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August 29, 2012


In Defense of Design by Olivia Foss, National Defense University

by risdmaharamfellows

I have found that it takes a little extra effort to explain why a designer, like myself, might work with the Department of Defense. Before I began working with the National Defense University on an initiative called TIDES (Transformative Innovation for Development and Emergency Support), I would explain with big, sweeping arm gestures that I would be working at the intersection of design and policy (intersecting my hands to form an ‘x’). Perhaps it was the gesturing, but I was usually met with blank stares. What kind of ‘designing’ could she possibly be doing at ‘the government” they would ask with their eyes, blink, blink. One intrigued inquisitor said, “Oh, like DARPA?!”. Another responded, “Is it something like how the government buys things, like hammers and helicopters, for ten times the actual price?”

But in truth, I wasn’t exactly sure how to explain what I would be doing. Both TIDES and I know that me being here is an experiment. So, I began to explain it by telling little stories like this: TIDES is seeking a better way to integrate the different types of sustainable technologies currently used in Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief situations. So, for example lets suppose that Sergeant Henderson’s team is helping transport X, a product, system, or a service to Benjamin. Benjamin lives in a refugee camp. He might live there for a few days or up to 7 years, which is the average amount of time spent in a refugee camp. So, let’s say that by the time Henderson and Co. pack up and leave,  X product, system, or service has been used/consumed/ or broken. So the question now becomes, how can Ben refill/reuse/ or re-purpose X?

Sounds daunting? Human lives are at stake. Complicated? How do you know which technologies will be useful? On an unfathomable scale? Disasters caused by global environmental changes are expected to increase. The thing is, within the military it hasn’t been any one persons job to address the life cycle of relief aid. The scenario I described is THE 64 million dollar dream, the holy grail of design solutions. Yet the quest for this type of functionality indicates the military’s shift in approach from simply defending lives to sustaining them instead.

So, it is with these issues in mind that I will be working to coordinate the STAR-TIDES yearly field demonstration at the Fort McNair Army base. During the week-long event vendors demonstrate how their products actually work in the field. In years past, the demo has been completely off the electricity grid and has featured snacks cooked in solar cookers and coffee purified on-site using solar energy. If you’re in Washington, D.C. October 2-5th, you should check the Demo out – I’ll give you a tour!

Currently I’m working with a multidisciplinary team composed of PhD’s who research, NGO’s that coordinate, Non-Profits that support, hackers who build, geeks that tweak, and military personal to design a useful, usable, and desirable field demonstration experience. Most of my work so far has focused on creating a shared vision for a long-term strategy. Currently, I’m in the process of linking design principles to design solutions. So, for example I’ll start working on outdoor (waterproof!) wayfinding elements – the visual markers that show people, “Hey, the demo is different this year”. Next I’ll be working with exhibit elements to help articulate our chosen theme, “Infrastructure as a System”. More on that soon…

Every morning I pass through the security gates, I swipe my badge. It kind of reminds me of my old RISD ID. In a similar fashion, the badge has my name and picture on it and when I wear it, it makes me feel like I belong with a group of people who’s sole mission, whose actual directive it is, to save lives.  And for a moment, I am able to look past the pomp and circumstance of the regalia, flags and shoe shine to recognize that though we may be on different teams, we are definitely on the same mission.

Most people assume that designers work in design firms on designer products for designer clients, including most designers themselves. But to anyone who’s paying attention these days the tides (not to make a pun) are turning.

Now when people ask me about what I’m doing this summer, I say “I’m introducing a government agency to design thinking”.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Aug 30 2012

    This project shows the value of design thinking in government. I hope the design world will find themselves in government agencies more.

  2. Llaves
    Aug 30 2012

    Kudos for taking on this challenging and interesting assignment. As someone who has worked in the private sector, but with dedicated civil servants and military personnel for over 35 years after coming out of university during (and participated in) the protest days of the late 60’s, it’s distressing that the anti-government rhetoric of the right is reflected in the prejudices of the left. Hopefully your experience will help others to learn that there are a great many civil servants and military personnel who make financial and personal sacrifices to spend their lives making our country and our world a better place to live.

    Given that designers no doubt think of themselves as imaginative people, it seems like a glaring lack of imagination to not see how government uses and benefits from design.

    You wrote
    “And for a moment, I am able to look past the pomp and circumstance of the regalia, flags and shoe shine to recognize that though we may be on different teams, we are definitely on the same mission.”

    I hope that by the time you complete your time on this project you will recognize that you’re not on a “different team”, but will view these people as teammates. That you will see their “regalia, flags, and shoe shine” to just be another fstyle, just like you no doubt have a way of dressing that they find different.

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