May 21, 2019

co-design and criticism

Here’s Victor Papanek in 1971 on the limits of co-design or “user testing” as it was commonly practiced in his day. It sounds so much like the present—from its location of the problematic dynamics, to the roles played, to his openly snarky derision about the common emptiness of the process itself that it’s hard to believe nearly 50 years have passed. I’m still involved in teaching the basics of user-oriented design for engineering students that are an attempt to correct for these ills, and here it is plainly laid out in Design for the Real World.

In order to work more intelligently, the whole practice of design has to be turned around. Designers can no longer be the employee of corporations, but rather must work directly for the client group—that is, the people who are in need of a product.

At present the role of the designer as an advocate does not exist. A new secretarial chair, for instance, is designed because a furniture manufacturer feels that there may be a profit in putting a new chair on the market. The design staff is then told that a new chair is needed, and what particular price structure it should fit into.

At this stage, ergonomics (or human factors design) is practiced and the designers consult the libraries of vital measurements in the field. Unfortunately, most secretaries in the United States are female, and more human factors design data, also unfortunately, are based on white males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five…the data have been gathered almost entirely from draftees inducted into the [military branches]. Aside from some interesting charts in Henry Dreyfuss’s Designing for People, there simply exist no data concerning really measurements and statistics of women, children, the elderly, babies, the deformed [sic], etc.

At any rate, based on a manufacturer’s hunch that a new secretarial chair might sell, substantiated by extrapolating and interpolating the measurements of Dutch pilots during World War II, and fleshed out by whatever stylistic extravaganzas the designer performs, the prototype chair is now ready. Now begins the consumer testing and market research. Stripping this research of all the mystical clap-trap supplied to it by the snake-oil brigade from Madison Avenue, this means that a few chairs are either tested or sold under highly controlled circumstances. They may, for instance, be sold through a leading department store in six “test cities.” … Stores in which such testing is carried on are usually the leading shops or department stories in their line, catering to a white middle-class audience. So much for market research.

…When we work as a cross-disciplinary team to design a better chair for secretaries, who are we designing for? Certainly the manufacturer wants to build secretarial chairs only to sell them and make money. The secretary herself must be part of our team. And when the chair is finished, there must be real testing! Nowadays an “average” secretary is usually asked to sit in the new chair, sometimes even for five minutes, and then asked, “Well, what do you think?” When she replies, “Gee, the red upholstery is real different!” we take this for assent and go into mass production. But typing involves eight hours a day, long stretches of work. And even if we test secretaries intelligently on these chairs, how can we see to it that it is the secretaries themselves who make the decision as to which chair is bought? Usually that decision is made by the boss, the architect, or (God save us) the interior decorator.

Papanek’s transparent paternalism notwithstanding, you can see why this book was so widely read—its indignance is so lucid and unvarnished. He called out the industrial design profession for practicing what he called “Do It Yourself Murder.” What’s more interesting still is how nearly-there Papanek’s insight was about how it’s people with disabilities who have understood and articulated his complaints best—ergonomics and misfit bodies and the unyielding structures of so much of the designed world. It’s nearly there but not, because that articulation has been happening by disabled people and since before Papanek’s time. Bess Williamson, in Accessible America, reads Papanek’s insight as sympathetic, but ultimately ahistorical:

Papanek [and other socially-engaged designers] revealed a design profession eager to explore and appropriate the experience of disabled people for their own learning, but they gave no indication of an awareness of a disability rights movement or other accessible design advocacy… Their emphasis on the benefit of disability awareness “for us” countered the arguments of the period that access was too expensive to justify, but it also left unexamined the marginal status of disabled people as well.

This is a tension I’m facing as I write my own book, which is a translational work, a trade book written in large part for nondisabled people to understand how design works in everyday life—and how a social model of disability is meted out and negotiated in the form of built stuff at every scale, with implications for everyone. It’s not an argument for so-called “universal design,” and it’s not a plea for good design that will benefit “everyone” and therefore be justifiable as a field of research and expense to accrue.

It’s reportage and analysis of adaptation in the human body when it meets the designed world—the way bodies and objects operate in a multidirectional riot of interaction, alternately with clunky hurdles and balletic grace and diminishments and real discovery. But adaptation is at the center, and I’m reporting on the experiences of disabled people as the source and resource of the extended body-with-things. So it’s gratifying to re-read Papanek with Williamson’s critique in mind, and to take up the challenge of weaving together socially-minded design practice and the creative ingenuity of disability as adaptation.

(I am reading widely in disability studies, but it’s impossible to read everything. If there are particular disability sources who engage adaptation in rich theoretical ways, I’d love to hear from you!)