Design Ethics and Global Waste

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In one my my courses, we recently had a lecture on design ethics. We looked at a range of design organizations including IDSA and ICSID, looking at their articles as well as looking for gaps. We were then instructed to create our own code of ethics as designers.

Not too shortly after this lecture, I came across the article Inside the Hellscape Where Our Computers Go to Die  written by in WIRED. In this article, he describes Agbogbloshie, Ghana, a dump for electronics that are burned and set to waste away. It’s a chilling and humanizing view on the impact our consumption is contributing to the global waste stream.

These are our computers, our iPhones, our tablets and our smart devices. Not only as consumers, but as designers, I strongly believe that it should be within the ethics of our conscious to consider topics such as this. How do we, as designers, better design for disassembly? How do we create humane working conditions for the workers mining and dissembling these minerals? And how could we, rather than ignore our contribution to cycles of poverty, empower these communities?

This is a big issue, and I know that there are countless amazing people working around the globe to answer these questions. But its time that designers come to the table and not only acknowledge our part in the process, but use design thinking to solve these issues.

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Let’s Talk About Periods…and User Experience

No, gentlemen, I am not talking about grammar. I am talking about the necessary evil and paradoxically beautiful event necessary for creating life. But before you get your undies in a bunch, and run from this page as fast as you can grunt, “Super Bowl Sunday,” let me give you a little back story. This week, I was on Facebook when one of my favorite sites for girls empowerment, A Might Girl, featured a story about Arunachalam Muruganantham. A lower-middle class Indian man, Muruganantham was shocked one day to find that his wife was continually choosing between purchasing food for their family and purchasing sanitary pads.
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Rather than purchase sanitary devices, his wife and many other women globally resort to using rags, leaves, grass, hay, and even mud to prevent embarrassment. In many parts of the world, access to basic hygiene is a luxury, and specifically with regards to female health. These alternative methods lead to a host of UTIs and vaginal infections, all which are easily preventable. To add another layer of complexity, the lack in access to hygiene devices causes girls to routinely miss school, and makes it difficult for women to hold steady jobs.

Muruganantham, like many men, was shocked by this realization. He began tinkering with a host of low cost designs and prototypes, and at one point began wearing his inventions himself (with the aid of goats blood!) because finding women to were willing to test them was so difficult. Currently, Muruganantham’s products are manufactured in over 1,300 villages and 23 Indian states, as well as employing as many as 10 women in each village. In 2014, Time Magazine named him one of The 100 Most Influential People.

I took a step back, and thought about his work through the lens of the industrial designer. User experience is an increasingly important aspect of design. If we don’t understand how our client thinks, acts and what they experience, there will always be a disconnect no matter how strong the product is. Companies like IDEO have near-perfected this model, and countless others have provided supporting material. But what do we do when the user wont engage with the development process? In the case of Muruganantham, there was a very real and critical need. He had to bring “User Experience” to a whole new level, literally putting himself in the position of the client in order to bring a viable product to market.

I was also enamored by the idea of a man with no formal education or exposure to design methods using a principle that is still being explored in the design field to a whole new height. It reminded me of a similar story published in 2013 in which in Jorge Odón, an Argentinian car mechanic, invented a life saving device for emergency births.

While part of me reads these stories and thinks, “Why am I in design school again?” the other part of me is inspired by these inventors and further affirms my belief that to be a good designer you need to have a strong understanding of the world you want to design. Being able to wade through the endless sea of design methodologies and diagrams will only get you so far. You need to actually understand the problem you are addressing. This should be common sense, right, but I seem to be finding this isn’t always the case.

With this in mind, I leave you with a quote I heard from Dan Formose of Smart Design, New York in the documentary Objectified. He stated, “What we really need to do to design is look at the extremes. The weakest, or the person with arthritis, or the athlete, or the fastest, or the strongest person. Because if we undersand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself.” In the case of Muruganantham and Odón, they looked at the extreme. They saw a problem, learned about the user, and worked tirelessly to solve it. The rest, as Formose, stated, took care of itself.

This is Your Brain on Grad School

I think its safe to say that almost everyone who was alive in the 90s remembers the “This is your brain on drugs” PSA where the woman cracks an egg into a hot skillet and we watch in horror as our poor brain is cooked to a pulp. Replace the word “drugs” with “graduate school” and you essentially have the same idea.

This past week has been a dizzying string of deadlines, deliverables, lectures, and exams. Hardly a month in, I was already feeling the same level of intensity that I didn’t feel until finals time last semester. My biggest priority became checking as many things off of my to-do list as possible. The more and more I did this, the less joyful and inspired I felt.

This changed when the other day I was flipping through an old issue of Marie Claire. No, I was not leisurely absorbing the latest spring fashions (if only!). Instead, I was finding images that would become part of an interactive products assignment. While my primary goal was to find images of vintage women’s fashion, my eyes stopped when I turned the page and saw a LifeStraw accompanied by the ostentatious title 6 Simple Ways to Save the World.

Having exposure in the nonprofit and development sector, LifeStraw was nothing new to me. Why, though, was it in Marie Claire? The brief article went on to describe incredible, simple innovations for promoting positive change in the lives of women and girls around the world. In addition to LifeStraw, it highlighted Q Drum, clean cook stoves, a cervical cancer screening test with vinegar, natural pads for schoolgirls, and rural birthing kits.

I sat for a moment and took the article in. As I looked at the pages, I suddenly remembered why I wanted to be an industrial designer. These products were not new to me. In fact, I remember being just 18 when I first learned about Q Drum. But these products were significant to me for a range of personal and professional reasons. Revisiting them in Marie Claire was a wake up call for me, aggressively reminding me why I was here in Atlanta. These were the i-pods of the development world, and the preeminent example of the kinds of products I wanted to design. Being a part of the global development community has always been a goal of mine. I won’t hide the fact that I am an idealist, nor will I suppress my desire to make truly impactful designs that will improve the lives of women and girls, globally (as goody-goody as that may sound).

I still have a long way to go, however, and my current skill set will be of no use to anyone until I put in the time to work on it. Seeing this article was a breath a fresh air, and the jolt of inspiration I so desperately needed to keep moving. So, while I may not be ecstatic about every assignment, and there might be some nights that I want to pull my hair out, I need to be conscious about putting things into perspective and remembering my end goal.