The goal of this blog is to tell stories that make development accessible. With this in mind, I recently approached my friend Justin to see if he would would do a guest post. He promptly refused, instead suggesting that we have a conversation about development and design; inspired by authors like these. I have been significantly challenged by the exchange, I hope you will be, too.
Full Disclosure: we edited this a bit after to make a conversational flow.
Justin Barber: I was moved by your blog and wanted to support you somehow so I “contributed” by making an unsolicited logo. At its core, this behavior is problematic because I didn’t solve a problem you actually had. Even if it was a problem you had, I didn’t solve it properly because I didn’t consult you at all. In this case my actions were harmless – at worst you don’t like the logo and are using it out of guilt because we’re friends – but I’m curious how this pattern of uninformed action connects to development where the stakes are much higher.
Jacob Winter: I think one of the things misunderstood about development is the amount of thought that has to go into any kind of intervention. To just whip something up because a problem moves you is extremely dangerous, both for the people you intend to help and for yourself. It’s much harder to take the time to recognize the expertise of the people you’re working with, their needs and ideas. The best development is not externally imposed but collaborative and locally owned.
I feel like this might connect with your experience working with clients – how do you balance their needs and knowledge with your expertise? It must be painful to hear their ideas sometimes, but ignoring them would probably be even worse.
JB: I balance my client’s needs with my expertise by asking a lot of questions throughout the creative process. But I’ve learned that my questions are only as valuable as my understanding of the client’s answers. For example, I asked a recent client what they wanted their logo to feel like and they responded “classic.” I thought that meant “vintage,” but it turned out “classic” meant “not using a rounded font.”
I feel like that’s the primary cause of project failure – not necessarily acting without knowledge (putting out a grease fire with water), but rather acting with misinformed knowledge (we send a police car when it should’ve been a fire truck). TOMS is a classic example of this failure and what I suspect makes development and true social good so hard, it seems we often try to develop black and white solutions to grey problems.
JW: A quote I’ve heard is: “There are no black and white answers to technicolour questions”. Unrelatedly, have you heard of Godwin’s law? What do think about Mycoskie’s Law…that every conversation about development will eventually reference TOMS? It’s a lightning rod, but I can’t help but take the bait.
I have a friend who spent last year in El Salvador living with a host family. Halfway through the year, the son in her family received a pair of TOMS. They didn’t fit right and he never wore them, so eventually he gave them to my friend! It turns out that this isn’t uncommon. TOMS critics argue that free shoes disrupt local markets, but they did research on it, and found that the market impacts were statistically insignificant. Key to the study was another surprising fact: of 1,492 children studied, only 2 didn’t own shoes! “When we observed children or adults walking barefoot, we learned that it was rarely because they didn’t own a pair of shoes, but instead because they preferred to walk barefoot.” In this case TOMS weren’t hurting anybody, they were simply missing the point.
JB: Well, I guess you can let your development friends know that whoever bet on “first response” for how quickly I’d bring up TOMS can collect their money now. My only consolation from unwittingly lobbing up such a softball is that you took the bait so hard you nearly stumbled over yourself in excitement.
TOMS may have missed the point in doing effective social good, but they absolutely nailed effective branding. They understood the need to parse a complex issue into a simple message if they wanted to 1) grab the public’s attention and 2) gain traction. That’s why their motto, “one for one,” is genius. In just three words you know exactly what they do and you have a cause to believe in. That’s why you don’t wear TOMS because of how they look (you can get the same pair of canvas shoes for half the price – shoutout to BOBS), you wear them because they say “I’m socially conscious and incredibly trendy, I’m able to do good while maintaining my status.” Ironically, TOMS wouldn’t have been commercially successful without their bungled, albeit harmless, attempt at social good.
JW: TOMS style development (top-down, us-and-them) is referred to as “hylomorphic”. On the other side, there’s participatory development, where the entire project is designed and owned by the local people. Most people trash hylomorphism as paternalistic while promoting participation as the gold standard. However, there’s a professor at the University of Nottingham named Trevor Parfitt who wrote an article that admitted the failures of hylomorphism, but also foregrounded all the critiques of participation – it falls prey to local elites capturing all the benefits, or the project dies for lack of momentum. Parfitt argued that instead of an either/or approach to doing development, we need a both/and. I think this is key.
JB: I’ll build on that and say you must get not only the method but also the message right in order to make an effective impact, or else it’s awash. TOMS got one out of two right. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was two for two but lacked sustainability, which is the third hurdle. Two-for-twoers with sustainability are rare, but organizations like Clothe Your Neighbor as Yourself are proof that you can be both socially and commercially successful.
JW: Yeah I took the bait on TOMS, but how about this: TOMS is to development as Comic sans is to design. Easy to hate on, ubiquitous, misunderstood. Here’s my true confession though – whenever I see any kind of campaign for social good that is accompanied by really slick design, I’m suspicious. As I write this, I’m trying to figure out why: First, I assume a tradeoff. If someone spent so much of their resources on making a website, surely they haven’t put enough into funding the project. Data like this confirm my suspicions.
JB: I’m going to call you out on referencing those pharmaceutical stats as proof that spending more on marketing than product means they don’t put enough money into funding their project – correlation does not necessarily imply causation there. Perhaps the value placed on design is necessary to bring in enough funding, awareness, and value to continue their project?
JW: You have me nailed. Can we appreciate the irony that I cited an infographic and you called me out on a correlation-causation fallacy?
JB: I applied the right fallacy and you used “irony” correctly, is that the sound of AP English paying off? No? Just silence? I guess that’s because I had to Google “list of fallacies.”
As you’ve pointed out, good design is expensive. But the impact of good design for social causes can bring legitimacy and awareness without costing millions, or anything at all, like in the case of TUSK. So why aren’t more design companies donating their time and expertise for social good? Because there’s no money in it, they have to actually care about the cause they’re designing for.
JW: The second reason I am suspicious of a lot of development marketing is that I am wary of oversimplification. In development, things are complicated. I am doing research right now on irrigation in Ethiopia, and I’ve parsed through a dozen peer reviewed journal articles, 3 World Bank reports and the Ethiopian government’s 5 year plan. This stuff is the opposite of user friendly. Svelte websites don’t communicate the complexities of the problem.
But if I’m going to assert that development is more than transferring money/stuff to poor people, I should maybe consider that design is more than making nice looking websites.
JB: You’re weary of oversimplification because it’s your job to embrace complexity in order to succeed. You know who else requires embracing insane levels of complexity to succeed? The President of the United States. You know who won the last two elections? The guy with the three word slogan “Yes we can.” You know who thought it sounded too corny? The guy who understood the complexity. You know who loved it? American voters. Politicians are all about what they’re going to do; Obama came in and appealed to the why. Voting for him meant you had hope.
The public is not too stupid to understand complexity, but it is humanly impossible to understand or care about the myriad social issues of the world. We’re depending on you to read through peer reviewed articles, reports, and government plans to fix irrigation in Ethiopia because we can’t (or don’t care). What we can do is help, but before we can help we have to care. And how, in a world where People magazine made $997 million in revenue in 2011, do you make us care about anything other than ourselves or Kim Kardashian? I’ll give you a hint: it doesn’t involve me reading hundreds of pages of dense documents to understand what the problem is in Ethiopia or what you’re going to do to solve it. It sucks, but it’s the truth. For me to care, you need to give a why. If I believe in your why, I’ll dig deeper into the what.
JW: I was at a panel last week where there were two representatives from a major NGO that allows you to sponsor children in developing countries. (Hint, the one you think of second after World Vision). One had his ear pierced, hair shaved at the sides with a smart looking grey button up. The other had a droopy mustache and was sporting a North Face fleece. The first was from marketing, the other from projects.
Someone asked them why they focus on kids. The project guy started talking about how the programs actually benefit the entire family, but kids are strategic as a long term investment into a community. The marketing guy jumped in and confessed that, ultimately, pictures of children are going to bring in more money. There’s a tension there.
They then shifted to discussing the challenge of aligning their activities in a way that was neither disingenuous nor ineffective. It meant informed, respectful marketing and excellent field operations. What got me was that despite their widely divergent skills and positions, they had the same goal: to help impoverished children.
I think that real sustainability comes from not just nailing the design or the development, but somehow aligning them under some bigger goal.
JB: The role of design is not disingenuous or sleazy. It’s not a poster of a starving African child with big type that says “DONATE TODAY” or a beautiful logo or svelte website. Good design comes from a place of authenticity, it’s role is to give why a voice, and I think that’s the “bigger goal” that you’re saying we have to align under in order to succeed. Otherwise, you’re still struggling to find funding to save lives while I lose more and more empathy with every obscene Silicon Valley paycheck.
JW: At the core of my defensiveness is this driving fear that I think is all too pervasive in development: What if I don’t make a difference?
The truth is that development is neither value free nor inherently good. The huge backlash around sending losing Super Bowl t-shirts to developing countries epitomises this. There is massive pressure that says that the goal of doing good is not good enough. Yes, handing out shirts might improve people’s lives; but is it the best use of the money you’ve received? With limited resources, you can’t settle for social good, you must pursue social best. If you’re Obama, winning 61.6% of the votes is success. If you’re vaccinating children, 61.6% is abject failure. The first minute of this video explains the dilemma well. Starting with why is important, but without a solid what/how you’ve just gotten people to buy into something useless. I wouldn’t care how pretty my OS is if it’s super slow and the software glitches.
That said, I realise that there is tremendous value in making things friendly and easy. The economist I talked about in a previous post wrote “Any third rate engineer or researcher can increase complexity, but it takes a certain flair of real insight to make things simple again”. Reading through your last email, I was challenged by the Obama example. To be successful in development, I need to be able to understand complex problems, but also communicate them in a way that is relevant. Neither oversimplified nor overcomplicated. I need to face my fear of not helping everyone a lot in order to help someone at all. It sounds awfully simple here, but that’s a pretty deep realisation for me.
Doing development means somehow celebrating marginal successes while simultaneously mourning massive tragedies. It is a both/and endeavor, one that requires insight and action. I suppose that’s where design and development meet – in communicating complex problems in a way that invites participation in change.
JB: I recently heard self-proclaimed troubadour Jason Webley tell the winding tale of how he pieced together clues completely from chance to preserve the fascinating story of Margaret Rucker. After working so hard to preserve the memory of this woman’s life, Jason couldn’t help but wonder how Margaret would’ve felt about it, and ultimately, how he would feel if he was the one being memorialized. At the end of his presentation he performed the song where he confronts these thoughts, and it was the last line that hit the hardest: Will it please me when someone lights a candle and says my name?
We live in constant fear that we’re insignificant. What if I don’t make a difference? isn’t your unique question to development, it’s written on each of our hearts. Our desire to make that difference is inherently good, but we’ve come to believe that making a difference (either positive or negative) only registers on a grandiose, global scale. We measure how much we matter in direct proportion to how much we’re remembered, how much other people know about us. I don’t think that’s always right because that measuring stick is derived from the wrong source: ourselves.
As poetic as it is, my answer to Will it please me when someone lights a candle and says my name? is no. But, as we’ve learned, questions are only as valuable as their answers. And to understand my answer you need to know that I believe the world was created and broken out of intimate relationship and that’s how we’ll build it back up. We’ll make a difference not by millions at a time, but by ones. The last line of my song will be neither oversimplified or overcomplicated, but a gentle Did I share your burden?
Justin Barber is a Visual Designer at Google. You can find more of his work here.