Normativity and Design


Story: During a debate about the future importance of design–but not Designers–an audience member raised her hand. She was a designer from Peru. “I have to interrupt,” she said, “because I sense that you’re ignoring the degree to which design is already happening in a substantive, vibrant way in, for example, Peru. Peru doesn’t need the West to come in and ‘save it,’ because its capable of saving itself.” The audience broke out in applause.

There’s something unappealing about the perspective that the developed world has the means to enter a problematic situation in the undeveloped world and generate otherwise unattainable solutions. The Way of the Developed World (hereafter WdW) is thought by many to be a kind of magic bullet. It has the brains, money, time, power, etc. at its disposal which the rest of the world lacks. How could rural villagers in Turkmenistan possibly come up with a solution for showering without indoor plumbing to rival that from a team of thinkers from IDEO or Frog Design? They’re outmatched.

It’s not atypical to hear this sort of thinking challenged. Things that resemble imperialistic thinking tend to invite dissent, which is a good thing. Much less often, one might hear that it would do those Turkmenistani villagers well to consider the WdW rather than write it off in an attempt to maintain the integrity of their ways of thinking and doing. This perspective accuses those who would challenge the WdW of the very thing that it has become so well known for: remaining closed off to other ways of thinking/doing and idolizing its own.

Recall the Peruvian dissenter. She presses on the suitedness of the WdW to “save Peruvian design from itself.” The perspective described in the previous paragraph frames her dissent as (1) unwilling to acknowledge the potential value of the WdW and (2) stubborn in its adherence to local ways of thinking and doing. Why shouldn’t she at least consider that the developed world has something to offer? This is a rhetorical question. I’m not seriously asking it because I see in it some fundamental flaws.

  1. It implies social and/or economic equality which is, in reality, nonexistent, and
  2. It implies that the developed world is willing to hear dissent/challenges and, in the unlikely event that valid opposition manifests, it is willing to recognize superiority from an(other).

Multiplicity of perspectives matters, but cultural hegemony should give us pause. Science is dependent on the scientist. Philosophy on the philosopher. Logic on the logician. And interpretation on the interpreter. Objectivity is chimerical…

[Work in progress. To be continued…]

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