The Designer’s Role in a Crisis

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Architecture for Humanity Team in Haiti Copyright © Architecture for Humanity.

I’m waiting for a call back from my friend Kate Stohr who’s in Haiti right now. She left me a message about helping to design a solution for the traffic problem there. In the time since I listened to the message and now, I’ve been wondering what kind of role would I play in working on such a problem. The nature of my role in this feeds into a larger question I’ve not yet answered: What role does a designer play in a crisis?

Kate Stohr and Cameron Sinclair started Architecture for Humanity, the largest network of designers on the planet who focus on design services where it is critically needed. If you ask them where a designer’s role in a crisis is most helpful, the answer is simple: before. It is not during the crisis, as Cameron put it during an online debate on the question of “Is it OK to run architectural competitions for Haiti?” Cameron answered on Building Design’s Web site, “At a time when needs are of an immediate nature, unproven concepts can be inappropriate and a distraction to the task at hand.”

As a designer, I’m typically involved in solving problems that aren’t at a time of intense danger or critical need. I’m usually able to take the time to form a team, go out in the field and study what’s happening, come back to the studio, and collaborate with various kinds of experts and stakeholders and set about creating some prototypes to test back out in the field. All this is possible on projects lasting a year or so. The conditions in a crisis such as the Haiti earthquake in January or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill don’t allow for the normal steps in using the design process for solving problems. So how does a design help in designing for critical needs?

The Living Principles for Design Web Site

Designing for critical needs is not new. Known more commonly today as design for social impact, the topics range from health care, irrigation, slavery, and so on. The social entrepreneur has emerged as an on-the-ground design thinker capable of seeing a problem, solving it in a unique way and creating lasting value and impact. Design firms have focused considerable energy to support this area of innovation, and more online destinations are popping up for the inquisitive designer looking to learn and help. But for me, I’m still not certain of the role the designer is allowed to have in a crisis.

I find that many of the online resources for designing for critical needs that don’t directly deal with disaster relief are either for long-term and large-scale system solutions, like IDEO’s, or are in the education and sharing of learning like Change Observer, Winterhouse’s work and the Living Principles for Design. These are all great, but they blend a commercial need for sustainable design with non-profit collaborations. The solutions are typically interesting but without a lot of metrics for real impact.

Photo courtesy Walt Disney Pictures: Copyright © Walt Disney Pictures

Recently James Cameron, the Avatar director, called a ten-hour brainstorming meeting of experts, engineers, academics, and agency officials, having first offered to help BP directly. “I didn’t want to be another well-meaning idiot with a bunch of suggestions,” Cameron says. “But when the situation went on without a resolution, I figured the guys I knew had to be as smart as the engineers at BP, so it was time to sound the horn.” This seemed to be a great example of a well-meaning outsider trying to help with coming up with viable and different solutions than the BP teams might already be considering. It made me consider that designers, similar to a creative thinker like Cameron (who is arguably a designer and engineer), might also be able to play a similar role. While Design Thinking also requires the act of prototyping as one of its characteristics, one that might be inappropriate inside of a crisis, an alternative strong characteristic of design thinking is being integrative: the act of including other types or sources of thinking. James Cameron’s brainstorm is a perfect example of this.

So while we can get involved in long-term crisis problems like water (see this link to Urban Re:Vision magazine), energy, education, or the Future of Fish, by employing the design process and adopting Design Thinking as an approach, it isn’t completely clear how we can be one of the first on the ground in the middle of a crisis that is happening. Taking the lead from designers like Cameron Sinclair, where we wait until local or international disaster relief has made conditions stable seems to be the only sensible step for designers. Perhaps that will allow us to move faster to collect, create, and share ideas for on-the-ground solutions for the crisis at hand.

I hate to think that the best designers can offer is expertise in facilitating brainstorming and the generation of ideas, largely because it isn’t exclusive to just designers to offer. (TEDx recently organized a brainstorming event for Oil Spill Solutions.) And beyond brainstorming, designers can offer many worthwhile benefits. We can bring unlikely stakeholders together to collaborate and build functional relationships to implement solutions, and help create practical communications to support these newly implemented solutions. Surely, the knowledge we’ve gleaned from IDEO’s TSA project would help in certain situations needing communications. And ultimately, I would consider the designer to be at least one person, much like Kate and Cameron have consistently shown, to be positive in the face of extreme conditions and push forward with finding ways to solve critical problems.

I never heard back from Kate, as Cameron later told me she stayed over one more day to have dinner with the Prime Minister of Haiti. So I wait to discuss with Kate what the project is and explore more how a designer like myself might help others in a crisis. In the mean time, what do you think? What would your role be?