Design or People? The Chicken Before the Egg Dilemma

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I’m an addict for good ideas. I love hearing about what social enterprises and social entrepreneurs are creating. I salivate for new initiatives to improve neighborhoods and social impact design firms working on difficult problems. But sometimes these initiatives appear to ignore the most important component: the people.

Where to Start?

I attended a project round-table recently where a design firm presented a well-intentioned project. They envisioned a place where locals and outsiders come together to trade skills, view art, hear music, and buy local goods–a good ol’ fashioned social hub/square/market/agora.

However, the neighborhood is hard to access and they are pulling teeth to get people to visit. I began to wonder about why this wasn’t working and my thoughts continued to return to the local residents: Is this really how they see it? If you don’t have the locals on board, then who is going to support it?

Design First

I have had my experience with a project where community engagement came second. NOMADgardens is a transportable garden and event space in Mission Bay, San Francisco, that my colleagues–architects, designers, urban planners, and biologists–started with a purposeful idea. There was a lack of communal gardening space, a large demand for it, and a lot of vacant lots sitting fenced off and empty. We designed the containers, the site plan, the branding, and the logistics. This is what we were trained to do and what we do best.

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Only after all this, we conducted outreach to the neighborhood, found our gardeners, obtained local business backing, and began creating the non-profit. Luckily our time put into the design was rewarded with excited neighbors willing to help and sign up. But I believe that our team would have been much stronger with a diverse representation of locals on the team, and perhaps we might have even had the garden up and running quicker. Hindsight is always 20/20, right?

People First

Another project I worked on was RefreshSF, an initiative promoting public health, building awareness of the lack of public washrooms in the city and encouraging giving through a donation system. The lack of public washrooms was an overlooked issue that most people were completely unaware of. When I would explain the project, jaws would slowly drop, eyebrows would furl, and the same response would come out: This is in San Francisco?!?”

Reversing our approach with NOMADgardens, we focused on the end users first. With the small amount of award money from Creative Currency Hackathon, we purchased a utility sink, a drainage hose, soap, towels, and printed signs and stickers. We set up our station at Glide Memorial Church’s parking lot on a Saturday and waited for the people.

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Then the curiosity began to arise. People were poking their heads in asking what it was. Our response was, “A sink for you to clean up if you need it.” “Really? I can use it?” was the typical response. “Yes, in exchange for telling us your story and feedback on the sink.”

We learned so much from the people who came in, and even those who didn’t: using it to shave and cleaning feet, defining ownership and protecting it, closing it at night, material selections for reflection and durability. Our design was taking shape before we even touched a drawing pad or computer.

Although we may have assumed a lot of the design criteria, hearing it from the people who would use it didn’t force us to speculate. Once we reviewed all of the feedback, we began designing and building cardboard prototypes. We continued conversations with government officials, nonprofit organizations, and fellow designers. Fluidly we gained input from citizen expert to expert citizen–a crucial balance.

What is the ‘Correct’ Balance?

Is there a right way to start a project? Only through past experience, trial and error do we find out what works for each project. With all the time and energy put into developing ideas, I propose the following pointers to achieve a well-designed and fully-engaged project. These are simple but sometimes forgotten. So here’s a reminder.

  • Split your team into design and engagement. And then mix it up.

  • Get a local representative on board.

  • Document and share. Constantly.

  • Prototype small, act fast, make it quick and dirty.

  • Don’t get married to an idea before it’s been tested. And even if it seems successful, you may need to divorce it.

As for the projects? NOMADgardens is currently fundraising to build the garden. RefreshSF has been put on hold but there is a similar initiative campaigning on Indiegogo. And I hope to help the project in London with getting more local input.

What are your tactics? Do you tend to lean on design or people first? Any projects that you would like to approach in a different way? We’d love to hear your comments.

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Image sources: Katie Crepeau, author; Urban Matters design lab; RefreshSF

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