. In this design method, designers’ job is unearthing insights which would not be able to get with a typical interview and guiding them to furture a product or service for them. By adjusting this method into more heurostic workshop to empower themselves rather than using it for ourselves to learn the place, we might be able to create and leave a sustainable system to the place. I’d like to share this video I came across from mobile health course. “Projecting Health: Revolutionizing Behavior Change Communication” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtIx9Y90w5M Although it has nothing to do with participactory design, it shows how providing an appropriate materials and educating the natives yield a robust and long-lasting impact on the place.

  12. I am not sure this question makes sense to me. Yes, place based design is very important for certain kind of projects but in the tech world, you design products that are shipped throughout the world. Yes, there is always some element of where the product is going that comes into play, but for me, since I don’t see myself as a social innovator or a transition designer, I am not sure how I can really apply these into the kind of products I design.

  13. One of the limitations of so-called “place-based design” is that much design is not limited by place. It makes sense to be considerate of place if the environment in which the design is shipped is localized. It is important to ensure that your design is one that meshes with the environment that it shall inhabit.

    However, much design is not localized to a given space. The creation of digital interfaces that occupy the screen space of any number of devices means that there is no specific environment in which your design takes place, and perhaps lightens the responsibility to tailor your design to any given environment.

    As for my own design process, I envision working on solutions that are not localized to a specific environment on Earth, so the “place” that I will be designing within will be the earth as whole.

    Another possibility for the definition of place can be the mental environment that our devices create for us. This environment constantly shifts and embeds itself anew in our thought processes and biases. Seeing your designs as occupying this cognitive environment gives a respectable framework for situating your designs as responsible objects/agents in this perceptual domain.

  14. I have strong connections to the topic of place-based design. As an architect, I was always inclined to vernacular architecture style, as opposed to contemporary, which embraced the uniqueness of the geographical location, climate, culture and history of the place we were designing for. I believe that in order to design for different contexts, it is very important to account for the local processes and ideologies and this is possible only when we give away the authority as a designer and adopt the role of facilitators, like a lot of my peers have mentioned above. It is difficult to break the pre-conceived notions one might have developed growing up in a place and this leads to a lot of assumptions regarding people’s behaviors while designing for some place else. Having moved countries and experienced different cultures, practices, I realize the importance of understanding the place and co-creating with the local communities and people. I see myself reflecting those thoughts and practices of place-based design for spatial designs in a more wider context.

  15. As for me, place-based design methodology means to redefine the identity of a designer.

    There is no denying that as an outsider, it is hard for a transition design practitioner to truly understand a local culture or ideology, even he/she is willing to devote a great amount of time in a contextual research. Thus, like Monique mentioned about what she learned from social innovation class– in this scenario, designers should become effective facilitators of empathy and dialogue. Instead of collecting insights and abruptly jumping into some conclusions by his/her own, a designer should play a role to help people to start a conversation and push them to find a tailored solution while going through a scientific design process.

  16. I think the place-based design process really makes sense. In architectural design process, the idea of context i one of the most frequenstly used concept. The people, the environment, the value, the culture, the dynamics are drastically different across different regions. The one-solution-fit-all design approach could fail easily. As a designer that aims to help people as much as possible, one really needs to be humble and have genuine empathy to the users. That sometimes mean that the solution can come from the user instead of the designer.

  17. There were some really good points discussed in class around how people can better understand a place in order to design for it. The one which interested me the most was the how nature can be an instrumental resource to understand a place. Looking closely at nature can provide subtle cues of how a place might have transformed. There is no denying that human resource is ultimate when it comes to understanding a place through ages but nature can reinforce that knowledge to provide a deeper understanding.

  18. Manya Krishnaswamy May 3, 2017 at 6:53 pm Reply

    I enjoyed listening to different viewpoints during the discussion in class.

    One of the things that stood out for me was that each of us experience just a slice through a place (be it a neighborhood, city, state, etc.). Their experiences are also span specific timeframes. As a result, a designer that is not embedded into system cannot fully understand the local context for which they are designing for by talking to only a handful of people. Care needs to be taken to ensure that varied experiences of the place in question are taken into consideration when designing for a community. However, I wonder if it’s practically possible for everyone’s views to be represented? How do we identify the limits of our knowledge? I.e. how do we know what we don’t know?

    I think the idea of co-designing with people in the community is powerful (as a few people have mentioned above). For it to be successful though, I think it’s important to move beyond existing hierarchies and spread of power and focus on a collective vision of a the future (rather than current problems which often tend to be symptoms of bigger issues).

    Balancing social good and environmental good is something I see challenging to do in the co-design process as it tends to centre around the needs of humans. It might, therefore, fall under the designer (or facilitator)’s purview to advocate for greater sensitivity towards the natural world.

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