Jacob Brancasi + Betsy Kalven
Art Center College of Design
This project is stood out as demonstration that speculative design does not need to be highly technological in order to be successful. By using seemly simple tools as story telling devices the designer(s) were able to convey a multifaceted cultural situation. Posing three “what if” questions, which seem initially as very specific, the project ask some fundamental questions about the role design and designers play when they come to “fix problems”; In particular when design comes to, so called, developing countries. The project calls into attention the need to comprehend the complex context of operating within an intricate web of social, cultural and economic situations that are all too often neglected by design. The project deals with these issues in a sensitive, thought-provoking, and mature ways that are an exemplary to what a good speculative design project should be.
WHEREABOUTS reconceives social impact and speculative design in developing contexts. Our approach privileges sociocultural inquiry and provocation over solution delivery. The project consists of a series of bespoke objects – Clique Din Low, Boda Whisper Helmet, Hush Hush Headset. Together, this suite reframes three everyday sound interactions in order to stimulate discussion and provoke imagination in Kampala, Uganda. At the same time, the representation of the project deliberately subverts expectations and challenges Western designers and audiences to reconsider what design could be and could look like in developing contexts.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you?
The only type of design that many people think can and should happen in Africa is social impact. In researching design projects in Africa and other developing contexts we found an almost exclusively utilitarian approach – always an object to fix the other’s problems. Some of those projects have merit; some are grossly misguided. Those problems are worthy of designerly attention and effort. The issue is that the approaches being used do not reveal the broader experiences or engage the people being designed for aside from their social problems. We believe that effective design cannot be achieved without this contextual understanding.
We set out to recover design as a tool for inquiry and provocation, rather than a solution delivery system. Through design we wanted to cultivate an attentiveness to our surroundings and acknowledge people’s broader life experiences. Interested in three everyday sound interactions, we created bespoke objects to open up conversations and deepen our understanding of our context. Another central goal was to subvert expectations and provoke new considerations of what design could be and look like in developing contexts.
As foreign designers in the developing context we are all speculators. Nothing is known, though far too many designers think they’re experts. Our project imagines new approaches for design and designers in developing contexts. We created objects, experiences, and representations that embody complex sociocultural inquiry, while asking provocative “what if” questions of designers, participants and audiences.
Against Social Impact
We find that design in developing contexts often dehumanizes the people it intends to serve, robbing them of any complex existence and desires by only tending to immediate needs. With this project we set out to design differently in the developing context. Our approach embodies a belief that design is not simply about deploying solutions, but is a form of sociocultural inquiry and provocation.
As a foreigner, you can’t help but notice interactions that are unique to your experience. We wanted to maintain an openness to these intriguing daily interactions rather than narrowing our focus to problem solving, as is generally expected of designers in this context. We materialized our ideas in order to nourish this curiosity, engage others, and direct conversation beyond the daily pleasantries that are difficult to move past as foreigners.
While our approach with participants was exploratory and open, the representation of the project to a Western audience was incredibly deliberate. Design projects in Africa often (intentionally or haphazardly) portray developing contexts through crying or smiling children; earthy colors; a pristine utilitarian object. Through our design, production, and representational choices, we engaged participants to consider these interactions they and how might be different in their lives. At the same time we wanted to provoke a similar “what if” from our Western design colleagues, challenging them to consider new approaches for what design might be or look like in Africa.
The objects of WHEREABOUTS were never meant to be mass produced, rather they were bespoke creations to stimulate discussion and provoke imagination around existing everyday interactions. We created these objects with materials at hand, using cardboard we found on the street, common motorcycle helmets, plumbing tubes, simple circuits, and fabric from a seamstress at the market. Though the design of each object was considered, we did not treat them preciously. We avoided polish and perfection, especially in the early stages, in order to leave room for people to engage them in unforeseen ways. While we value open-endedness, whiteness is spectacle in Kampala and we understood how urgently we needed to draw attention away from ourselves and towards our ideas. We did so through these objects.
A diverse network of experts became our main advisors and critics in this iterative process: Vicent Serugo, manufacturer; Philip Gessa and Frederick Katende, advertising artists; Sunday, John, and Coka, motorcycle taxi drivers. These men were not simply implementing our ideas. The process of working with them generated a productive friction. While their feedback shaped the design, the conversations throughout this process transformed our understanding of Kampala, our place there, and the potential for design.
CLIQUE DIN LOW
Walking through Kampala, you move through a layered soundscape, a vibrant cacophony of public and private sound experiences. Shops play music loudly, radios blare from passing cars, while people broadcast music from their cell phones set to speaker. Clique Din Low, a tangle of interconnected headphones, prototypes a walk through the city intentional in its desire to share a specific sound experience.
The “sketchiness” of this object allowed people to shape its meaning. For one man it prompted the question “Is Obama on the line?” Prototyping in public, we gathered strangers that perhaps would never be together so intimately – security guards, maids, students, businesspeople – facilitating unfamiliar interactions.
BODA WHISPER HELMET
We were struck by the physical proximity and intimacy between drivers and passengers on motorcycle taxis (bodas). Sometimes they would engage in conversation, the passenger’s chin nearly resting on the driver’s shoulder as they spoke, looking like whispers between two lovers speeding through space. Sometimes no conversation would occur.
This more refined object gauged how drivers and passengers felt about this interplay, gaining insight into practices and eliciting responses. For Western design audiences it highlighted and translated the lovely, quotidian experiences of living in Kampala that we think are as important to pay attention to as social problems.
HUSH HUSH HEADSET
We found in general Kampalans speak softly, and we often struggled to hear them. Initially we joked about amplifying their voices, but then realized that would be a colonialist move. Instead we created a headset that amplifies the Western user’s voice to herself, thereby approximating how they sound to Kampalans, and training them to speak more softly – and maybe even listen more.
This object generated productive conversations between foreigners and Kampalans about the ways in which people listen and speak to one another.
This project earns its keep by expanding the possibilities for how design operates in developing contexts. Instead of using design to solve problems, we are privileging the discipline as a means of asking, speculating and listening. Using design in this way is by no means new to design, but it is new for designers working in developing contexts.
Designers add value by drawing inspiration from the world around them, and investigating that world with rigor. We’ve always used design as a means for inquiry and provocation. Working in a developing context should not mean we close off our curiosity or thoughtfulness.
The approach we developed through WHEREABOUTS was useful because it allowed us to maintain that curiosity and invest in the kinds of design opportunities only we might discover. We used design to engender delight, enabling us to quickly engage people around interpersonal dynamics in their everyday lives, important ground not covered when you’re only looking to solve someone’s problem.
These objects were delightful, but the interactions they investigate are not tangential to people’s lives. We sparked conversations between NGO workers and Ugandans about the ways they communicate with one another. In that, we believe we’ve facilitated deeply constructive experiences.
Having presented this project to a diverse field of practitioners we’ve been met with overwhelmingly positive reception. The enthusiasm from speculative designers, technologists, social impact designers, anthropologists has empowered us both to advance this approach through more project work and continued dialogue.