These Four Groups are Using Design to Induce Social Change

A recap of ideas that emerged from Better World By Design 2016, the annual design conference led by RISD and Brown students.

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Photo by Gary Chien.

Last month, Better World By Design (BWxD) hosted its annual conference in Providence, R.I. Established in 2008 by students at Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design, BWxD creates a space for designers, innovators, students, and educators to collaborate and share their ideas on design in the 21st century. This year’s theme was “Interplay.”

Through a series of lectures, workshops, and discussions, participants examined the ways in which we can mobilize the principles of design to produce positive social, economic, environmental, technological, and political change.

Here are just a few of the creative ideas that were discussed over the course of the three-day conference:

It Makes Sense

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Participants draw their initial thoughts and feelings on paper. Photo by Jokichi Matsubara.

Imagine you find yourself sitting on the floor. You close your eyes and an object is placed in your hand. Maybe it’s soft, or smooth, or plush. Maybe it’s big and light or small and heavy. Suddenly you’re filled with a memory or emotion, transported to a different time and place. This is the idea behind It Makes Sense, a non-profit group aiming to help people reduce their anxiety through their sense of touch.

Rinat Sherzer, co-founder of It Makes Sense, and Jess Suttner, the group’s creative director, held an experiential workshop Friday afternoon to introduce participants to their idea.

Anxiety, Sherzer explained, is a difficult emotion to experience and treat because it is elusive and intangible. Using tactile objects to access positive memories can be a way to ground oneself and manage emotions in times of stress.

The workshop embodied BWxD’s Friday theme, “Interplay at a Micro Level”, by encouraging participants to interact with small, childhood materials. After some opening introduction exercises, participants were blindfolded and given “textures” — various objects ranging from pom-pom balls to smooth glass pebbles to coarse sand. We were encouraged to spend as much time as we wanted exploring these objects and our emotional reaction that the tactile sensation produced within us.

An individual is handed an object and asked to reflect on his immediate reaction. Photo credit by Jokichi Matsubara.

An individual is handed an object and asked to reflect on his immediate reaction. Photo credit by Jokichi Matsubara.

For many of participants, taking the time to mindfully interact with touch in this way was illuminating. It brought up forgotten memories. For some, it was quite emotional.

Sherzer originally performed this intervention with patients struggling with anxiety in New York City. Finding that all of her patients returned to happy or nostalgic memories, they concluded that this exercise could be a way of accessing lost or forgotten positive memories and remind them of calmer times.

It Makes Sense takes their approach one step further: participants choose an object and write about a memory or feeling that it elicits within them. This story is then sent to illustrators who are partnering with It Makes Sense. The illustrators, who volunteer their time and skills, draw their interpretation of the scene and send it back to the patient. These illustrations help the participant reinforce their positive memory while fostering a unique and intimate connection between two strangers.

Anywhere Ballot

On Saturday, Dana Chisnell of Center for Civic Design presented Anywhere Ballot, a project designed and tested by a team of designers and researchers. Anywhere Ballot, she says, will be the future of voting in America.

Anywhere Ballot examines the issues surrounding voting accessibility. How can we make voting easy, fast, and available for all Americans, including those living with physical or mental disabilities? For Americans who live with blindness, color-blindness, limited dexterity or mobility, dyslexia, short-term memory loss, or low literacy, voting can be difficult or entirely impossible.

48 percent of American adults read at Grade Level 6 or below, said Chisnell.

“Are we designing for that?” she asked.

In this way, the question of design and accessibility go hand-in-hand. Despite efforts in the past to make voting more available, such as the Help America Vote Act, which allocated money for new, accessible voting systems, it remains challenging for many people to cast their vote. What would it take to make voting universally accessible? This is the project of Anywhere Ballot.

Anywhere Ballot is an online platform for mobile devices and computers. Vote anywhere, on any device.

After trials with low-literacy adults, they’ve learned a lot and improved their designs. Low-literacy adults, Chisnell said, view everything linearly and literally. The ballot, therefore, should be designed in a line, without any distracting elements in the margins.

Chisnell advised against making any assumptions about the knowledge or ability of the voters.

Language is especially crucial for designing accessible ballots to adults with low literacy. Along with her lecture, Chisnell provided audience members with a booklet on writing instructions voters understand. Basic principles such as using active voice, short sentences, and simple words can make all the difference in helping people to navigate the ballot.

“Make it as simple as you can, then make it simpler,” Chisnell said.

Networks Land

Ingrid begins the workshop by presenting facts about our Internet infrastructure today. Photo by Lorraine Li.

Ingrid begins the workshop by presenting facts about our Internet infrastructure today. Photo by Lorraine Li.

Does anyone really understand how the Internet works? This is the idea behind Networks Land, a digital literacy program for children in middle school.

On Saturday, Ingrid Burrington of the Data and Society Research Institute spoke in the Granoff Center for the Arts about the problems and potential of teaching digital literacy. The fundamental processing of sending and receiving information, of the way the Internet operates, is lost on most adults, let alone children.

Networks Land takes a uniquely playful approach, relying on analog activities and games to spark spontaneous discussions about complicated topics. In this way, they teach computer science as social studies or history, encouraging students to think about important questions and conversations such as network distributions and net neutrality.

“Systems taken as givens have larger contexts that they emerge out of,” said Burrington.

This extracurricular program asks how we can teach computer literacy without using computers.

Burrington started the lecture with an activity. Volunteers ran envelopes and sticky notes back and forth across the room as fast as they could. This, she said, demonstrates “packet switching,” an important part of the Internet. By reconnecting children with physical objects — blocks, board games, etc. — they bring an intangible concept into the concrete world.

Members of the workshop look at the interactive toys that Ingrid uses to explain the Internet. Photo by Lorraine Li.

Members of the workshop look at the interactive toys that Ingrid uses to explain the Internet. Photo by Lorraine Li.

Burrington defends the value of what she calls “impractical knowledge.” Anyone can use the Internet without knowing these things, but by bringing awareness to these fundamentally unknown processes, new conversations emerge. In a role-playing game about top-level domains, Burrington introduces the politics of operating the Internet. The packet switching activity can elicit questions about net neutrality and interfering networks.

This fits nicely into BWxD’s theme of Interplay. By interacting on multiple levels, and engaging with ideas and design principles from the perspective of play, we see new access points arising, new ways to think and share and learn. In this way the knowledge might not be impractical at all because it is a gateway to discussion, understanding, and problem solving.

Be Girl

Be Girl is bringing the micro to the macro level to address the global education gender gap. By providing sustainable, affordable sanitary pads and underwear to girls in developing countries and rural areas, they are enabling and encouraging girls to stay in school.

On Sunday, Maria Paula Navia, the design and business strategist at Be Girl, spoke at BWxD. She explained Be Girl’s mission, which is to create opportunity and equality through sustainable design and female empowerment.

Currently, 250 million girls across the world lack access to affordable, safe, and proper menstrual management resources, she said. Many are teased by classmates, and lacking the right materials is an issue that can cause a lot of harm.

Sustainable design is at the center of this project. Why do women with lower resources need to accept lower quality, unattractive products? Navia said that having beautifully designed items can “make a big difference in self-esteem.”

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Photo by Gary Chien.

Be Girl works on three levels to improve the current state of menstrual care for women. The first is psychological and emotional. They teach girls that their menstrual cycles are normal and beautiful, educating them about how and why they experience menstruation while men do not. With proper guidance and protection, girls don’t have to feel embarrassed or skip school.

The second consideration is usability. The product must accomplish the basic task of preventing leakage and maximizing mobility. The girls can choose whether they use one that is reusable or disposable, adapting to their current conditions and resources.

Lastly, Be Girl considers sustainability. Be Girl aims for their products to be financially accessible, primarily selling their products straight to NGOs who already have relationships and established trust with communities.

Be Girl also uses 70 percent less water in comparison to alternative products, said Navia, and this saves the girls’ time and water.

Navia said that Be Girl wants girls everywhere to feel confident, take opportunities, and feel good about providing for their communities and their families.

Currently, a new product is in the works: “Smart Cycle”, a menstrual cycle tracker that girls can wear around their necks on a pendant, tucked into their shirts. In the past, they have worn bracelets to track their periods, but recently, Navia said, there have been some problems with men viewing the bracelets as a signal that a girl is of age to have sex or be married. The new product, which can be hidden underneath their clothing, should diminish this issue.

Be Girl sells their fast-drying, colorful, and breathable underwear to NGOs working in Africa and the Americas. The NGOs are the best way to reach communities because they have already established a trusting relationship with the girls, their parents, and the schools, said Navia.

The design for the underwear, she said, is continuously being updated and adapted to best suit the needs, environments, and resources of the girls who wear them.

Navia said that all of humanity will benefit from helping women get their education: “When you give someone the means to get an education, great things can happen.”

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