In less than two weeks Savannah College of Art and Design will be hosting Design Ethos: Vision Reconsidered 2012 a two-part conference: part conversation, part action. The Ethos Conference delves into what is currently being done in the field of design to take on social problems, while the Do-Ference synthesizes those conversations to create a roadmap for social innovation in the future. Don't procrastinate—REGISTER TODAY for the Design Ethos conference April 19-20th at SCAD.
Liz Ogbu is one of the panelists for Design Ethos, an Environments Designer and current Fellow of IDEO.org. An expert on sustainable design and social innovation, Ogbu takes on challenged urban environments through her work. From her role as design director at Public Architecture (where she worked on a project for International Planned Parenthood Federation's Bolivian affiliate), Ogbu lives and works Design Ethos—making for a perfect introduction to the conference as a whole. I spoke with her to glean some insights into the motivation behind her work.
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Core77: The Design Ethos conference centers around the overlap between design and living, something that seems to be epitomized in your work as an architect of social innovation. How did you begin to apply your design work to larger social issues?
Liz Ogbu: As corny as it sounds, I think I have had a passion for making a difference in the world since I was very young. I also had a passion for creating things. It wasn't until college that I began to understand that the two could actually fit together. I went to Wellesley, where they have what I call a choose-your-own-adventure approach to the architecture major. The freedom allowed me to include classes in urban economics and sociology as part of my major coursework. Following Wellesley, a series of amazing opportunities, from traveling through the dynamic and complex urban environments of Sub-Saharan Africa as part of a Watson Fellowship to creating a position as Design Director at Public Architecture to working now as an inaugural Global Fellow at IDEO.org, have allowed me to move from just looking at the intersection between social issues and design to actually engaging it in practice.
Notes from IDEO.org's Multiple Use Water Services project
As an experienced designer, do you feel a responsibility to take on social issues in architecture and urbanism? How can others designers follow suit?
Since exploring the connection between social issues to architecture and urbanism has been part of how I have framed my understanding of architecture, it's part of my designer DNA. I have been fortunate enough in my career that I have been able to work for trailblazing organizations and firms in this arena. But I think it's important to stress that you don't need to go work at a nonprofit or "alternative practice" to do this work. At its core, engaging social issues in architecture and urbanism is about us embracing a human-centered approach to design; creating dialogue with and learning from beyond the design disciplines; having a willingness to not only be a designer but also instigator, listener, facilitator and storyteller among other things; and being willing to tackle—and even fail at—these challenging issues. I think many firms have the capacity to embrace these elements as part of their work. The trick is just giving it a try. You can start small: Is there a problem in your neighborhood that represents a social and physical need that you can lend some creative brainpower to examining? Is there a conversation in your community that would benefit from your ability as a visual storyteller? Is there a nonprofit who you can lend some pro bono design assistance to?
Day Labor Station. Rendering of the Harbor City Day Labor Station. Designed by Liz Ogbu and John Peterson for Public Architecture. Renderings by Francesco Fanfani.
Since your graduation from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, have you seen a change in what people need from architecture? What are some of the new needs that could be addressed through innovative design?
I don't think I've seen a change in what people need from architecture. Rather, I think there has been a change in the profession's awareness of that need. When I went back to do my Masters, I felt a little in the minority in the way that I talked about architecture and social change. Now, we see schools like Harvard hosting lectures, forums, and courses around this issue and museums like the Cooper-Hewitt and Museum of Modern Art curating widely publicized exhibitions on the topic. Public Interest Design, or Social Impact Design, has risen from an unnamed perceived alternative form of practice to an increasing part of the mainstream design dialog.
The irony is that in many of the places that I find myself working, people's need and—equally important—aspirations have always been there. Now that we as a profession are getting better about listening to and seeing them, I think the challenge will be how do we move beyond just awareness of social issues to pushing the boundaries and expanding our capacity to really facilitate social impact.
Day Labor Station. Community Garden. Designed by Liz Ogbu and John Peterson for Public Architecture. Renderings by Francesco Fanfani.
You were a design director at Public Architecture, but have also collaborated on several other design projects that approach architecture in new ways. How do you see firms such as Public Architecture and FOURM creating new models to practice architecture?
I don't know that these firms have been creating new models of practice as much as they have been expanding the definition and capacity of existing practice. I think if you walk into any of these offices, there will be much that seems familiar to a traditional design office. I think the main distinguishing characteristics lie in the tweaks to the process. At Public Architecture, we called ourselves not just "problem solvers" but "problem identifiers." Using the creativity and systems thinking inherent in the design process, we were able to reveal rich opportunities for engagement in many communities and help others to do the same. FOURM embraced the tangibility of what we do as architects to reframe the dialog between art and social justice. Our exhibition work allowed the broader public to not only see the dialog, but physically inhabit it. IDEO.org spun off from the global design and innovation firm IDEO. The foundation of the design thinking and human-centered design approach used by the nonprofit shares much alignment with the for profit company. As it relates to architecture, there are some fundamental commonalities in the process of design. IDEO.org pushes the envelope to apply the process of design not only to typical design problems, but also to issues of health, education, water, etc. These are just a few examples but they speak more to these firms as not being completely new models, but shifts in the ways we frame practice.
What kind of response or feedback have you received for your work? How has that feedback fueled or impacted future projects?
Social change is something that most people are inspired by, so in general, the response to my work has been quite positive. But it's not always a bed of roses, and I think that some of the most helpful feedback has been the negative ones, be it the hate mail that I received after talking about a project for day laborers in Houston or a challenging effort to translate international water development lingo into a more graphic and simple language. Whether it's a criticism or a roadblock, my colleagues and I have always treated feedback like insights that can make the work that much better. That way of thinking is epitomized by one of my favorite phrases from the IDEO world: "fail to learn."
Also, because our work is often iterative, we can think about applying the insights not only future projects but subsequent phases of the original project. I will add that one of the things that I would love to see emerging in the coming years are more effective ways to measure impact. I think that will be a needed way to improve our feedback loop.