We Of_Substance

Introducing Of_Substance — an inclusive design practice for people and planet, founded on trust and respect.

Björn Rust
Sep 19 · 4 min read

It’s 2017, a decade since Nikhila Madabhushi and I graduated as Architect and Industrial Designer respectively. We don’t yet know one another — yet we are independently beginning to realise that we had been misled. Design alone was not going to leave a satisfactory “… dent in the universe” ¹, it had been subverted by capitalism as a tool to ‘add value’ and differentiate products in an already oversaturated market place. The dent we were contributing to was an excess of 400 parts per million of CO2 in our atmosphere that we are unlikely to recover from in our lifetimes ² and a ‘technosphere’ estimated to weigh 30 trillion tonnes ³. In the meantime, weather events, floods, fires, earthquakes, landslides and protracted conflicts were claiming lives and affecting livelihoods while also displacing people at an unprecedented scale ⁴.

We had a different kind of dent in mind. We could no longer leave our principles at home; they would have to come first. We left our jobs and re-enrolled as students, a privilege we are acutely aware of. This is where we met — studying disaster management, humanitarian action, city-scale resilience, peace-building, communication for social change and post-development theory.

Nikhila Madabhushi and Björn Rust in Phnom Penh and Kampot respectively, while on assignment for World Vision International. Photos: Linsey Rendell.

Now we’ve united to create Of_Substance — an inclusive design practice for people and planet drawing on design and development theory.

We are not alone; many designers and non-designers are applying empathetic and inclusive design practices to social and humanitarian action. Some might even argue that design thinking, human-centeredness and co-creation or participatory practise have become so commonplace that these concepts, and many like them, have lost their lustre. Just as ‘resilience’ has become the new ‘sustainability’ in some circles, designers and design scholars have begun to pursue alternative models and definitions to restore trust in designerly approaches.

To us, design thinking and design practice are entangled; one cannot exist without the other. We believe the success of design should be measured by its social, environmental, economic and political outcomes, not its outputs or artefacts. Design, human-centred or otherwise, is not a series of consecutive steps. It is a way of knowing, alongside the sciences and humanities ⁵, and a way of seeing the world — in which listening to and learning from ‘users’ and participants informs or overturns the designers’ instincts.

We consider humans part of an extensive system. Any interventions to serve humans must serve the environment on which we rely. People and planet are intertwined—human-centred design is ipso facto planet-centred design. Anthropogenic climate change is evidence of humanity’s immense power, greater than any geological force. We believe this collective power can be used to forge, fortify and adapt our built environments for a brighter future, with all due respect paid to vernacular peculiarities. To us, the built environment is a product and a producer of social change; it is inherently political and cultural.

We believe in lasting solutions, with a long-term view. We feel obliged to provide the best solution for the moment with the understanding that we must adapt in response to new contexts as they emerge—no solution is permanent. Our solutions should build hope and deliver positive outcomes that don’t undermine local capacity or culture. They should fulfil local needs while also enriching the entire system beyond our immediate concerns.

Of_Substance is our platform to evaluate how we stand as designers and ethical people rather than what we are trying to do as designers ⁶. Our practice is committed to exploring respectful ways of providing design solutions to support humanitarian innovation. We invest in trust achieved through transparency, knowledge gained through alternative epistemes, and understanding developed through dialogue. To work this way we must be self-reflexive, recalibrate our ‘understanding’ and question everything. We must be prepared to unlearn old ways and integrate the how and the why a thing is done, into the doing, we must embody Mignolo’s ‘epistemic disobedience’ ⁷. This is our attempt to open spaces for people to contribute possibilities and develop decoloniality into cultural practice.

We define ‘substance’ as that of which something consists, it is the essence of a thing and a part of a continuous whole. As such we cannot work alone; only as a collective are we of substance. We hope that you will challenge us when we misstep, as free and open dialogue is the only way we can hope to improve.


[1]: Sheff D (1985) Playboy Interview: Steven Jobs. In: Playboy. https://www.davidsheff.com/steve-jobs

[2]: Kahn B (2016) The World Passes 400 PPM Threshold. Permanently. In: Climate Central. https://www.climatecentral.org/news/world-passes-400-ppm-threshold-permanently-20738

[3]: Zalasiewicz J, et al. (2016) Scale and diversity of the physical technosphere: A geological perspective. In: The Anthropocene Review. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053019616677743

[4]: UNHCR (2016) ‘Unprecedented’ 65 million people displaced by war and persecution in 2015 — UN. In: UN News. https://news.un.org/en/story/2016/06/532532-unprecedented-65-million-people-displaced-war-and-persecution-2015-un

[5]: Cross N (1982) Designerly ways of knowing. In: Design Studies. https://doi.org/10.1016/0142-694X(82)90040-0

[6]: Tunstall E (2019) Respecting our Relations: Dori Tunstall on Decolonizing Design. In: Jacobs Institute. https://medium.com/@JacobsDesignCal/respecting-our-relations-dori-tunstall-on-decolonizing-design-d894df4c2ed2

[7]: Mignolo W (2010) Globalization and the Decolonial Option. In: Globalization and the Decolonial Option. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315868448

Of_Substance

Design and Humanitarian Innovation

Björn Rust

Written by

Post-industrial designer cum researcher, developing human-centred solutions for purpose-driven people.

Of_Substance

Design and Humanitarian Innovation

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