Balancing hype and accountability
I’ve been trying to write this debrief of my experience at Quicksand Design Studio for a good five or six months. It’s been a grueling process to both reflect and recall while actively seeking new employment and to “reinvent” myself. However it has undeniably helped me gain clarity on my current shortcomings (which has only fueled my impatience) and put a few things in perspective. I am aware this is a somewhat generic and cryptic start but I hope you can find some value for yourself in this blog-diary-debrief of a document.
In this text you will find three main parts: Why I joined Quicksand, How I measured the value of the projects I was involved in over the past three years, and a few closing thoughts. Please feel free to hop around.
After completing three years of working at Quicksand Design Studio, I’ve taken the time to sort through my experience there. In this post, I have tried to critically reflect on my professional activity in the hopes of sharpening my intent as a designer and citizen while figuring out how to take on a more aggressive role in shaping a world that is even remotely desirable to live in for generations to come.
At the end of the day, in joining Quicksand (a design studio that has attracted a significant amount of social impact work) I was very naively hoping to learn how to use design for good. Well… Turns out nobody knows how to do it, but also that many designers feel pretty confident that they are already doing it without reflecting on what it would actually take to do it.
In this post I will pick apart the different projects I was a part of at Quicksand and attempt to distill what makes a good project. I will then explore if a good project by my standards has anything to do with designing for good (spoiler: not really). The post will end with a few thoughts that have emerged through this process. At the end of the day, I hope this piece can encourage more designers to find their own ways of dissociating hype (good projects?) from accountability (doing good) and that doing so successfully can only come through introspection.
Lastly before we get started, I’d like to shed the term good which helped create a sharp intro and speak to my own naivety for a definition that will come back several times from John Ehrenfield’s Sustainability by Design (the book that started me on this journey) which he opens by defining sustainability as “the possibility that human and other life will ﬂourish on the planet forever.” So if by mistake I ever again mention using “design for good” please read “using design to ensure humans and other life can ﬂourish on the planet forever.”
I. Joining Quicksand
Quicksand is a design research and innovation firm based across several cities in India working in emerging markets. During my time there, I worked across multiple sectors for corporate, non-profit, and government actors to apply processes derived from the field of design (design research, insighting, ideation, iterative prototyping) to the challenges brought to us by our clients. In parallel to this activity, there was also support for a few internally initiated projects each year, or at least they were encouraged.
Over the three years, project briefs included: imagining the future of humanitarian work, improving access to accurate sexual and reproductive health information for adolescents in peri-urban areas, building the design research capabilities of startups working in the fintech space.
These projects confronted me with ambiguous, sometimes emotionally and intellectually confusing situations which forced me to think more critically about the relevance and shortcomings of design methodologies in a country (and region) with such complex socio-cultural and economic backdrops but which also has an industrial appetite for the novelty and modernity design is all too often made to represent. Over these three years I also had the honor to engage with many incredibly talented creative practitioners outside of Quicksand and learn tremendously from seeing them grow. A very condensed list might include in no specific order: Harshit Vishwakarma, The Enugis class, Architecture for Dialog, Praveen Singha, Critters, Computational Mama, Insight Walk, Irregulars Art Fair, Supreetha Krishnan, Ayaz Basrai, Otherworld.Arts, Sahej Rahal. This list is painfully incomplete.
Each encounter taught me the value of regularly reinventing my tools, expanded the definition of being a creative practitioner, and above all, proved to me that what I sought from design: “to get to work towards making the world a more habitable place” (to take from a quote from Alain Findeli via Gauthier Roussilhe) was being done far more passionately outside of design than within it…
Why did I decide to move to Delhi?
To be fair, it was a bit of a knee-jerk move. It came at a time when I was trying to take a break from some of the more corporate work I was doing in Los Angeles.
Simply put, I was feeling stuck. Opportunities as a design researcher outside of the UX space seemed fairly limited in the city and although I had had fun working with Ben Hooker and Shona Kitchen, Two Bit Circus or Pull Creative; I felt I was stagnating a bit. The other factor behind the decision (which may seem to elude rationality for many) was that I didn’t really find other US cities necessarily welcoming (my family situation has made it that I have seen very little of the US), so the lifestyle promised by the bigger designer-employing cities (NY, SEA, SF) seemed a little too similar to LA in their techno-fascinated careerist ways, or at least from what I could tell then. In light of this highly gut-based assessment of my opportunities in the US, hopping continents seemed as good as any plan.
I first came across Quicksand’s work through STBY, a design research studio based between London and Amsterdam, who had hosted a workshop on using video documentaries as a research probe at ENSCI Les Ateliers in 2011. Both Quicksand and STBY are part of the REACH network, a global community of design consultancies.
Quicksand’s work (as I would later hear summarized by aspiring candidates I interviewed), had inspired me through the breadth of their work and styles: they were not purely a UX design consultancy, their presence in both corporate and public spaces, and their hard-to-place editorial flavor. After getting in touch and a few interspersed interviews (over the course of six months), I woke up in Malviya Nagar. A couple weeks later, I was starting the new job.
It’s hard to exactly remember what I was expecting, to be honest. There wasn’t seem to be too much of a plan (as you might’ve gathered from my shaky rationale above) outside of hoping for a slightly self-serving resume boost at the end of a couple years.
And a resume boost I got, but not for the reasons I expected. Although the projects I was able to be a part of had more rewarding premises than my more lucrative experiences in LA; my relevance as a privileged white male (in a privileged English-speaking Indian circle), was thrown right back at me in a continual questioning of values, relevance, intent.
Could my skills and experience alone (which did not include me speaking a single of the twenty-two scheduled Indian languages) justify my presence on projects? Didn’t a range of financial, logistical (namely passports), and racial privileges heavily tip the scale in my favor? In what way was my presence beneficial to the outcome of the work and team dynamics? In what way was it detrimental?
In hindsight, I do think I was the right profile for the job, but was only able to join the team thanks to the privileges listed above which granted me the chance to take such a drastic decision with little to no planning.
These three years, and the many moments of reckoning along the way, forced me to confront both the value of design and my own privilege in a strangely symbiotic tango. Each new realization involved a chilling reminder of how much one could get away with by calling their work “design” and how clearly those who stood to gain from the project were more often the service providers than the “end-users”. Similarly, many design projects I came across seemed to be more often defined by bloated budgets or questionably profit-minded impact metrics than the actual value-add design was intended to bring to the table. That being said, enough projects did also manage to show me the promise of what design, with the right approach, support from other disciplines, and philosophy, could offer to other stakeholders. One of these is Project Udaan, but we’ll talk about it later.
There is a whole part of this experience that was also deeply personal. Removing it from this account may have made it a little dry but I felt it was already captured well enough in other places, digital, or print.
So to process all these professional experiences, I decided to put some things on paper, see if any patterns emerged, and what they could tell me about myself. I started by plotting the various projects I had been a part of and how I might numerically assess their value in my eyes in order to better recognize similar opportunities in the future.
II. M&E and Me
The practice of Monitoring and Evaluation is something I discovered at Quicksand. Most of the work I had done prior to that in the US had to do with exploratory research that is meant to inspire new designs rather than gauge their usability or scalability. To this day my professional experience with M&E frameworks remains very limited and so far has taken me down a path of light cynicism, but also of immense curiosity as I find the idea of measuring the immaterial a fun and challenging task.
My main source of frustration when approaching M&E was the contradiction between the “strategic vision thinking” design was meant to bring to the project and the “immediate impact” the M&E frameworks needed to measure. Quantifying the impact of 3 month pilots that aim to engender societal shifts over decades always felt a bit like alchemy: a pseudo-science in which footfall and other metrics provided a shaky foundation for further strategic extrapolation and profit-optimization through cost-per-person-impacted assessments.
These fairly unpleasant experiences have encouraged me to dive deeper into the value of M&E. And in order to better understand what I was dealing with (and the limited number of long-term project data I had access to), I decided to tackle creating an M&E framework for my own professional experience at Quicksand.
As I had mentioned in the opening, this effort was in part inspired by reading John Ehrenfield’s Sustainability by Design in which he critiques the reductive nature of purely quantitative assessments of value:
“The current dominance of quantitative thinking springs […] from a mechanistic view of a world […] This view is reinforced by the hegemony of modern economics, which stresses quantitative measures as indicators of human well-being. […] Mystery, and the acceptance that there are aspects of the world we simply don’t understand within the bounds of rationality, spring from our awareness of the fullness of the world.”
Another great quote from him that caught my eye was:
“Emergent properties like beauty depend on the beholder’s singular set of values and so are never capable of being reduced to quantitative measures. It will thus not be possible to manage sustainability in the same way we attempt to manage GDP, for example, or for that matter anything that can be measured.”
The problem presented here is worth unpacking further (which I will not be able to do) but in a nutshell the question that arises is the following: Are standard M&E frameworks and indices (even ones like the HDI) measuring the right thing? Is measuring even the right way to account for and gauge well being? And how does one measure something they don’t know they should be measuring?
In making my own impact indicators I hoped to create a temporary, somewhat incomplete system of sorts that could help me make sense of these questions and especially identify the emergent properties of the projects I’ve come to value. Thus using M&E tools as an investigative tool rather than a management tool.
Using my time at Quicksand was perfect to create a framework around as it gave me a specific time frame (longer than any single project I had the chance to observe) to reflect upon while also providing me with valuable documents such as emails, proposals, and the work itself to ensure there’d be some granularity in the process even though I was conducting it retroactively. I hope these notes are helpful to you.
To give you some context, working at Quicksand means collaborating across three offices, each one of them led by different founding partners.
Each studio still functions as typical design consultancies: research, strategy, and design capabilities while having some distinctions from one to the other:
- Delhi would secure more conventional strategic projects with large funders (with a soft spot for incubating startups from time to time)
- Bangalore was driven by intellectual pursuits and curiosities working with local activists, tech innovators and foreign artists (with a soft spot for water conservation) or supporting local start-ups with their strategy
- Goa was always the one to push the multidisciplinarity of the office and regularly experimented with new storytelling mediums (with a soft spot for new media projects)
Depending on which studio landed a project, you could expect it to lean more towards: strategic interventions and scalability, narrative-driven outputs, or experimental formats using video games and immersive storytelling. Although I was based in Delhi, I also had the chance to collaborate extensively with the other offices both remotely and in person.
This diversity in the work made it hard for me to compare projects at first. They all had vastly different budgets, timelines and scopes of work. Before creating metrics I first mapped each project on a timeline (took a while to comb through my inbox for kickoff and handover emails) to help me wrap my head around the different projects. I then slowly transitioned into letting a set of metrics emerge. Finally, I mapped the top ranking projects according to a few different sets of axes and reflected on what they had to tell me. If you wish to try it for yourself, here are the steps summarized:
- Create a month to month timeline of projects completed over the period being reviewed
- Set up a point system that calls out the strengths and weaknesses of each project
- Map the highest ranking projects on 2x2 matrices with axes of your liking
1 | The timeline
The timeline maps my three years (32 or so months) at Quicksand, with each column being a month and each colored segment representing a different project. The bottom two rows focus on shorter stints: workshops (which were usually 2 to 4 days long) and personal projects (art exhibits, collaborations with artist friends), in that order.
2 | The point system
The point system assesses each project through both qualitative (clarity of the brief, how much I learned about the topic at hand, if I picked up new skills, how well it aligned with my own values) and quantitative lenses (budget size, timeliness of project completion, each taken from the contracts and Terms of Reference / contracts / proposals).
Along the way, new aspects that were perhaps more clearly represented in certain projects needed to be added to the rubric and previous projects were regraded accordingly. This also led to some changes in the weight of the various criteria points, an art I am far from having mastered!
Here were the final criteria points and the questions I asked myself when assigning the value:
- My role on the project (3pts): How much freedom, agency, control did I have in the decision-making?
- Brief clarity + excitement (1pt): How promising was the brief, did the framing of the intent point towards the possibility for success or failure?
- Completion + timeliness (1pt + 3pt): Was the project delivered according to the intended deadlines (which itself is a sign of successful collaboration with the internal teams and the clients as well).
- Duration (< 3 months=1pt, 3–6months=2, 6+ months=3pts): I gave more points to longer projects as they are more challenging to manage and require more effort.
- New skills (3pts): Did I pick up any new skills, hard, soft? How much did this project help me grow as a practitioner?
- Topic relationship (3pts): How close did I feel to the topic of the project, but also how relevant did I feel to the project’s context and ecosystem?
- Output Quality (3pts): Was the output what we had hoped? Was it helpful? Was it relevant? Did it answer the brief?
- Alignment w/ Values (3pts): Did the project contribute in some way to improving the quality of life of those it intended to help? How close was it to causes I feel the urgency to embrace and support?
- Budget (<10K USD=1pt, >10K = 0pt): This was used as a bit of an equalizer to boost smaller projects with limited impact.
- Personal Satisfaction (1pt): Another equalizer for all the small things I didn’t know how to quantify, did the team end on a good note? Did any pleasant surprises emerge? Were challenging situations navigated successfully and lead to a refinement of the practice?
Most of the criteria points are weighed on a scale of 1 to 3 points with a few exceptions like the budget size (which is just 1 point to give a little boost to smaller budget projects). But even in that range, there is a lot of room for fuzzy grading and I am sure the scores would change over time depending on how I remember the projects. To be safe, I would say any score between 21 and 25 are, by that standard, good projects that contributed to my flourishing.
This exercise helped confirm a few of my own assumptions but also quantify a balancing act I and many around me have been struggling with: how to earn a living from doing fulfilling work. My biggest takeaway from my work experience so far is that important work is usually hard to pitch, less than glamorous, arduous and underpaid, if paid at all. So how does one navigate the system to reroute funds towards worthwhile enterprises? If don’t have any decisive answers but my time at Quicksand helped me understand how projects could be understood as part of a continuum and be strategically framed to build trust with the client leading to better projects later on or to use appealing deliverables (often visual or interactive formats) to introduce your practice to a space it doesn’t have much experience in (what I ended up doing with Digital Bunkers). This has slowly taught me to ignore the arbitrary lines confining the knowledge of one project to its little box and embrace how each experience can inform the next.
Before moving on to the matrices, I’d like to take a second to highlight a few simple points the timeline captures. What jumps out is that I was usually on two demanding projects at a time with smaller engagements here and there and the occasional three simultaneous projects during delayed handovers or early project kick-offs.
This meant the workload was manageable with slower and faster periods throughout the year as in most consultancies. It also shows I got to clear my thoughts and experiment with smaller workshop-based involvements almost every other month and that this work schedule still allowed me to have personal projects (which were integral to my growth and development). Looking back it’s really amazing to see what a profound impact on my career these smaller workshops had. And as I mentioned above, it is often through these small experimental formats that I’ve learned to try things outside my comfort zone, testing out ideas with students and other participants.
Moving on to the projects and their respective scores:
AI x DIY (24/25): A fun innovation-themed research project on future applications of AI in the home improvement space. The project resulted in the creation of a short graphic novel in illustrated by Thanveer Fazal that told the story of a family living with such technologies and preparing their home for a hurricane.
HUM2035 (23/25): What does the future of humanitarian work look like? Commissioned by the Barbican’s Life Rewired Hub in London, the research and storytelling project culminated in an exhibit that attempted to provide seedlings of answers while letting visitors fill in the blanks.
Udaan (22/25): How might we improve the access to quality sexual and reproductive health education available to adolescents in the state of Rajasthan? A project developed in partnership with the state government and IPE Global in which our team revisited how existing services were delivered and bridged the remaining gaps by piloting new possible formats.
Virtual Narratives (22/25): Series of workshops on telling stories through virtual spaces conducted for NID. Both sessions were hosted with Salil Parekh, and paired narrative building with game design. The spaces and the navigation within them was first storyboarded then physically prototyped before being translated into digital assets using Unity.
Life with Limited Energy (21/25): Research project aimed at better understanding the reality of day to day life in homes with limited access to energy across the global south in India, Indonesia, Kenya, and Peru. The work was commissioned and published by SPACE10 as a public document and as an internal strategic report for the client to inform product development efforts.
Museomix (21/25): Museomix is a global event that brings together storytellers and makers of all kinds to reinvent local museums by prototyping new ways of interacting with the exhibits. The 2019 edition of Museomix in India was held at the Sanskriti Kendra Terracotta Museum. Teams were able to spend time in four carefully chosen rooms, each with their own unique artworks from different regions and traditions.
In most regards the rubric works, it successfully identified the projects I am most proud of and even helped me see why I enjoyed some of them: all the highest ranking projects have in common that I had the most autonomy and freedom in them, resulted in the creation of genuinely interesting output, and were completed in a timely fashion, for the most part).
Two glaringly missing sets of indicators in the current rubric are those of assessing the impact of each project and the quality of the ethics behind the work. They were not taken into account for the time being because they would have been too hard to measure with the information I had available but I plan on implementing them into the next projects.
That being said it’d be interesting to see how many layers it would take to successfully quantify (if ever possible) the impact of a short workshop like Virtual Narratives conducted in an educational context versus a year-long strategic development project like Udaan conducted in a professional context.
Each side would require its own metrics: the workshop format would have to account for the skilling, personal growth of the students and faculty, resulting career impact and opportunities, while the development sector project would likely bring to the table the program’s reach, accessibility, cost-cutting measures. Both would then likely explore the possibility of formulating a time-to-money-to-impact ratio… Through this simple thought experiment it becomes clear that any form of measurement is making an assumption about what matters, making this measured reality one directly tied to the tools of the agent measuring it. This is apparently a concept called “agential realism: an account of measurement that includes the researcher and the milieu — not only as partial to the outcomes of the measurement, but as enactive within a co-constituted environment.” Which I recently found in a piece by Chris Julien that I am still reading. But I digress.
I’d like to close this part with a few interesting numbers that have emerged from this data set:
Yearly average scores: 2017 (16.6), 2018 (16.25), 2019 (18), I was at first surprised that 2018 had a dip from 2017, it mostly seems due a few fairly uninteresting workshops I ran that year that are weighted the same way the other projects are.
Lowest scored project: The project with the lowest score received a 6, form 2017. As far as explanations go, it was a project I was brought on fairly late, there was little clarity on the direction of the project and the topic, luxury bathrooms, got the team and I to visit some lovely homes but was not the most captivating or rewarding either, I’m glad the rubric was able to grade this project accordingly.
Average score of short projects vs long projects: Longer projects (anything over three months) scored significantly higher, with an average score of 19.8pts for 9 projects, than the shorter ones which averaged at 15.6pts for 16 projects. This perhaps speaks to the monotony of certain creative strategy workshops and the repetitive nature of purely “design thinking” frameworks.
3 | The matrices
Finally, we’ve reached the last step: finding insightful ways of mapping the top ranking projects. This is finally the part where we explore if a good project, according to the standards upheld by my scoring rubric, has anything to do with designing for good.
Using 2x2 matrices helped compare projects according to different lenses resulting in valuable snapshots of my professional activity.
Of course, it might have been more accurate to map each project based on the scores given in the rubric, however I decided to use the 2x2s to focus on aspects of the work that seemed harder to quantify and could be better understood when placed along a spectrum (like the impact or ethical-ness of the projects mentioned above). I wasn’t planning on doing this when I started this project but it manifested itself as necessary after a session I did with the Art with Intent community which resulted in very valuable crowdsourced exploration of the format during which different young design practitioners made their own matrices to reflect on their activity. One I especially liked plotted their education and career path rather than projects resulting in a sort of cartography of their journey so far, which I drew inspiration from for the last matrix.
a. Project Types
The first 2x2 I created was to map the nature of each project using these two key axes: Research <-> Imagine and Capture<-> Create.
- Research: Requires desk, field, generative investigations to inform the work
- Imagine: Requires the foreseeing of opportunities, and imagining alternate realities
- Creation: Requires the creation of a “tangible” deliverable or assets
- Capture: Requires the recording or capturing through video, audio, textual a reality or set of realities of an individual, lifestyle or context
Both axes presented a spectrum with a very gray middle. The idea was to ensure that the matrix could accommodate any project I had worked on. One axis focused on balancing of insight and intuition while the other looked at the kind of output the work would entail.
Being trained as a designer, it does seem I’ve always had a bias for production and creation, in other words, bringing solutions to life be it games, products or services. This bias for production is clearly captured by the top scored projects being to the right side of the graph. Funnily, when you look at the 22 points projects you notice they are each at opposite ends of the vertical, research <-> imagine spectrum, and this is something I’ve been struggling with throughout my years as a designer (from my first day at Art Center or even at DASH to today).
I always assumed design was anchored in a love of questioning through making: a playful oscillation between instincts and insights where each new question blooms a flurry of new possibilities. But I’ve struggled to find this light back and forth in my design education, and even professionally. Instead projects tend to be heavily anchored in one or the other, often in accordance with the client’s inclination.
The last quadrant worth calling attention to (capture + imagine) has no top-ranking projects. It covers projects that would focus both on capturing a reality and imagining new possibilities with limited research or production efforts.
I love 2x2 matrices for this exact reason: you start with an idea of what you want to map and by the end they’ll reveal gaps or biases in your thinking. In this case it calls out that no “wholesome” or “nourishing” projects (project with scores 21–25 points), seem to fall in that quadrant. I looked through my timeline and found only one ongoing project that could match: Digital Bunkers (mentioned above), an experimental online co-creation workshop I’ve been running with Salil Parekh and Oshin Siao Bhatt during the Covid 19 lockdown.
In it, participants have to log their daily activities (capture), then identify their dependencies on shared infrastructures before collectively building alternative realities in Fortnite (imagine), thus existing in this liminal space of immediate (improvisational?) reaction to the existing world. Of course there is some degree of production there but it is not the focus of the project. Funnily enough, the reason the project didn’t make it to the level of “nourishing projects” is a low “output quality” score. But this is the kind of value that may change as the project evolves.
b. Project Stance
Another format I wanted to try maps project from public to private and reflection to reaction focused projects. The idea here was to highlight the sources of funding, the audience, the purpose of the project, if they came from start-ups and corporate funders or instead government institutions.
However both of these axes are far from being binaries. Several projects could’ve been plotted in different ways depending on the focus being on the source of funding or the audience: the Life Without Energy project commissioned by Space10 was always intended as a public-facing report but had a significant strategic component that was kept for the sponsor’s eyes only, or Project Udaan was a project aimed at improving government programs but was fully funded by CIFF a philanthropic investment fund.
c. Contributing (or not) to a better tomorrow
The last graph aims to make sense of the elusive and ambiguous notion of better or preferable futures.
Although it is bound to be an incomplete task or picture, I wanted to try and capture which of my career milestones had actively participated in the creation of what I understood at the time as a preferable future.
As a white hetero-normative cis-male, with a significant degree of financial comfort, I have been able to float a bit post graduation (and now during the Covid 19 crisis) and face no discrimination in the work place or in my education that I am aware of; so learning what an inclusive, equitable future might look like and require has constantly been getting expanded and challenged, as my awareness has grown.
The horizontal axis aims to gauge career milestones according to their contribution to the creation of Preferable Futures. This concept is often casually thrown around in speculative design and foresight discussions, but with little effort to define what it is or according to who it might be in fact better. For the sake of this exercise I took as a starting point John Ehrenfeld’s definition of sustainability which you might recognize from the beginning of the article: “The possibility that [all?] humans and other life live and flourish on the planet forever.” This definition evokes a world mindful of the lives of future generations, other species, and that has actively undone the exploitative systems of modernity and industrialism that many of today’s globalized societies have been founded upon. I’ve added the “all” since as the lockdown and the latest events of police brutality have shown, much remains to be done for all humans to have the equal opportunity to flourish.
The other axis refers to economic stability, namely, how the need for financial stability impacts my perceived freedom in choosing projects, and my agency within those projects. Through this axis I tried to subjectively piece together what constitutes the financial profile of projects, its material outcome: seeking high profit margins, breaking even, intentional financial loss (pro bono), unintentional loss (mis-estimation) and the underlying reasons for the taking them on: financial peace of mind, upcoming financial commitments, re-investment into the company, access to promising clients/projects, personal values.
Clearly I have not done much if at all to contribute to a brighter future and the last point plotted on this matrix is purely aspirational. It has been a slow and frustrating process to unpack my own practice and my role in supporting the status quo. Few redeeming moments, uncertainty, and the recurring feeling of having taken the path of least resistance.
I hope that by the end of 2020 I can become much more intentional and proactive in how I make a living both in terms of projects I land and where my funding comes from. One designer who’s digging in to this in a surprisingly transparent and encouraging fashion is Gauthier Roussilhe. His writing on the matter has been a foundational component of heading down this path. I have found the extent to which Gauthier has singled out points of tension between design and modern industries incredibly informative and inspiring.
“It seems to me that the design industry tends to train professionals with low financial education even when so many of them increasingly aspire to champion collective good and transition efforts (in the social, economic, or energy sectors). Few know how to assess their “economic value” or know economic models that differ from neoclassical markets. It is however necessary to know how to integrate more relevant economic models into one’s activity: steady-state economics, degrowth, economic planning, care economy…” — Gauthier Roussilhe, Business Model for 2019–2020
To recap, when mapping milestones to the axes, I was trying to account for the following:
Preferable futures <-> More of the same: This axis looks at the project’s alignment with SDGs, the sustainability of the output as a service or product, the ethicality of the project methodology, the clarity of the need if there was a clear positionality on my part or my employer’s, how inclusive the work was of different voices, and lived experiences.
Economic gain <-> Economic loss: This axis loosely looks at the initial cost of the milestone (for instance education tuition) and the financial return on that investment, the pay at the time, the improvement of skills, higher profits / ability to re-invest resources, new opportunity space, new long-term client.
The key takeaway for me is that these mapping activities are extremely personal, non-empirical, tools for self-reflection. It helped me better understand my own internalized decision-making process, the projects I value, why I value them, even if sometimes they felt like knee-jerk moves. In that spirit, it is worth noting that the places I joined where I felt happiest working or studying (ENSCI, nod-A, Quicksand) were all places I had sought out on a hunch. So while it helps comfort my hunches, this activity also helps me reflect on my hunches’ strengths and shortcomings and helps me confront my limited knowledge of what might actually constitute a preferable future and how to attain it.
The dot on the matrix is where I currently stand in time and space, is the start of a slow, frustratingly intangible process, of learning about the work, the activism, the advocacy that has actually brought about the changes that to this day have made our past’s future a little more preferable. It has taken me a surprisingly long time to grow a conscience and learn to value this work as necessary to effectively participate in “helping all humans thrive on Earth for generations to come.”
As a conclusion to this part of the post, I’d like to point out that I’m sure design has a place in the effort of making the world more habitable but it is in no way as central to it as I first thought. In most cases design I’ve found design to be actively involved in making a lot of environmentally, socially, politically deleterious decisions palatable to faceless consumers in the name of short term economic gain. This is in part due to design’s bias for solutioning and its ability to imbue a sense of novelty into anything it touches, for better or worse (ie. Increased accessibility or planned obsolescence). It is therefore crucial that as designers we develop a greater ability to question the political stances behind projects, the willingness to hold oneself accountable to those designing for or with, and to dissociate design from a process of novelty-building. What I am saying is not new, it’s a note to myself, and to whoever hadn’t heard it yet. It’s a message people like Victor Papanek, Tony Fry, Sara Hendren, Sasha Costanza-Chock, Deanna Van Buren have stood by and sharpened over the years so that we might one day come across it.
These three steps of timeline, ranking, mapping, got me to better understand the forces that drive me to do the work I do and where frustrations might lie, and why. As you can see there are plenty of gaps, more to learn, leaving me hungry for more of everything, but perhaps a little less design…
III. Parting thoughts
To conclude this exercise, I’d like to call out a few insightful nuggets that have emerged from it. Yes, these are painted with a broad brush and no, these are not as detailed as they should be but I’ve tried to capture the inflection and tension points revealed by my review of the past three years. At the end of each of them I’ve tried to link a few references that seem to share these reflections.
1 | Accountability starts with asking about the how to your why.
Perhaps this was the central hypothesis of this exercise: “What could a simple anatomical study of my activity over the past three years reveal about myself as a practitioner and individual?”
Calling attention to the value of asking “how” something is done may not come as a breakthrough since customer journeys and diary studies are often at the heart of any good research project. In writing this I am even having flashbacks of the number of times I’ve shown Liz Sanders’ pyramids from her Convivial Toolkit book but perhaps what I am trying to get at is turning to the question of asking “how” not to get to a series of steps on a timeline but also the infinite number of steps not taken, and uncovering why those that were were in fact the steps taken.
In a recent interview Karen Houle highlighted the value of these often underrated interrogative devices: When, where, how. “Where are you a designer? When are you a designer? How are you a designer?” Instead of the more common: “What kind of designer are you? Or why are you a designer?” Not that these questions can’t lead to valuable answers but they all too often limit the answers to cliche values of the designer: to solve problems, to improve life, to create moments of joy.
Unfortunately these platitudes are far from being design-specific, neither are they neutral or accurate, and one sign that my experiment was at least partially successful was how clearly it highlighted my very limited politics, and my need to grow and sharpen my political stance in my work.
Thanks to this exercise, I’ve come to realize that several artists and entrepreneurs I appreciated the most had managed to make this introspection part of their craft. Two distinct examples come to mind. One artist and designer who has time and time again successfully unpacked his practice in insightfully refreshing (and refreshingly insightful) ways is Taeyoon Choi, fusing cooking, skating, programming metaphors, politics into mutually informative introspective artifacts. Another voice who has been creatively investigating the how of innovation and entrepreneurialism is the team behind ZigZag (Anoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant). Their episodes have opened my eyes to the amount of creative problem solving behind entrepreneurialism and the very real stakes of over-glamorized notions like “risk-taking”.
These two examples, however distant from one another, have helped me appreciate the sinuous journeys most indie-minded-but-commercially-viable work require and the politics behind each decision. Every step taken and every decision made is an opportunity to embody or explore one’s own politics and deserves to be recognized as such, be it funding, project pacing, talent management, collaboration, impact metrics.
I really hope to find ways of engaging with more people that are developing their personal accountability for (and to) themselves and those around them as a craft, evolving it, sharpening it. I don’t ever want to have to summarize my political stance, my convictions, through a haphazardly defined “Value” rubric in a personal metrics system again. But I’ve also learned that to acknowledge the gaps between my words and my actions is the only way to set worthwhile targets to cross them. And that while doing so, I now know full well that all along the way I will encounter new unforeseen paradoxes and shaky foundations to my commitments, actions, politics, rationales, and sensibility. This is you, witnessing me, going through this process, however incomplete it might feel.
2 | Meaningful inquiry can not be confined to a project timeline, it’s a life-long project.
My biggest shift in mindset in the past three years has been realizing that I needed to stop relying on client projects to validate spending time researching a topic. The tight timelines and often overrun research teams I was on (and managed) at Quicksand proved to me the importance of cultivating one’s own investigative chops outside of client projects which were too often designed to appear affordable to funders rather than yield valuable insights.
But what are valuable insights? Definitely not just semi-fictionalized “user quotes”, they should hopefully offer a shift in perspective. An emergent pattern that provides a nugget of knowledge that was not available to the team before. But this definition often yields to calling insights what might otherwise be familiarity with a context. One example that struck me was when in preparation for the Limited Energy project, I was reviewing Jan Chipchase’s Field Study Handbook in which he explains the value of laddering by recalling a time when researching the real value of electricity on the Rwandan side of the Democratic Republic of Congo border. In it, there’s a passage where their respondent, a “vibrant and articulate potatoe farmer” bestowed upon them this insight, followed by Jan Chipchase’s analysis:
“Before I travel to see my relatives, I like to iron my clothes. Everyone on the bus can see our village has electricity.” For her access to electricity both served as a personal status symbol and represented the broader social and economic progress she and her community had made.” | Field Study Handbook p.217
So many insights feel, just like this one, like they could often be found in secondary research (although less glamorous than a field visit) or simply the byproduct of becoming aware of contextual nuances of life that could come through training oneself to keep a watchful and inquisitive eye but in no way require a project frame to arrive at. Once I went to conduct my research (in a similarly rural context with limited grid energy access) I was faced with several instances where this notion came up. In hindsight, I wondered if by framing this information as an insight, Jan Chipchase was pandering to his client’s lack of contextual awareness, genuinely surprised, or simply getting away with some good old exotisization.
It is to avoid having to depend on this pseudo-insighting design approach that I hope to turn my research process into a continuous effort that exists outside the bounds of projects. In french, there’s a term for it, conducting a “veille” a sort of standby state. Two great design veilleurs are Nicolas Nova (FR + EN) and Le Trouviste (FR) and their respective newsletters.
Depending on clients to initiate research efforts must therefore stop. Same goes for taking action, I want to more actively learn what tools, services, business models, communities, politics can contribute to making our world livable for all for centuries to come. From what I’ve seen so far, that body of knowledge will develop and mature from fostering a community and educating myself beyond and outside client projects.
As I prepare to pivot my approach to take on a more intentional stance to my work for the years to come, it has become clear to me that what I seek to learn will not fit in cleanly cut chronological increments that match client deadlines or that my interest in these topics can be turned on and off accordingly. Instead they will have to strategically navigate them, with grants, client projects, subscription models? It is clear to me that funding this endeavor will require as much creativity as the solving the problems I hope to tackle will.
As I board upon this journey, a few other artists and designers have shown me another way was possible. Yasaman Rezi for her ability to embed herself into a space that was not expecting her, paving her own way, and thriving in it. Angie Park as well, for making time to get closer to community practices of earthing and birthing that were important to her. Matthew Plummer-Fernandez for showing me what a “more-than-human, software-calculated, becoming-together of […] autonomous and bio-intelligent superorganism” might look like, and Gauthier Roussilhe for giving me a breath of fresh air when I was getting a little burned out at Quicksand and his latest body of work mentioned above.
3 | Community-building is much more integral to my well-being than design is.
One final parting insight has been realizing that what I have enjoyed most in my design practice has been using workshops and design projects as an excuse to meet and collaborate with some really wonderful people.
I love meeting people through these kinds of platforms instead of conferences and alumni networks which make me uncomfortable in their attempts to be “productive but fun” and placing each attendant’s brand before their craft.
I never quite recognized it while freelancing in the US because I was often an outsider to the companies I worked with (or they were too small) but throughout my life as a designer I’ve sought to use design as a means of nurturing friendships and fostering communities. At Art Center I co-founded the DIY club, at nod-A I helped run the Petit Fablab de Paris, at Quicksand I oversaw the skill-sharing (Share-share) Fridays, and since the lockdown I’ve set up Digital Bunkers and Digikat. Each of these groups, (excluding those formed during the lockdown) felt like tacky distractions from work: entertaining detournements of the craft of design, not strategic tools for community building and shared empowerment. Now looking back this is one emergent property my M&E framework was not intended to account for and yet some of my top ranking projects clearly managed to reflect these values through their scores (Udaan, Digital Bunkers, Museomix).
After my experience in India and being so directly confronted with my own privilege and how I had been able to invite myself into this world of social impact, itself shaped by the alluring profits offered by foreign investments, where causes are treated like trends, and the framing of the brief is more important than the outcome of the work, I realized I was reinforcing the status quo. I was maintaining this illusion that it was up to external professionals perched on their educational privilege, to make calls for families they’d never meet again. A context in which the slowness of organizational bureaucracy fantasizes about the elusive thrill of disruption and edginess, with limited regard for the communities they are actually disrupting (instead of serving?).
Don’t get me wrong, the projects I was a part of had their own strategic relevance, innovative traits, but they were too dependent on the institutionalization of philanthropic work and looked a lot like your typical client-consultant relationships rather than locally-contextualized, long-term transformation. This meant my team and I had little say on how these programs were shaped, evolved, or even knowing if the programs were successful, and projects were always at risk of being discontinued when the investors lost interest or governments changed. And it got tiring. The lack of accountability, the lack of control, all of which impacted my ability to form trust-worthy bonds with partners, colleagues, respondents.
So now, I’d like to now focus my efforts on creating networks of individuals that are accountable to each other, learn to voice and reflect on their intent, to form mutually beneficial communal ties that can encourage change and foster mutually beneficial exchanges.
I’ve now been trying to write this piece for close to five months, during which I’ve moved to Europe (Eindhoven, Netherlands), sent an innumerable amount of emails to prospective clients, and had the chance to use new workshops to hone my design philosophy and its relationship to sustainability.
Several times I’ve considered leaving this draft aside but this exercise, if anything, has helped me ground my practice, discover even more people whose work I enjoy, and better convey my intent to future employers. Namely, that I intend to set on a life-project of learning how to create robust safe spaces for rethinking our infrastructures and institutions through the lens of design. Questioning who they serve, how they work, their possible synergies, the affordances they offer, the futures they prevent, challenging their inherent biases. A long project, made of a million smaller stepping stones, but as good of a navigational axis as any.
It actually aligns pretty well with this quote from from Tony Fry’s Defuturing: A new design philosophy I’d like to use to complement Ehrenfeld’s definition of sustainability who says:
Sustain-ability […] is ‘the ability to sustain.’ That is to say the ability to constantly learn, work on, and improve that which is vital.
I hope that this can be my guiding design motto, cultivating, growing, nurturing a practice of helping others (human or otherwise) live and thrive on a planet with its own pace and harmonies.