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(Fogra 29_WF)Job:08-28858 Title:RP-Writing & Research for Graphic Designers
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Writing & research for graphic designers
The language of design imperialism
maria popova
Blogger and writer on design for Wired UK and The Atlantic
(Originally published July 29, 2010 on Change Observer,
I go to a lot of conferences. Design conferences, tech conferences,
media conferences, cross-disciplinary conferences. And the worst
of them are always the ones brimming with panels, on which a
handful of industry heavy-hitters sit around for an hour, throwing
opinions at each other that oscillate between congratulatory and
contrarian but inevitably dance around a hermetic subject of
collectively predetermined importance. The problem with such
panels is that they regurgitate existing viewpoints held within the
industry bubble about issues framed by the industry paradigm,
often in buzzword-encrusted language that offers little substance
beyond the collective fluff-slinging.
Over the past few weeks, the design community has
witnessed the virtual version of an industry panel. Ignited
by Bruce Nussbaum’s controversial, and some may say solely
for the sake thereof, contention that humanitarian design-
ers are the new imperialists and followed by a flurry of
responses ranging from insightful, fact-grounded retorts to
righteous indignation to argumentative defensiveness, the
debate has brought up some necessary conversations, but it
has also become a platform for near-academic discussion of
an issue tragically removed from the actual cultural land-
scapes where humanitarian design projects live.What’s most
worrisome and ironic about the debate is the almost complete
lack with the exception of a few blog comments here and
there of voices of designers who work in the very regions
and communities in question, those loosely defined as the
“developing world” and the “Western poor.” Worse yet,
entirely missing are the much-needed multidisciplinary
voices whose work is the cultural glue between design and
its social implementation anthropologists, scientists,
educators, writers.
Yes, writers.
Because if designers are the new imperialists, the delusional
white-caped superheroes Nussbaum calls them out to be,
design writers are their giddy, overeager sidekicks, complicit
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section 4
learning from experiences writers discuss their writing
in disengaging from the very communities in which humanitar-
ian design is meant to be manifest.
The way we talk and write about these issues is incredibly
important. As [Nussbaum’s] excellent Wall Street Journal article
argues, language shapes culture and cognition in a powerful
way. The very vocabulary we use in this debate is incredibly
flawed. We can’t even come up with a fair way of describing
the communities in question. We slide across a spectrum of
political quasi-correctness and tragic generalization, from the
near-obsolete for reasons of clear condescension “third world”
to the hardly better “developing world” to Alex Steffen’s
alarmingly geo-generalized “Global South” to the depressingly
hierarchical “bottom billion.” These lump terms not only
dehumanize entire classes of people, but they also fail to
account for the vast cultural differences between the various
microcommunities within these brackets. Political, anthro-
pological, ethnic, religious, and sociological differences that
would explain why, for instance, the XO-1 laptop from One
Laptop Per Child, once hailed as a pinnacle of humanitarian
design, was embraced in Paraguay and reviled in India.
We talk about working “in the field” as the ultimate litmus
test for true “humanitarian design.” But the notion of “the
field” flattens out an incredibly rich, layered, multiplane social
system in which these design projects and products live. No
We slide across a spectrum of political quasi-correctness
and tragic generalization, from the near-obsolete for reasons
of clear condescension “third world” to the hardly better
“developing world”. . . .
wonder we consistently fail to design what Emily Pilloton
aptly terms “systems, not stuff.”
I’d be curious to know how these communities and cultures
verbalize their own sense of self and identity. How do you say
“bottom billion” in Swahili? How does “the field” describe
itself in Aymara?
Even the term humanitarian design bespeaks a fundamental
limitation—incredibly anthropocentric, it fails to recognize the
importance of design that lives in a complex ecosystem of hu-
manity and nature, society and environment, which are always
symbiotically linked to one another’s well-being. When even our
language exudes the kind of cultural conceit that got us in our
climate crisis pickle, there’s something fundamentally wrong
with how we think about our role in the world as designers
and as people.
In a brilliant SEED Magazine article from 2008, authors
Maywa Montenegro and Terry Glavin make a convincing
argument for the link between biodiversity and cultural
diversity. “Pull back from the jargon,” they caution, “and
the essence is simple: Homogeneous landscapes—whether
linguistic, cultural, biological, or genetic—are brittle and
prone to failure.” But a key point of failure in today’s global
design landscape lies precisely in the jargon: We need to invent
new ways of writing, talking, and thinking about concepts of
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