In a recent article here on Re-nourish, I wrote about the importance of connecting the students' values to those principles set forth in the concept of sustainability to best intertwine it within the student designers' process. This past fall 2010 semester at the University of Illinois School of Art + Design, I took advantage of the Design Ignites Change challenge to help prepare my junior methodology students for the final project of the term (focusing on sustainability) by challenging them to create an iPhone app around a social cause close to their heart. The iPhone app had to follow Apple SDK guidelines and the user base had to be identified. The students performed a rudimentary ethnographic investigation into their proposed users based on Tim Plowman's article "Ethnography and Critical Design Practice" from Design Research: Methods & Practices (MIT Press). The students also had to complete the Design Ignites Change grant application to finish the project.
As part of the conversation embedded in the project, I asked the class to read and and write responses to articles dismissing the "do-good" humanitarian designer as nothing but a Western Imperialist who actually does more harm than good. I felt it fair to provide different perspectives on the validity of the designer as a "change agent" so the students had a very current understanding of this particular design movement. The articles provided a good debate on the merits of philanthropy and what can be done to mitigate negative outcomes from attempting to do good. One of the most relevant proposals to solve this dilemma was to involve the group in need from the beginning of the project. It seemed vital to ask of them what they need and would best help alleviate this problem. This method of co-design respects the culture of the design audience more so than ignoring them in the design process.
The results were surprisingly good considering this was the first venture for the entire class into interface design for a smart phone. On top of allowing the students to connect their goals and passions to design (and consequently adopt sustainable principles after the completion of the social design project), it allowed students, that typically only focused on print design in school to engage design from a different perspective on a mobile device.