Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Empathy or Inclusion: A Dialogical Approach to Socially Responsible Design

Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Empathy or Inclusion: A Dialogical Approach to Socially Responsible Design

Article excerpt

Introduction

There are many definitions and practices that could come under the umbrella term of socially responsible design (SRD). This article presents a dialogical approach to socially responsible designing, an approach that goes beyond supporting "others" with whom designers are involved empathically. Nothing is stated against these important initiatives; our contribution intends only to highlight the practice of SRD that focuses on the designer's responsibility towards his/her own local context. It means designers using their skills to develop solutions to improve both their own conditions and the conditions of those who live in the same context. This perspective may enrich the practice and theory of SRD, specifically considering the difference between empathy and inclusion as defined by Martin Buber.

Designers are called upon to be socially responsible by answering others' needs (Papanek, 1985; Margolin & Margolin, 2002). The focus is placed on design processes to improve other people's life circumstances and hence, for example, their health (obesity, diabetes), or their living conditions (marginalized or underserved populations). Design for social innovation and sustainability (Manzini, 2007), which is considered here as an example of SRD, stresses design activity that is able to recognize and support solutions developed autonomously by groups of people to solve their own problems in their local contexts, but does not focus on the designer's capability to do the same. Other approaches, gathered here under the definition of transformation design (Burns, Cottam, Vanstone, & Winhall, 2006), focus on the practice of design thinking for societal transformation in local contexts, which includes procedures to gain empathy and insight into patients' or communities' experiences to identify their unmet needs. However, despite the well recognized value of an empathic approach to SRD practices, able to bring designers closer to others' needs, this does not correspond to the dialogical approach, which aims to explore a practice of SRD in which designers seek to be "fully present" in the reality where they are designing. Considering the Buberian interpretative framework, this means inclusiveness, i.e., the other is not an "It"--that I can also describe and manifest empathy with--but emerges as a "Thou" with whom I dialogue. Through the presentness and concreteness of the meeting with the "other" in dialogue, it is possible to see things, people and places "in their uniqueness and for their own selves, and not as already filtered through our mental categories for purposes of knowledge or use" (Friedman, 1955/2002, p. 199).

This is not to say that designers have never used their skills to face their own local problems. Design against crime (Davey, Wootton, Cooper, & Press, 2005) offers an example of an SRD research activity and practice focused on a design challenge (crime) that is a problem shared by all those concerned, including the designer himself. Neither do we assert that the value of designers' personal involvement in a design challenge has not been considered before. The Design Council's RED unit called designers with type 2 diabetes to work on the unit's health project: "How do you explain your condition to others? Have you developed any innovative approaches to managing it yourself? Do you have ideas for new services?" (Vanstone, 2004). What is proposed here is the consolidation of a specific approach, targeted to support the dissemination of SRD in local contexts (SRD as a rooted practice) specifically by fostering presentness (SRD as an inclusive practice) in designers. This approach is based on two theoretical references. Together these express what has been defined as a dialogical approach to SRD, which incorporates the concept of rootedness (Weil, 1949/2002) along with the concept of inclusion (Buber, 1947/2006).

To define and explore this approach, the article is organized into three main sections: first, we present an overview of key definitions in SRD; next, we clarify what is meant by dialogical relations; and finally we present the methodological framework and results of a design exploration into the use of a dialogical approach to SRD carried out on the campus of the authors' university. …

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