38. Democratize Design

Democratizing design

I blame Target for the perception that Design = luxury.  Recently, the organization has sought to shift from typical big box store, to distinctly different from its peers via “design”.  This notion that design is something extra you pay for has translated into it being seen as frivolous.  As this broadens from the material goods that are acquired at big box stores to cities, the consequence of such a perception is dire. Not just for the business of architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning, but specifically, it begs the question, “what is the cost to our cities if we continue to opt out of upfront design?”

While being fiscally conservative isn’t necessarily a bad thing, only looking at upfront costs as we make long term investment decisions for municipalities is folly. The consequence is that the places we live are increasingly unhealthy, burdened with unmanageable costs, and restricted by unnecessary constraints (parking minimums). As noted in the famed design documentary, Objectified, “Arguably, good design should cost less (in the long run)”.  It’s about finding opportunities that are most effective (not just more efficient), and more and more, design is being viewed as a process, not just an end product.

At the same time, because of the perception of design as luxury, often the people who could use design services the most view it as cost prohibitive. Democratization of design refers to the ability to make the benefits of thoughtful design (aesthetics, function, clarity) accessible and affordable.  In the case of public design, it is a much more participatory model, where all citizens are viewed as a stakeholders, unlocking their contextual expertise. This builds more equitable and successful projects.

democratize design 1

Civic hacking is one model of democratizing design.  The hybrid model brings together people from all different backgrounds (not just coders) to solve problems that face communities.  As Tim Brown from IDEO describes, “It puts the tools of design into the hand of people.” He goes on to describe the process of democratizing design further by saying, “When you only have a single, central point of control, you will inevitably get a linear top-down design solution. But if you put the tools of design into the hands of many more people, then you will get something that is emergent and bottom-up.”

For reference, check out Latent Design, who has a much social agenda than most design firms, and Architecture 5Cents, who literally built a company out of just talking to people about design.


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