The experts of public interest design.

March 30, 2011 at 3:16 pm 1 comment

The 2011 Structures for Inclusion conference was filled with public interest design experts, but I’m not sure if any of them would ever call themselves that. Panel one’s Sergio Palleroni, co-founder of the BaSIC Initiative and active participant in public interest design since before I was born, said he always feels like a novice in this trade. Panel two’s Rashmi Ramaswamy, co-founder of SHED Studio, confidently told us that “it’s ok not to know what you’re doing.” And featured speaker Andrew Freear, director of Auburn’s Rural Studio program, admitted to taking a hands-on and mistake-filled approach, which allows him to constantly be learning and improving his projects.

Students at the University of Austin, working with Sergio Palleroni and Dr. Leslie Jarmon, prototyped designs for the Alley Flat Initiative in Second Life in 2009 before construction started in 2010. Images via Arch Virtual.

In order to be an expert in public interest design, it seems that what you really need to be is an expert learner (or, in some cases, un-learner). Emily Pilloton‘s new design/build Studio H program is gradually and organically growing in scale (as are her students’ projects), based on what she and partner Matthew Miller learn along the way; and that was the plan from the start. Michael Zaretsky, Emily Roush, and Richard Elliott, un-learned a whole slew of habits while working on the Roche Health Center in rural Tanzania, including the knee-jerk reaction to go to Lowe’s for tools and materials. Dan Pitera, executive director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, believes that “we must question our assumptions” all the time in this field, particularly when starting work with an unfamiliar community.

Bell Labs’ 1948 prototype of a push-button telephone, which didn’t become “consumer-ready” until 1963. Photo by Dan Forbes, via Wired.

A willingness to always be learning seems to materialize most clearly in the process of prototyping, or otherwise embracing trial and error. Cannon Design principal Trung Le, along with the rest of the “Change Agents and Innovators” panel at Structures, emphasized the value of prototypes and of convincing clients that there needs to be room in the design process for failure. Rashmi Ramaswamy elaborated on this idea by encouraging everyone to phase projects so that they kick off with innovative prototyping and testing, followed by measurement of specific outcomes. In her experience, including these phases is incredibly helpful in managing everyone’s expectations of what’s possible down the line.

March 30’s daily design idea is a succinct piece of advice from Quilian Riano, co-founder of DSGN AGNC: “be flexible, no final solutions.”

This is post 5 of 7 recapping Structures for Inclusion 10+1, an annual conference focused on design for social good.


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People and planet (and profit, too). Mortgages, product lines, and other things architects don’t talk about.

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. The 98%. « Daily Design Idea  |  February 11, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    […] may happily aim to diversify our architectural vocabulary, always be learning, better understand economic value, take an entrepreneurial approach, and work collaboratively with […]


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