8 Simple Steps You Can Take to Use Your Design Powers For Social Good (or…Stop F*cking Complaining About People Pooping on the Sidewalks)

Last Friday I attended the Creative Mornings lecture series featuring “Shock” as the theme. The speaker here, in San Francisco, was the graphics editor of the New York Times, Jennifer Daniel. First off, I have to say that I agreed with much of what Ms. Daniel had to say. Namely, that design is not about making pretty things. It’s not about technology or apps or unicorns. And, design is certainly not about self congratulation or job promotions. Design is about being human.

The talk Ms. Daniel gave was not shocking in and of itself. Though, there were certainly shocking elements, and cute animated GIFs to boot. However, what hit home with most people — and certainly the ex-New Yorkers in the audience — was Ms. Daniel’s emotional exposition about some of our biggest, most human problems in San Francisco: desperate homeless people and poop on the sidewalks. As someone who’s lived here for fourteen years, I can absolutely say that these are problems we’ve been talking about for some time — definitely longer that I’ve lived here.

Having said that, given that these are real problems we’re experiencing, I don’t believe that “being nice to people” is the answer to these problem, as Ms. Daniel purports. Sure, “being nice to people” may help to bring a bit of dignity to our exchanges with them. However, on its own, “being nice to people” does nothing other than simply “being”. So, if “being nice to people” isn’t the answer, what can designers do to help solve these problems? The answer, as you might guess, lies in the practice of design.

Design is not about making things pretty. It’s not about apps or unicorns. Design is about human connection. Design is about empathy. What is empathy and human connection if we’re not talking with people, uncovering their needs and wants and ambitions? And, no, I do not believe your ideas about finding novel ways to give homeless people jobs or simply putting more public toilets on the street will work outright. Why? Because these are just ideas. They are no more, no less. Sure, you can gather thousands of signatures and crowdfund thousands of dollars to implement your ideas. But, if you’ve done so without first going to the very people you want to help, you’ve likely already failed at your job (i.e. human connection). And, I certainly don’t believe smiling at people and looking them in the eyes will affect real change either.

With that said, I’ve put together the following simple, yet well informed, peer reviewed list of 8 steps that we must follow if we want affect real change and help get homeless people off the street (or not) and rid the sidewalks of poop:

  1. Stop complaining. No, really. Stop f*cking complaining about the homeless and sidewalk poop. Our liberal San Francisco government is too slow and mired in, well, liberal politics to deal with real issues. If you’re not willing to deal with issues directly, then just accept homelessness and sidewalk poop as some of the “charms” of living in this city. Still want to complain and compare San Francisco to other cities, like New York? Move back and complain from afar. We seriously don’t need you here.
  2. Start talking with the people who seem to need help. What I am asking you to do here is not start with the most destitute or seemingly dangerous. Rather, what you can do if you want to see/affect real change is to just talk to anyone who is willing to have a discussion with you. That guy selling Street Sheets, he wants to talk to you and probably has a ton to say. Shit, you might even start by asking him where he gets his Street Sheets. That woman sitting on the corner with a dog, she wants you to ask about her dog and her life. So, ask her.
  3. Listen and learn what pains the people you talk to. Once you’ve sparked a conversation, ask open ended questions, listening and absorbing the pains you hear from their stories. Why are they homeless? How does it feel? Where do they find hope or joy? Etc.
  4. Uncover aspirations and ambitions. Any great design does more than address a set of pains. Great designs come with the promise that they will help people to achieve some higher, maybe even unstated, ambitions. Listen for those too. Figure out what the best version of people’s world(s) look like.
  5. Design options. By this point I think we all know that no single right solution exists for any problem or opportunity. There are only a set of options, some that likely address pains and promise gains better than others. Your job at this point is not to fall in love with your designs/solutions. It’s to stay focused on the issues at hand. Design lots of options.
  6. Test/validate the options you’ve designed. You already know how to create prototypes, paper and otherwise. You’ve probably even had to A/B test design options in the past. So, do the same here. Figure out the best, perhaps least expensive way, to get back out onto the street and test some options with the people you want to help.
  7. Iterate. At this point you will definitely have learned a lot from all of the conversations you’re having and options you’re testing. As such, it’s probably a great time to take some of those learnings and tweak (or totally redesign) some of the options until you find a better fit, based of course on my testing/validation.
  8. Create and execute a movement. Funny enough, this step is probably where you started your “clean up the streets” diatribe. By now you know, this is not the starting point, but the continuation of your work. Having spoken with real people, uncovered their pains and gains, designed and tested options, you will have enough information (and probably social capital) at this point to rally the troops and get some real work done. Best of all, no one will be able to tell you your ideas are no good. You’ve done your homework.

Design is not about making things pretty. It’s not about apps or unicorns. Design is about human connection. Design is about empathy. What are we, as designers, if we are not empathetic and open to listening to other peoples’ stories, pains, and ambitions? It’s when we truly listen that we begin to understand not only the problems at the surface, but the underlying causes of those problems. And, it’s through these empathetic connections that we can begin to formulate sustainable solutions. I am here to say that I am for sustainable solutions and not mere talk. I pledge to you, as a designer among other designers, to go out onto the street and strike up a conversation with someone who seems to need help. I will do so in the next couple of weeks and will report back to you my findings so that we might have a deeper discourse.

Who’s with me?

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