Designing a new Central Valley

Embracing the design mindset to bring answers to our Valley’s most difficult challenges

Our Valley is dry, dusty and rough. Change is a slow process often engineered by the few people who’ve inherited a role as a leader.

Outside of the smoky basin we call home, any monopoly on policy is disrupted by the influx of new thinkers arriving to big cities that bring audacity and ambition with them — but along Highway 99 the traffic tends not to linger for much more than a taco break.

Meanwhile, our San Joaquin Valley is a profoundly challenged part of the world. Converging environmental circumstances, outmoded civic planning, and public health crises are met head on with our region’s lack and uneven application of economic resources.

Change within reach

There’s an asset the communities that dot our Valley have that few others share. Though our Metro designations have populations that rival some of America’s great cities, voices in our communities can come together, amplify and apply their initiative in purposeful ways that can have a real impact.

This is a process I’ve witnessed first hand on many occasions and it’s always fascinated me.

First, it’s fucking amazing. We’re fortunate that we can all work together to drive change to create an environment that’s better for ourselves, our families and our friends.

Second, it isn’t a theory. It’s observable. The work of people who’ve up-and-decided they wanted to solve a big problem makes our urban spaces more vibrant, feeds people and saves lives every day in our Valley.

All doers are designers

Action in this sense is a product of the design process, whether that’s understood on the part of the doer or not. A challenge is identified, and subsequently, resources and action are modeled to solve it in a systematic way.

We should embrace our role as designers, and encourage those who participate in our endeavors to see themselves as designers. Designers of a product, designers of their community, designers of a civic program, designers of a web site, of an event — designers of the future, in ways subtle and profound.

The definition of design has broadened — and this expanded definition has already crystallized as a business principal at the highest levels of global enterprise. The private sector has embraced the idea that an organization’s cultural orientation toward design is vital to their competitive ability and innovative capacity. It’s time we recognize that our community’s cultural orientation toward design is vital to our ability to thrive.

Design has been redefined as a mindset that serves as a model for change, evolving beyond the specialization of tasks that has historically defined the discipline. In 2016, design is an inclusive process that intentionally dives into the context of a given challenge, and the core of the context of today’s global issues are usually human.

Our Valley has a lot to gain by developing and encouraging leadership oriented around the design process — this means seeing innovation as a balance of what people need from a solution, how it will be accomplished from a technical standpoint, and how the solution will function within and augment existing systems that support it.

This is a balance that designers have been keen on for quite some time. Designers are uniquely positioned to help facilitate collaboration between business, technical and creative agendas to meet real human needs.

Design from day one

Purposefully framing community action through the prism of design yields solutions that people use, and enjoy using. Solutions backed by empathy, economic viability and feasibility within given resources are inherent to the contemporary human oriented design process, and initiatives that have these variables at heart are more likely to effectually serve the people for which they’re intended.

Designing with, not for

If we fail to experience the challenges and identify the assets our communities possess and put this insight to work, we fail in general.

More than our preconceived notions, business, political agendas, or experience working on projects we perceive as similar — emphasis on understanding the circumstances of the spectrum of people we intend to benefit through a solution is our most worthy goal at the outset of a community oriented project.

At Ppl, our practice works directly with our clients and their customers to understand and improve things. This means breaking down the walls that typify the agency process. For brand positioning, corporate identities, video projects, web sites — wherever possible, we’ve replaced meetings and chain emails with workshops and co-creation sessions. We’ve found it’s possible most of the time. Our practice doesn’t own the solution, everyone who had a hand in the process does.

As a community, we can immerse ourselves in the context our solutions intend to help, casting aside our assumptions in exchange for visceral collaboration, experimentation, failure and retooling.

Our Valley needs design more than ever

The rest of the world can think, measure, and scrutinize what our Valley’s all about however they want. Those of us that live here know that despite our collective challenges, California’s Central Valley is a great place to live, and is only getting better.

As far as the getting better part goes — this means it’s on us to roll up our sleeves to craft solutions that communities actually adopt. This requires building an empathetic experience of the problems our communities face — a process which allows us to embrace the constraints to create an impact greater than the sum of its parts.

To do this on the scale our community needs to thrive, we all need to embrace our role as designers of the Central Valley’s future, so we can start using the same tools designers use to upend ‘how things are done’ in the face of the World’s most challenging issues.

What happens when the San Joaquin Valley sees design not as a thing, but as a mindset?

Let’s design the future together.