The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful


New York City Department of Transportation
From small projects to large, the concept of public interest design is taking hold as a way to promote social and environmental goals through design. Pictured here is the Bronx ARTfarm, a project out of the Architecture for Humanity Studio.

What do you consider a design issue? Beauty? Form? Material? How about reducing disease, saving chimpanzees, or helping to prevent crime? While not yet the conventional attitude, a new field called public interest design is bringing together a broad range of professionals—from architects to landscape and graphic designers—to tackle new challenges through design.

The draw of aesthetics is potent. Architects, for example, have historically spent a great deal of energy on the creation of beauty. This focus has also been a driving force behind curricula in architecture schools, where students study iconic figures and buildings, the strains of thought to which they belonged or that they helped inspire.

While invaluable, in many ways the focus on aesthetics has contributed to an architecture that is beyond the reach of most people. Only a small percentage of the public might ever sit down with an architect and create specific plans when constructing a home or office building. One commonly cited statistic is that only 2 percent of homebuyers work with an architect to design their house. At a conference in 2000, one of the early leaders pushing for a more relevant approach to design, Samuel Mockbee, called architects “lapdogs of the rich.” His point was that it is the wealthy and the powerful that hire architects and who therefore make most decisions about the design of buildings.

But a shift is underway. Designers are recognizing that their work should be more than an exclusive service. People want to be involved in the decisions that shape their lives, including decisions about the built environment. Mockbee, when he made his accusation, was speaking at the very first Structures for Inclusion conference, convened in 2000 at Princeton University, with the chosen theme “Designing for the 98% Without Architects.” (Interestingly, this meeting came years before Occupy Wall Street’s 99 percent movement.) One of the main goals of the conference was recognizing the need for broader inclusion. How do we, as designers, bring more people into the design processes that affect them every day?

In the small, rural, low-income community of Bayview, Virginia, for instance, Alice Cole tells the story of how she was listening to the radio in her kitchen when she heard that a maximum security prison was going up right on top of the neighborhood. Cole organized the community in partnership with architect Maurice Cox. Not only did the residents stop the prison, they envisioned and built a new community that included safer houses with sewer and water access. When Alice is asked how she explains design to others, she says: “Design is about having choices. We decide.”

One way we’ve started to answer this question over who has access to design, though somewhat slowly, is with convincing argument around the relationship between architecture and the environment—from standards like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, put forth by the U.S. Green Building Council, to entire design firms that have formed around this idea. These arguments have helped illuminate the fact that, in many ways, our relationship to the environment is fundamentally, if not explicitly, determined through design. This change is being embraced by partnerships in the private sector that would have seemed inconceivable ten years ago—the Ford Motor Company partnering with architects to build a factory with the world’s largest green roof. Now no longer fringe, green design is recognized by many for-profit firms as good for people, good for their environment, and, importantly, good for marketing.

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Bryan Bell
A computer image of improved housing for migrant farmworkers, designed by Bryan Bell and his studio, DesignCorps.

Public Interest Design

We need to push this transformation forward, highlighting the broad and often invisible value of design, its central role in creating both beauty and public benefit. We need a design for the 100 percent.

Every new issue that becomes a design issue not only serves more of the public, it also creates new partners and funding sources for designers. In return, it unleashes the creative problem solving of designers.

An exemplary building that sows the benefit of design for all, and one of the first of its kind, is the Bryant House, designed for the Bryant family in 1994 by Samuel Mockbee and Auburn University students in Newbern, Alabama.

The Bryants maintained a subsistence lifestyle, getting by on what they hunted, fished, and farmed. They lived off of a dirt road along the Black Warrior River. They had no running water or interior bathrooms. Shepard Bryant had built the family home, but the floors were simply packed dirt in most places. There was no insulation and there were many leaks. Mockbee was guided to their dire condition by the local community service agency and, once there, he and the students responded with a house of beauty that cost under $25,000.

The house now suits the grandparents well, with three cubbies that serve as bedrooms for the grandchildren, who visit frequently. From the outside, these cubbies look like the hay bales that dot the local fields. The house has a large shaded porch that accommodates family and friends in the cooler outdoor temperatures. Despite the low budget, the house celebrates the unique lives of the family—their social context—and meets their needs with an economic 850 square feet. This, in short, is an example of how public interest design can achieve the good and the beautiful by bringing together educational institutions and community agencies with architects.

A more contemporary example deals with farming—though who knew farming was a design issue? If you don’t have workers, you don’t have a harvest. And, on many farms, if you don’t have farmworker housing, you don’t have workers. Through my public interest design firm, Design Corps, I demonstrated a more effective use of available federal funds while also accessing millions of dollars of private funds. The result was more—and better—housing that was a “win” for migrant workers, a “win” for farmers, and a “win” for the federal program.

Rather than the meager 500 square feet required by code for five workers, the units we designed provide a more humane 810 square feet. To pay for these, funding was split between the farmers and an existing federal program. The federal government allocates almost $40 million each year to this migrant housing program. Currently, this allocation results in 300 units, or a cost to the federal government of $126,000 per unit. This housing is completely unaffordable to most migrant workers and ends up failing to provide them what they need.

Our work instead drew on a public-private solutions that made the houses more affordable and more comfortable. This has already been successfully implemented at a pilot scale. The next phase is to craft policy-level proposals in order to create a greater scale of impact—reaching more and more of those traditionally left behind by design.

As we move from design for the 2 percent to design for the 100 percent, we ought to establish standards to help formalize the public interest design process. To this end (among others), a group of grassroots designers has created the Social Economic Environmental Design Network (SEED). (This name refers to a triple-bottom-line.)

SEED was founded to, first, create accountability and transparency in the design process, giving the public a voice in what happens. The SEED process also provides an online tool for sharing best practices, along with a methodology to guide, evaluate, and measure the social, economic, and environmental impacts of public interest design projects. (This tool is based on a grant-making process called the Logic Model, which was developed by the Kellogg Foundation to help assess exactly how a community would benefit from a new program and how it would be involved in developing the program.) Ultimately, the SEED process is intended to give a step-by-step online method for undertaking community-based design.

The essence of this method is summarized in five principles:
1. Advocate with and for those who have a limited voice in public life
2. Build structures for inclusion that engage stakeholders and allow communities to make decisions
3. Promote social equality through discourse that reflects a range of values and social identities
4. Generate ideas that grow from place and build local capacity
5. Design to help conserve resources and minimize waste.

This offers one glimpse of how design for the 98 percent might grow from individual projects into a more systematic approach. Building on this platform, we could reshape the design profession and help the public work with designers to envision—then build—a better future. Communities are now recognizing that design can help address critical challenges. And designers are embracing this idea, helping communities as they strive, literally and figuratively, to do no less than reshape their existence.

For more information on public interest design, take a look at the work being done through www.publicinterestdesign.com and www.seednetwork.org.