Friday, January 15, 2016

Designing Peace

It's been awhile--I should say a very long time, since I thought about peace. Realistically I would say it was during high school, almost 50 years ago, that I thought about solutions to the problem of warfare. That was during the Vietnam era. 

So it's a bit disconcerting but also a bit refreshing as well to come back to the problem at this late stage in my life and within a thoroughly different context. 

Partly it comes from the inspiration of having my friend Lili Dean Herman here in Batticaloa. Lili is in the sixth year of a project in which she brings teaching the RISD way to the community here. Her solutions to local problems, which have been going on here for more than 30 years, are rooted in design principles. 

Partly the impetus for this discussion comes from the human heartache I've witnessed here in Sri Lanka. I've written so many posts now about injustices and mistrust. My informants and friends are all people of goodwill. Yet everyone I talk to has developed a cloud of hate around them. Some hold it closer to their chest. Others let me know right away. But no one I've spent significant time with has not reflected on ethnic and religious rivalry, mutual distrust, and fear. It's different from the world I'm used to and not as nice. 

In my mind good design boils down to a few things. First, considering your users, present and projected. This means spending a lot of time on the ground observing, determining problems and preferences, and quietly letting the landscape, or facts on the ground (as the case may be) roll themselves out for you. User experience (UX), which our software designers have championed, is a construct all of us in the design world need to take a better look at. And adapt. Designers, let's think about our users more than we think about our great ideas. Let's step back, observe deeply, and respond with meaning. 

The second principle of design I think is that design is an iterative process. We can look at this in so many ways. One way to look at it is to say that design moves in stages from learning (which should take up 100% of the early design process and recede slowly) to doing. The doing or building phase should proceed slowly from the learning phase, and is intricately dependent upon it. 

An iterative process also means that at every stage the designer must ask, is this working? What are the  criteria that you apply to whether something is working? I think it goes back to UX. How are your people responding? Are they responding?

As an iterative process design also proceeds in a non-linear fashion. You may start with a particular set of questions and work toward a whole different set of questions. I think that in good design this happens several times in the design process. You look at your work and ask, "is this working?" Back to UX! If your design is working or not you need to brainstorm a new set of questions. It's a frustrating process and it feels like you're not getting anyplace. But as you grind your way to "solution" you do so on the shoulders of innumerable questions--most of them developed in the wake of mistakes or dead-ends. As we become more experienced as designers the learning curve of developing and asking questions becomes less steep. It may seem like it's taking too much time, especially at first. But asking questions as an iterative process means that our designs will respond to the most relevant questions possible--not just to arbitrary thoughts we throw out there. 

I guess my third principle of design would be to "under design." Intricate plans, social or otherwise, may just not do the trick. I remember when I started teaching at Boston University's College of General Studies. The more instructions I gave for an assignment the more they seemed to be ignored by my students. I found in this context that less is more, let the chips fall where they may. While this may sound like a cop-out I think it goes right back to user experiences. Trust your users to respond. Let them build into the process by their own volition and in ways they deem appropriate. Keep the big goal in mind and use input from your users to make it work for them the way they want it to. 

My idea for minimal design comes from two places. The first is a student crit I participated in at Moratuwa University with my friend and colleague Janaka Wijesundara. One student was designing a facility for children who had been traumatized by war. Her design was intricate, down to the bathrooms and the rest area for lady staff members. She considered studies of PTSD in planning carefully for shady areas, light areas, hiding spaces for children and counseling rooms. Her design looked like a prison. Janaka and I asked her to take her design down several notches, perhaps to introduce as her focal point an outdoor play area where kids could touch water and soil, do some play farming, and hang out with tame animals. 

I don't know how she responded ultimately. The MO of Moratuwa students seems to be to keep pushing their own design agenda no matter what advice they're given. It's a good thing in a way to exert your own ideas. But I've come home beaten and bent by crit sessions where bad ideas are defended by "I couldn't explain myself in English" though students told fellow jurors the very same story in their own language, and received the same criticisms. 

My other example for under design is the iPhone, a tool I rely on every single day (I'm writing on it right now). It is supremely versatile and user friendly and of course, intricately designed under its handsome blank screen. But I think its real beauty is how every person can "program" it in their own way. I'm talking less about preferences or apps than I am about the haptic environment of the iPhone. Everyone touches it differently and each phone carries its owner's personal touch. This is how we must design (or under design) peace. 

Everyone needs a stake in peace and the peace process. It can't be imposed and it can't be engineered. It should have a blank and beautiful visage that everyone can perceive their own way. The process must consider its users and how they will experience it. Its brokers must accept that it is an iterative process with an intrinsic process of mistakes and questioning. 

How can we lower barriers and dissolve borders? How can we disarm? How can we allow open movement, trade, and opportunity? I'll stop here as these are daunting enough questions. But here in Sri Lanka, in what looks like a peaceful place to the outsider, lies a bristling tinderbox filled with resentment, distrust, and fear. I can't begin to think of how to clear up this mess. But I would love to see design principles used in the service of that ideal. 

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