I was in a design study group with some designers in South Korea three years ago. Because we were influenced by the exhibition Design For The Other 90%, which dealt with some products and services designed for mostly the third world countries, we took lectures from guests who provided assistance with Africans in design. However, some problems were revealed soon. One of them was that we had no idea what was going on in Africa! At that moment, our feeling was this. “We want to help them with good intention, but why is it so difficult?”
Then, I recently read Bruce Nussbaum’s article, Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?, which gave the biggest impact and enlightenment to me l. He described that young designers want to do humanitarian design because their value system is into doing good globally. On top of that, he claimed American and European designers need to consider whether their work might toward the colonial legacies of the countries they want to do good or not. He questioned there are not only Asia and Africa, but also American rural areas to do humanitarian design. This article gave me the opportunity to rethink the reason why I came to the US. Because one of my purposes was to join American designers who are designing for the third world countries. I believe I was exactly one of the young designers that Nussbaum mentioned. Moreover, the issue he brought up could be the answer to the question my study group raised. Why did my group not think about the rural area in my country to carry out the beneficial design for the people living there?
Africa is the target of help for Western people as well as Koreans. I’ve seen that numerous relief organizations in my country are working in Africa. Various media have broadcasted celebrities who volunteered in Africa. I am totally affirmative that media plays an important role to influence other people on paying attention to social issues. However, the way of spreading awareness might raise the unexpected problem. For instance, they tend to provoke excessive sympathy, which ends up with making us superior to those to get help. In reality, some broadcast production teams have manipulated the scenes of Africans into more pathetic to stimulate the audience. Africans have already become the most pitiful group in the world.
I don’t want to judge a warm-hearted intention for the human being that humanitarian designers have. It is definitely the motivation to do good design. However, if it was coming from sympathy instead of empathy, then they need to reconsider their actions. In retrospect when I was in the study group, I had a partially sympathetic mind. I thought I understood them, but the level of understanding was superficial. In my mind, there was a thought that it is worth designing for helping the poorest people in Africa rather than those in my country where I grew up. On the other side, there was another thought that takes credit to me for finding the most marginalized and saving their lives, well, in a sense that the favor may be necessary for designers. Yet, I should’ve considered the people in my country first, even though they are relatively less suffering from financial problems than Africans. They also need help. They may be the ones far from being helped in a blind area. As a designer, I believe it would be much easier to design for the people under the same culture and language with me.
I felt a kind of guilt at first when I read the article, but now, I decided to start thinking positively. Moving to the US to do something great—and leaving the people in Korea— may look like an impure intention, but at least it was a good chance to brace my thought about many people as a design target. I have no doubt that learning how to pay attention to others around me and how to not prioritize the level of difficulties would be a strong foundation for my future work as a designer.
- Images from http://shop.cooperhewitt.org/p/1364/Design-for-the-Other-90
- This essay is also published at http://sds.parsons.edu/transdesign/seminar/who-are-the-most-marginalized/