Becoming aware of “The danger of a single story”
This morning I watched a TED talk, “The danger of a single story” by a Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In her talk Chmamanda referred to her interaction with her American college roommate when she arrived in the United states at the age of 19
“She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.
What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”
Chimamanda ‘s TED talk sent an alarm bell ringing inside my head. It made me question the value and reliability of the research we conduct for our clients. Corporate researchers are often called upon to serve the organization’s need for simplified and actionable portrayal of their customers. Particularly alarming to me is the new trend for lean research. I began to worry that we are committing a grave error by reducing customer understanding to a simplified form that can quickly become a stereotype. This TED talk strengthened my belief that researching people should never be a one-time project aimed at creating a snapshot of customer needs and aspirations. Instead, the process of understanding customers should be cultivated as an organization’s ongoing culture of continuous learning.
Every individual and community has many stories to tell that can deepen our understanding of their people, their needs and aspirations. Listening to many stories will keep us from becoming victims of stereotypes. Listening to many stories will help us realize that diverse populations are similar in many ways because we are all human. At the same time people are unique in many ways because our contexts differ. A single shot view of a population is misleading. Relying on a single story is dangerous.
I remember my own experience of moving from India to the United States. I studied at the National Institute of Design (NID). The institute’s founders commissioned the legendary American designer couple, Charles and Ray Eames to visit India and write a report recommending a vision for an Indian design school that would be rooted in the Indian ethos. During my studies at the NID, several designers from the western world visited the school to teach. They had a profound impact on our design values and aesthetic. These designers included Charles and Ray Eames, Buckminster Fuller, Victor Papanek, and Alexander Neumeister. I notice that as a result of the design dialogue we regularly had at the NID, my design values got rooted in local Indian culture. However, exposure to western design outputs and the legacy of Bauhaus School shaped our aesthetic (this was particularly true of the industrial design ) in a minimalistic mould. Over time, through exposure to international industrial design magazines, I developed a notion that an ideal industrial design aesthetic had to conform to the defining minimalistic characteristics of most products featured in the western design magazines. As I visited design conferences and museums around the world, I began to notice this minimalist aesthetic dominated the aesthetic sensibilities of the industrial design community and permeated across cultures. I slowly developed an attitude and a personal mission to convert the aesthetically illiterate population of world to the new found industrial design aesthetic that was now deeply ingrained in me. While the Eames Report (which drew upon the story of “Lota” the traditional Indian container to express the Indian ethos) had an influence on shaping my curiosity and native design values, the Eames Chair formed my design aesthetic.
After designing objects inspired by western aesthetic for 13 years in India, I came to the United States to become a “global designer”. At the time, my expectation was that I would develop the capacity to emulate some of the legendary designers whose creations I had seen in western design magazines and museums. My view about what is good design began to change in the graduate school where I read books on psychology, anthropology, sociology and communication. I also had the opportunity to start working as a design researcher. From that point onwards, I visited homes in over 45 countries and have had conversations with more than 8000 people. Through observations and by listening to their stories, I quickly learned that the aesthetic I subscribed to as an Industrial Designer told a single story of a utopian home that I have found only in some of the countries that follow the minimalistic contemporary design language.
The artifacts in most of the homes I visited tell rich stories embedded in them. When I looked back at the artifacts in my own home, I realized that the Eames Chair that I now own in my San Francisco home means a lot less to me than the reclining chair in my Mumbai home that was used by my grandfather, and my father. The Eames chair tells only one story to me. The reclining chair in my Mumbai home has many stories associated with it, because it was used by three generations of family members through many life stages. I recognized that very rarely do the products I previously considered good industrial design find a place of reverence in people’s minds as the products that carry cultural imprint and are associated with different moments of life.
I realized that the artifacts we design must become a part of the narratives that already exist in people’s awareness, like props in a theatrical production. For an artifact to thrive in a culture, it must find a place in a variety of stories that people of that culture grow up with and/ or share with each other.
The four key takeaways from Chimamanda’s TED talk are:
- We must not rely on oversimplified or stereotypical depictions of people.
- We must recognize that there isn’t one reality. Reality is made of multiple perspectives.
- Multiple perspectives can be understood by listening to the stories people tell.
- More stories we hear from people, deeper and more authentic will be our understanding of their world and their imagination.
The Youtube video of the TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is available at https://youtu.be/D9Ihs241zeg