Brian Gaudio (BEDA 2013) has been traveling to the Dominican Republic every year since 2007 when he was still in high school.
The first time he visited, it was easy for Gaudio to imagine that he and his high school classmates were a crucial part of a serious effort to wipe out hunger in the Caribbean island nation. The group attacked the problem straight on by handing out rice and beans in a city street to anyone who outstretched their hands.
It was only in hindsight, after several follow-up visits, that Gaudio first began regarding that first charity project with some skepticism. “We later learned that (handing out food in the streets) was a very culturally insensitive thing to do,” Gaudio explains. And the more he’s visited, the more he’s learned just how difficult it is to make a positive difference in a country that has cultural mores so different from his own background.
To help him refine his perspective and his skills, Gaudio enrolled in “Design in Difference,” a landscape architecture course in Spring 2011 that deals directly with the issue of designing solutions for other cultures. Developed together and taught by Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture Kofi Boone and Constanza Miranda, a Ph.D. in Design student, the course takes students through readings, exercises and case study presentations by guests that serve to inform (and often humble) the Mr. Fixit impulses that reside within most Westerners.
“As designers, we are quick to identify a design problem and go right into solving it,” Gaudio explains. “This teaches us to take a step back and understand the context of a foreign place.”
For Boone, the course was originally a way to prepare students for study abroad experiences, including the college’s study abroad program in Ghana, which Boone has co-led with Professor of Art + Design Charles Joyner for nearly a decade.
“We were getting good students but we weren’t necessarily giving them the toolkit so they could hit the ground running once they got overseas,” Boone recalls.
But the course was also informed by a wider perspective, a “people-centered design” trend that Boone learned about when he was working on his master’s degree at the University of Michigan in the 1990s.
While doing deep reading for his thesis, Boone came across published work by NC State University College of Design professors Henry Sanoff and Randy Hester that emphasized the importance of culture-centered design. The pair’s thinking and research was in part inspired by William White’s time-lapse photography of city spaces in the 1960s. White’s research pointed out the importance of “behavior mapping” to understand how people actually use spaces. Only then could the landscape architect create useful design.
In other words, Boone says, the principles being covered in “Design in Difference” aren’t just related to design in “developing” or “third-world” countries. Rather, he says, “it’s important for designers to establish a meaningful partnership with the client wherever they end up going.”
Working in a Raleigh neighborhood, for example, may require some methods of engagement that are very similar to working in an overseas culture. This turns out not to be as sexy a mandate as the one that has Westerners solving the problems of remote nations. Recalls Boone: “On the first day, when we told students we weren’t going to focus just on so-called ‘third-world’ countries, we lost half the class.”
But nine students stuck with the course. Boone and Constanza peppered discussions of readings with in-class exercises that focused on interpersonal communication, including body language and posture — important cues in any culture.
For another assignment, students were required to attend a cultural event, such as a wedding, and take extensive notes while focusing on the different players. The exercise was one more way for the designer to get out of his/her head long enough to see things from another point of view, says Boone.
The capstone project of the course requires the students to connect with foreign students through NC State’s Office of International Services and its International Friendship Program (IFP). Students are expected to apply tools from the course in order to get to know their international partner better. Then they are tasked with creating a short video about the interactive experience and report what worked, what didn’t.
Boone admits the overall approach of the course is hardly new. Cultural anthropologists have been using such methods for decades as part of their fieldwork. It’s one reason that the first guest for the course is Dr. Tim Wallace, an NC State associate professor of sociology and anthropology.
For Boone, though, the stakes are a bit higher for designers in the field. “The difference is that often the result of an anthropologist’s research is a book of knowledge. The designer generally has to create a designed deliverable that the people being studied are expected to use.” Because of the deadlines inherent in most design projects, it’s ever more clear that designers need to learn to dive into projects with eyes wide open from the start.
Documenting how a project went — the failures as well as successes — is an added key to making sure the next designer doesn’t fall into the same trap.
Standing back and looking at it, Boone wonders aloud if such training shouldn’t be integrated into all design education.
Constanza Miranda believes it should. A Fulbright Scholar from Chile, Miranda brings quite a bit of cross-cultural design experience to assist Boone in his course teaching. In fact, her focus is what some of have dubbed “design anthropology.”
Prior to coming to the College of Design for her Ph.D., Miranda — the daughter of medical doctors who work in Chile’s public health system — had already traveled or worked extensively in different African countries as well as North and South America and Europe.
She’s seen projects succeed — and not. “You have to think about individual things within the whole system. If you don’t, the project is likely to fail.”
There is also more need for designers to embrace the ethics of engagement — informed consent being just one of those key elements.
What is perhaps the most difficult thing to teach budding designers? “It’s really difficult to teach students to look outside their bubble. They have to realize that they have a lens by which they look at people.” Rather than going into a culture with the mindset of “fixing” things, designers need to establish partnerships.
“It’s all about facilitating empowerment,” says Miranda.
Applying the Principles
Gaudio, a Park Scholar whose scholarship is centered on service learning, will be heading back to the Dominican Republic this summer with a team of NC State students that includes a couple of his Design in Difference classmates. His approach will be far different from that first trip passing out beans and rice.
The group calls itself “Que lo que” or “How are you?” in the local tongue. They will be observing and asking questions. And they’ll be interacting on a very personal level with the people of a single village, living in their homes for two months.
“This time we’re not bringing ‘things.’ We’re bringing ourselves and some research methodologies to understand how the community works.”
One could say the students’ approach is anything but indifferent.
It’s that kind of applied knowledge that Boone hopes will come about in his students as they move into design professions.
“As an outsider, what are the tools and methods and theories that help you rapidly gain an awareness and understanding of a culture, while mitigating your own point of view? A lot of those techniques have not been applied by designers. But all of us should.”
Says Boone: “The designer has to think to himself, ‘I’m not going to be the one using whatever I make. So I need the process to be collaborative.’ ”