The Real Value Add of Design

A few weeks ago, I had a whim.

I wanted to see if I could utilize the local Museum of Design Atlanta for a design education project we’ve been working on. A few emails later, myself and the Spark Corps team were in the office of Executive Director Dr. Laura Flusche. As we discussed our project and our goals, we began a larger discussion on design education and its relevancy in the Atlanta community.

Dr. Flusche began telling us about a design education workshop she had led in a low income school district. From a designer’s stand point, the event had gone fine. The children were somewhat engaged, the teachers were content, and there were no major mishaps. From a designer’s stand point, it also could have gone better. That’s our curse. Things can always be better.

Her team left the school, and returned to the office. Over the course of the next few weeks, Dr. Flusche was shocked with the range of positive feedback she was receiving. Suddenly, she had calls from The Boys and Girls Club Atlanta, The United Way Atlanta, YMCA, and other regional community organizations. All of these groups wanted to talk about her design workshop in the school.

Here’s the thing, though. They didn’t want to talk to her about design. They didn’t want to talk to her about the quality of the outcomes, the rigor of the methodology, or the outlet for creativity. Theses organizations wanted to talk to Dr. Flusche about teamwork, empathy, confidence, and pride.

Designers love design, and rightfully so. I love this career I have chosen, and could go on about all the reasons why designers deserve a place at the table. Yet as the five of us sat around MODA’s table we all took a moment and sat on her words. We had almost 50 years of design experience between us. How had we never seriously considered the benefits of design that were not design related?

The value add of social skills are an untapped aspect that designers need to start using when promoting the value of design. We are excellent at promoting the value of our designs. So, let’s be smarter about how we promote the value design itself. How does design teach children the skills to become leaders in their community? How can design empower groups of young people? How can design build confidence, empathy and compassion in those who need it most?

Countless community organizers, organizations and non profits operate around the country promoting these values. How amazing would it be for designers to lend their skills and expertise to enhance the efficacy and mobility of these groups?

Some food for thought.

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Our own design team brainstorming how to use design as tool for social development
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Walkable Cities and Shouting “Fire!” in a Crowded Theater

The phrase “shouting fire in a crowded theater” was coined in the 1919 Supreme court case of Schenck v. United States. In this case, Justice Holmes makes in his analogy that the protest of the WWI draft by Charles T. Schenck was akin to shouting fire in a crowded theater. In other words, it was the creation of unnecessary panic. To quote the indelible Wikipedia:


“Holmes wrote of falsely shouting fire, because, of course, if there were a fire in a crowded theater, one may rightly indeed shout “Fire!”; one may, depending on the law in operation, even be obliged to. Falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, i.e. shouting “Fire!” when one believes there to be no fire in order to cause panic, was interpreted not to be protected by the First Amendment.”


Over the past week, I have been muddling over this phrase and its function. If Holmes is correct, then we should assume that false claims are careless. This I can agree to. But as designers, could it also be argued that we make false claims on a regular basis. The livelihood of many designers relies on their ability to stir a frenzy and need in the masses. In fact, many professions rely on this. From politicians and journalists to advertisers and lobbyists, these parties thrive off of bringing order to disorder but are often the creates of the disorder in the first place. That’s what makes them good at their jobs.

How, then, do we distinguish from a farce and the truth? When we are surrounded by the next best solution to a problem that didn’t exist in the first place, how do we know when there is a problem in the first place?

This brings me to today. I recently began a summer internship, and will likely be working on a project with the city of Atlanta’s transit department (I’d love to say more, but cant disclose any details yet!). In planning our proposal, the design team met with local designer and transit advocate Alison Tallman.

We talked at length about applicability of good local transit and the public reputation of Atlanta’s current system. Alison turned me on the phrase “Transit Oriented Development,” or TOD, and one of its biggest supporters Jeff Speck. In his TED Talk, Speck eloquently talks about the radical changes that can happen in a city when we start to prioritize people over cars, sidewalks over turn lanes, bus routes over rush hour traffic. He advocates for building centers around transit stations, rather than supporting urban sprawl. In his aptly titled book, “Walkable City” he goes into detail about the revitalization of urban communities and the importance this will have as record numbers of people move back into urban environments.

My research also led me to a talk by former New York City transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan. She echoed Speck’s sentiments and furthered by highlighting examples of New York investing in pedestrian and bike traffic over that of cars. I highly recommend watching both of their talks if you are interested in transit issues.

Commissioner Sadik-Khan and Speck bring up incredible valid concerns and make compelling calls to action. They present a very real need for TOD and support it with substantial research. So, why then, is there not a greater alarm. Who is shouting fire? Perhaps this is the greatest issue. We as a culture are saturated with calls to action. At every turn our attention and heart strings are asked of. Sometimes for very real causes, and sometimes not. Its left to us to wade through the pool of marketing to figure out what is actually a fire, and what is just hot air. Its exhausting and overwhelming.

I truly believe that at the end of the day, the public wants to do the right thing. How then, can design communicate the importance of TOD without overwhelming. How can we empower the residents of  urban communities to advocate for walkable cities, and in turn allow them to live more productive and health lives.

Well, sound the alarm. It’s time to light a fire. We just want to make sure that no one is burned in the process.

Sitting in My Box

I’ve always had a fascination with children’s books. Every time I go to a bookstore, the first place I go after the arts section is the children’s section. Because of this, to my delight and detriment, I have amassed a healthy library of children’s books. A good children’s book is timeless, and has the ability to use whimsy and joy to discuss the harder topics in life. They don’t feel contrived and their subtlety is often too nuanced for its intended audience.

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I was recently in my head, when my mind wandered to the book, “Sitting in My Box” written by Dee Lillegard and first published in 1989. Growing up, this was one of my favorite stories. In this story, a boy sits happily in his box reading a story about wild animals. One by one, he is interrupted from his story by a series of pushy creatures who “ask” to sit in his box, but really just force their way in. By the end, he has no place to sit. When a small flee jumps in, unannounced, the flee begins biting all of the animals, promptly emptying the box. Once again, the boy is alone and able to read his story.

Now, what does this story have to do with design? Well, a lot, actually. Almost 26 years later, I think I understand what this book is trying to say. Granted, this is sort of a leap, but just go with me, here.

We go into a design project with a clear objective. We have a plan. We have a design brief. We have a task list. One by one, however, we become side tracked, demanded of, burdened with the requests and wants of others. We are “asked” to help someone with a favor, to just do one more rewrite of a paper, to dig just a little deeper into that concept you don’t want to dive into. Before we know it, we are surrounded by the unfamiliar, and our original objective is lost in the white noise of everyone else’s needs.

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Trying to make room for those around us, we have given up our seat at the table. We are no longer able to perform the task we set out to do.

Now, I am not saying that we shouldn’t offer our services and skills to others. I will always praise the importance of service. What I am saying, however, is that we need to recognize when we are being valued versus when we are being over taxed and taken advantage of. We have skills, and those skills have a value assigned to them.

The flea? Well, the flea is our recognition of this value. When we are able to advocate for ourselves as designers and professionals, we can objectively evaluate the tasks in our lives and cut out the clutter. Sometimes, the flea is a smack over the head. Other times, it builds gradually, slowly revealing itself.

That being said, I’m still looking for my flea. This past week has been a slew of conflicting demands—personal, professional and academic. One thing pulls me north, while the other pulls me south. My box is full and I don’t know where I put my book. I need the flea to jump in put everything in perspective for me.

That being said, I’ll let you know when I do.