What Constitutes Good Design?
Photo — Francisco Cortés
Written by Louis Harnett O’Meara
In spring 2022, we headed to Mexico City with an ambitious question — how we can shift the design paradigm beyond human-centered design? Here are some of the insights we took home.
In a time of an accelerating climate crisis and rising inequality, how can we design our way to a better tomorrow? To create a platform for gathering and listening to diverse perspectives, we asked people from multiple fields to help us shape our Mexico City Pop-Up program.
Across talks, exhibitions and workshops, we re-examined design in collaboration with institutions like Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and Ibero CdMx, organisations like Isla Urbana, colectivo amasijo and What Design Can Do, studios like Niños Heroes and Forensic Architecture, and local and global design thinkers such as Mario Ballesteros, Kara Pecknold and Seetal Solanki. These experts guide the learnings and rememberings we carry forward. So, what constitutes good design in this day and age?
‘I like to think — and also to invite others to think — that design does not exist.’
Mariana Balderas was tired of being told that ‘a juice squeezer was the sort of thing we should be making’ while studying industrial design at UNAM. For her, good design addresses real problems. And we agree.
Balderas grew up amid Mexico City’s multifaceted water crisis. The capital experiences regular flooding due to heavy rainfall. ‘But it’s also a city that struggles with a lack of drinking water,’ she says. In her work creating rainwater harvesting systems with Isla Urbana, Balderas approaches design as a tool to address human needs, rather than human wants. And to find ways ‘to understand water not as a resource, but as an entity that has the right to be,’ she says. We find this shift particularly interesting at this moment — how designers can move from designing for individuals to designing with communities to designing with respect for an entire ecosystem.
Co-founder of IAM Andres Colmenares echoes this consideration of designing with responsibility to both people and the planet. ‘I think it’s better to understand design as a verb, as the practice of decision-making — in many cases, on behalf of billions of humans and with implications for other forms of life,’ he says. ‘Good designing is designing for common good.’
Interconnected, equitable systems
Design should no longer be product-focused but systems-oriented — the aesthetics of design lie in the relationships within a system. ‘Whenever we design a product, we are designing a system,’ says Nanette Weisdal, an innovation deployment manager at IKEA in Mexico, who works to make the company more sustainable.
Weisdal says it’s essential for designers to leave the comfort of their studio and understand a product’s entire journey — from seeing where materials come from and their surrounding ecologies, to meeting the people who farm a material or make a product, and truly knowing what’s possible for a product’s second life.
‘I encourage designers to go on-ground and see how their products are made and disposed of,’ Weisdal says.
She stresses that when she has done this, she’s learned that there are always better ways for IKEA to design — from making an item easier to recycle to improving working conditions for those who make it. Designers need to take responsibility for the entire system and being on-ground is where the insights happen. Good design is the sum of the decisions made in the process of creating a system.
And the system needs to be equitable. That’s what Nancy Douyon has put into practice working as a design ethicist for large tech companies, including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. Douyon is brought in to help companies better understand residents in the low- and middle-income countries they design products for.
‘I persuaded executives at Uber to let drivers take cash payments in India. They were reluctant at first; they thought that drivers would get robbed if they carried cash on them,’ she says, laughing. ‘How do you think people get by all the time? It’s a cash economy!’ After allowing cash payments in 2015 on Douyon’s advice, India soon became Uber’s biggest market. Then she went to Mexico and secured Uber’s second-biggest market by having conversations with drivers about their needs.
Inclusivity and sustainability are not just something nice to have, but should be at the core of everything we do. Douyon’s work shows that by designing in ways that account for how people actually live, companies can become both fairer and more inclusive — and more profitable. While creating a more ethical business can have a lot of up-front costs, ‘it’s more efficient and therefore cheaper in the long run,’ Weisdal agrees. ‘For instance, if we create products that last, our customers will stick with us for generations.’ She’s also aware that there is plenty more for IKEA to discover by talking with people in its new markets.
‘In Mexico, people fix their goods. They reuse, repair, and recycle in ways that we struggle to do in northern Europe.’
Every time we design something, we have an opportunity to shape the world to be a bit more like the world we wish to live in. To do so, we need to collaborate and be democratic in our design process by including who we are serving and considering the wider community — both human and our more-than-human neighbours. Good design is a political act.
Enabling local technologies
Acutely conscious of social and environmental connectedness, Mexican artist and designer Fernando Laposse creates sculptures and objects that speak of the communities and landscapes from which they come. In Puebla, he harvests fibres from agave that have been planted to encourage water retention and regenerate the damaged soils. Laposse collaborates with Mixteco communities to weave the fibre into material — boosting the local economy while sustaining craft traditions that are quickly fading in the industrialised present.
‘For me, it’s about improving the conditions for the craftspeople and the land they work on,’ he says.
Although Laposse’s sculptures are contemporary artworks, his methods for regenerating the land draw on ancestral knowledge. They’re also complex forms of technological innovation. ‘When people talk about technology, they have an idea that it is linked to industrial production or that it’s a digital invention. But permaculture is a type of technology — it’s Indigenous biotechnology,’ he says.
This approach of seeing a flourishing natural ecosystem as technology is something Lucio Usobiaga centres at his organic food company Arca Tierra. In the south of Mexico City, Xochimilco is home to the last of the Aztecs’ chinampas. This ancient system of canals and floating farms has produced crops in a way that encourages biodiversity for 1,300 years. Usobiaga also works with nearby farmers, agreeing to sell their produce if it’s grown in an organic, sustainable manner. ‘It takes longer to scale than most industrial models,’ he says. ‘But it’s a more responsible way of designing an agricultural model.’
Humans have only inhabited Earth for a blink of an evolutionary eye. Meanwhile, nature has had a 3.4 billion year headstart in research and development, and actually designed a fully circular and regenerative system that is self-sustaining. In our sprint into modernity, many people have lost touch with the natural world. We need to look to natural ecosystems when designing and remember that everything we do is connected to everything else.
‘We need more people in constant contact with the land. And the efforts to regenerate the land go hand-in-hand with efforts to regenerate communities. The environmental crisis is a humanitarian crisis. In order to really go beyond human-centered design, we have to diversify what human-centered design is,’ Laposse says.
Towards the many futures
We have a unique opportunity to ensure good design is part of the solutions that enable a more hopeful tomorrow.
‘In the middle of the current social and ecological emergency this is about cultivating ways of thinking-doing guided by universal and timeless values such as responsibility, humility, plurality and above all, solidarity,’ Colmenares says.
Designing with community, at local and bioregional scales, means arriving at not one but multiple futures. And we may need to look back to move forwards. ‘We are always thinking about hi-tech and super advanced materials,’ industrial designer Gabriel Cavillo says of how we often imagine the future. ‘But I think a lot of the solutions are there with Indigenous Peoples.’
Douyon agrees: ‘I want to encourage people to run to their Elders. The answers to these questions are in the hands of the Elders, the Indigenous communities, and the under-resourced communities.’
From choosing a material to restructuring a business, good designing should be an ongoing dialogue — as the only constant is change. This way, our local and global systems can move beyond valuing profit to meeting the needs of the many people in meaningful ways while enabling renewal for the planet. And a healthy dialogue might just be the right business decision too. ‘We still have a lot of lessons left to learn,’ says Weisdal. ‘We always will. But that’s also part of the joy of it.’
Video — Barkas
Andres Colmenares is a co-founder of IAM (Internet Age Media), an evolving group of ventures including a strategic consultancy, an annual series of events, a creative lab, a transnational coalition, and a global community. All of these elements are aligned by a long-term mission: to improve the relationships between citizens, digital technologies and the planet, using future-forward thinking as a tool to support organisations to make better decisions and encourage collective critical hope.
Mariana Balderas graduated as an industrial designer from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in 2012. She is director of research and development at Isla Urbana, where she develops products and services that propose environmental preservation and social well-being through design, specialising in rainwater harvesting technology. She is co-founder of the Design and Activism cooperative in Mexico City, a group of designers that foster resilience and autonomy through collaborative design practice.
Nanette Weisdal is general manager and new business and innovation deployment manager at IKEA Purchasing and Logistic Services Mexico. Nanette originally studied architecture and specialised in spatial and furniture design. She has a deep interest in how people live and how we can design systems and products to improve the lives of the many people and the planet.
Nancy Douyon is a design ethicist, technology executive, and entrepreneur. As CEO of Douyon Signature, a global user experience consultancy, Nancy empowers leading Fortune 500 companies to embrace responsible innovation and create accessible, equitable, and inclusive products and services. She spent two decades in the tech industry helping Google, IBM, Intel and Uber incorporate human experience in their product design. She leads the Bay Area Blacks in Tech group, a growing organisation of over 3,000 Black technology professionals.
Fernando Laposse is a Mexican designer who specialises in transforming humble natural materials into refined design pieces. He has worked extensively with overlooked plant fibres indigenous to Mexico such as sisal, loofah, and corn leaves.
Lucio Usobiaga is director of Arca Tierra and co-founder of Yolcan. He has worked closely with chinampero farmers to recover traditional techniques and save Xochimilco’s chinampa system, by promoting organic and sustainable chinampa-grown produce and connecting academics, farmers, chefs, and citizens. Arca Tierra is a meeting place for peasant farmers and city dwellers, who are interested in healing people’s health and the health of the earth through regenerative agriculture.
Gabriel Calvillo is a Mexican industrial designer dedicated to designing with and for non-human species. His bee home Refugio gives people the opportunity to interact with and support bees more closely in their everyday lives. In 2014, Gabriel founded Maliarts, a multidisciplinary creative agency focused on various projects ranging from animation production to street furniture design.