We're just beginning our annual cycle of budget forecasting, and a couple of weeks ago, I sent our CFO a narrative of how my budget area would benefit our strategic goals. Today, he sent me an e-mail asking me to define a term that I used a couple of times -- "design citizenship." Here's my response:
“Design citizenship” is a term that I guess I’ve coined, and I suppose that the appropriate thing for me to do is to write an academic paper about it and get it published so that it’s in the literature. However, I’ll spare you that for the short term and give you a quick idea of it.
Any act of physical design, from an office interior to a subdivision layout, has unseen implications for the lives of everyone who will encounter it. We can design with an eye toward social justice, toward universal design for persons of different abilities, toward sustainable material and energy practices, toward a sense of civic pride and community pleasure… or we can ignore those things and let them take care of themselves. A design attitude that understands and accepts responsibility for the numerous social outcomes of the work is what I would label design citizenship.
As with every act of citizenship, well-meaning people will disagree about both the desired outcomes and the means of achieving them. And that’s appropriate. What’s necessary is that we enter the arena, that we take social responsibility as a primary calling when we go about our work.
There are a few schools that have a focus on what is sometimes called “environment-behavior studies” or “social and cultural factors in design,” although they usually restrict that focus for academic research rather than integrating it into the entire curriculum. For instance, the grad school I went to – the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee – is one of the premier doctoral research institutions of environment-behavior research, which is my field. But the undergrads and M.Arch students had merely one required course, Architecture and Human Behavior, with few ways to extend that learning into their studio work and no subsequent elective classes that they could use to build an area of interest and expertise. This is also true at Michigan and Berkeley and Texas A&M and Kansas State and the Fashion Institute of Technology. And frankly, our field’s origins in environmental psychology have led us down some pretty uninspiring roads, focusing on individuals encountering places as though they were lab rats in a maze – Do they get lost? Are they comfortable? Do they have adequate privacy? These questions are both important and insufficient. I’m more interested in larger social questions. For instance, there’s a big body of research that shows the ways in which women are hindered through suburban design (and in design education as well). There’s a growing amount of research that I contribute to that demonstrates the ways that teenagers are demeaned and marginalized by the designs of their schools and communities.
So that’s my big agenda. We could be a leader in graduating students who take social responsibility as a baseline in every project they encounter; who are savvy about the research base that can inform their work; who know how to facilitate the design process so that clients, users and neighbors all feel respected and ennobled; and who know how to create buildings that can outlast our imagined uses and will be helpful for generations to come.
I think about this stuff even when I'm doing things as mundane as budgets... I guess I'm compulsive.