Sunday, 23 November 2014

Communications in design

Much of my career is based on communications, or as I like to understand it, on people. The social aspect of sustainability has always been my main area of interest, and it would seem that this is catching on.

Discussions on sustainability have so often been focused on material aspects (the integral design of a system or an object) and on politics (the regulatory system). These are without doubt important aspects but they are the extremes of a discussion pole: the technical precision of design and the strategic oversight of law. And yet, in the middle, there's a rather large entity which only ever seems to figure as an add-on: the users, the communities, the staff, the stakeholders. The people.

I contend on a daily basis with people who think this social aspect is "wishy-washy", a bid to seem reputable in the face of prying eyes or a PR stunt. And admittedly, communications can be all of the above. But in the world of sustainability, it is two-way communications which makes the success or failure of any project.

In his very interesting talk  on participatory design, Alejandro Aravena sums up the purpose of communications and engagement very neatly:

"Participatory design is not a hippie, romantic, let's-all-dream-together-about- the-future-of-the-city kind of thing. [...] It is actually not even [...] trying to find the right answer. It is mainly trying to identify with precision what is the right question. There is nothing worse than answering well the wrong question."

Indeed, it's no easy task either. Suddenly you're dealing less with logic than you are with emotion, personal desires and somewhat selfish outlooks. In Alejandro's example of a favela-like development, designers worked to understand from the early stages of planning (a key point in itself) what communities wanted, what they needed, and what could be worked to within resource constraints. The results have a beautiful simplicity to them, the kind that makes you think: 'oh yeah that makes sense, I can work with that.' And that is sustainability in a nutshell... logical.

At the end of the day, sustainability needs to be centered on the people who will ultimately be living it. Design needs to be practical to the end-user and policies or strategies need to be approachable. Otherwise success will only be short-lived.   

I would recommend watching his TED talk which you can find here. It's an inspiring look at some impressive and purpose-built designs.