Ethics – vulnerable population (3/4)

In previous posts in this series I’ve dealt with the ethics underlying design activism in terms of professional ethics and the ethics of production (labor, environment, consumer). In this post I’m looking at ethical issues associated with vulnerable populations. Since I’ve argued in part 1 that activism, for my purposes, typically results from an ethical failure and prompts activists to work on behalf of a neglected, wronged or excluded group, much activism is concerned with vulnerable populations.

People from vulnerable populations are mixed in throughout society, so on the one hand, designers deal with elements of vulnerable populations all the time. On the other hand, there are times when designers address the needs of specific populations, such as elderly people, children, victims of disasters or disease, prisoners, or people struggling in poverty.

It seems that there are at least 2 ethical aspects to this situation. First, the degree to which designers serve these populations. Simply put, do designers give enough of their time to those with special needs? Second, how designers determine what is good for any given vulnerable population.

We can address the first issue –do designers give enough of their time–in two parts. In the first part, we can consider how designers respond to potentially vulnerable populations “in the mix,” then look at how designers address specific vulnerable populations.

In the Mix
There is a design movement, known as “inclusive design,” that advocates design sensitivity  to people of varying capabilities in every project. A good example of this kind of work is recent efforts at kitchen design to make them work as well for wheelchair users as they do for anyone else.

The Snaidero Skyline kitchen is a good example (reported in Metropolis Magazine in March 2007 by Martin C. Pederson). The designers undertook extensive research and testing and as designer Roberto Lucci commented, “Designers usually work for the general market, make a nice design, and then spoil it by trying to adapt the concept to the needs of the disabled.” He says, “we went the opposite way, starting with a design for the disabled and ending with one for everybody.”

Authors of the inclusive design toolkit suggest there is a mistaken notion that people are either “disabled” or “fully able” when in fact most people fall in between these two categories, whether because of the effects of aging, the effects of being a parent of babies and small children (navigating with strollers etc.), the effects of physical or mental injury, or a range of other effects.

In an interesting twist on this theme, a recent project set out to be fully inclusive, of both people and the environment. Although this type of double demand – environmental performance plus full accessibility–might seem overwhelming in both functional and cost terms, it turns out that the two challenges were actually very synergistic. For example, proximity to transit is essential to both, and so is a healthy building interior (to eliminate chemical sensitivities), and efficient yet high quality lighting (reported in Metropolis magazine in October 2007 by Tiffany Meyers). Yet the LEED rating system for neighborhood development (LEED ND) is the first to offer credit for accessible design.

The literature on inclusive design suggests that in fact, designers are not yet doing enough to achieve inclusive design, despite it’s tremendous business potential. Further evidence that designers are not doing enough comes in the form of a report on inclusive design by Roger Coleman for the UK Design Council. He notes there is a new British Standard on Inclusive Design Management, BS7000-6, published in February 2005, “The standard introduces a new level of thinking and practical action steps to conventional design processes, and offers senior management a rationale and mechanisms for realigning business goals with changing consumer needs.”

Specific Populations
What about specific vulnerable populations, are designers doing enough in these cases? In a previous post I noted that compared to law and medicine, designers appear to have few “public service” internship opportunities. In other words, there are not that many ways in which designers can learn the craft of working with vulnerable populations or gain the values-shaping experiences associated with this kind of work.

And although a few awards exist for “do good” design, such as the new Curry Stone Prize for humanitarian design, most awards emphasize other aspects of design, particularly aesthetic appearance. By these measures – the nature of internships, the nature of prizes and recognition–my suspicion is that this general lack of “humanitarian” emphasis has a knock-on effect in the professions. Although it may be unfair to say that designers are not interested in when relatively few commercial opportunities exist for it.

What is good for them?
The second ethical dimension concerns how designers act when these populations are the main focus. Doctors take an oath to “do no harm,” but there’s no equivalent for designers. Yet there are some ways to gauge actions. For example:
–    On what basis do designers decide what is “good for” the population? do designers learn from what others have done?
–    To what extent do designers carry successes and failures forward in a format that others can learn from?

Let’s look at a few cases to explore these issues.

How does a design team know what is good for a vulnerable population? The answer in many cases seems to be that the design team balances knowledge of the context on the one hand with understanding of the population on the other. One example is the Reece School in New York City, an elementary school catering for children with emotional disorders, learning disabilities and speech or coordination impairments (reported in Architectural Record July 2007 in an article by David Sokol).

In this case the design team worked closely with the school staff to understand the needs of the students, as well as the larger context–that the school was trying to prepare the students for mainstream educational settings. So the designers tried to create a school that had the trappings of a “normal” school while being sensitive to special needs including:
–    Smaller classrooms to provide a “safer” feeling to students
–    Color-coded navigation to rooms and halls
–    Unprogramed rooms that can be cocoons in times of emotional fragility
In this case the report suggests, designers relied heavily on the staff of the school to inform them about the larger context, as well as the needs of the students.

In another example, technical design to support the elderly has accelerated, especially in Asian countries like Japan where there are already shortages of care-givers. The scenario (reported in ID magazine May 2007 by Juanita Dugdale) will play out across developed countries as an aging population lives longer than ever before. Designers citing ethnographic research suggest that as we age, loneliness intensifies, so anything that “provides social and emotional support may become important if human contact is in short supply.”

This, combined with the shortage of human care-givers, has led to a wide range of work on the application of robotics to senior care, especially robotics that take the form of friendly looking soft toys or even pets. A pillow “robot” called “the hug” that includes phone lines for voice communication, has tested well with seniors themselves. In this example designers have gone with larger societal forecasts (shortage of human caregivers) as a general direction for determining what is good for the elderly population, followed with testing ideas with actual seniors.

In an interesting case of a concept design for a prison, Will Alsop went directly to the prisoners themselves to find out what was best for them, within the relatively tight constraints of budget, security and societal unease with the notion of making prisons in any way “luxurious” or “desirable” (reported in Metropolis Magazine August 2006 by Douglas McGray).

Alsop observed that prison design was molding prisoners to prison life, rather than helping them prepare for the life they would lead on the outside.  In contrast he discovered that prisoners want doors that they themselves can lock from the inside for privacy from other inmates and many were interested in gardening and construction. The findings led Alsop to propose a series of small but tall blocks that housed smaller numbers of prisoners each, to foster a sense of community, and left more land area for gardening and construction training. He also proposed a built-in hotel for visiting family members, a need the prisoners also identified.

In these cases we see different ways of determining what is best for a vulnerable population. In some cases the vision is driven by the guardians or caregivers, as at the Reece School, and designers interpret that in three dimensional form. In other cases such as the prison, the population itself provides the most information about its needs and concerns, which the designer interprets within other tight constraints. Finally the example of design for aging takes as its starting point a crisis – the exploding size of our aging population, and begins addressing the immediate problem of a shortage of care givers and reduced human contact.

It strikes me that this last case is perhaps the weakest, in terms of determining “what is good for” the population. Perhaps this is due partly to its crisis motivation, and partly to the fact that it presents us with a vulnerable population in a way that it’s never existed before. The research presented in ID, in any case, did not suggest that the researchers looked at the issues underlying why loneliness intensified with aging –is it actually a function of brain maturity, or does it have to do with isolated, suburban living or the practice of warehousing the elderly in commercial homes? Is there a way to address that problem socially as well as robotically?

Carry knowledge and experiences forward

One obvious way that experiences, both good and bad, are carried forward is the publication of books and reports that compile case studies. Books that catalogue examples include Inclusive Design: design for the whole population by Jeremy Clarkson, R Coleman, S Keats and C Lebbon (londong: Springer Verlag 2003) and Design like you give a damn by Architecture for Humanity (London: Thames and Hudson, 2006), among others.

Conferences are another way that information and experience get passed along, such as the annual INCLUDE conference on inclusive design at the Helen Hamlyn Research Center or the occasional (?) universal design conferences held by the Institute for Human Centered Design.

A newer way to build these “knowledge networks” is provided by the internet, and several organizations are setting up online archives for sharing experiences. For example, Architects for Aid (A4A) recognizes that aid workers typically stay around for 5 years before moving on, so A4A is building an online knowledge base to tap what the leavers know (reported in Architectural Record in January 2006 by Nick Olsen).

Some of the archives are user driven, such as Architecture for Humanity’s Open Architecture Network,  in the hope that many people will contribute design solutions for those in need, and that collections of lessons and experiences will be built up around these solutions.


As designers gain more opportunities to train in inclusive design or design for vulnerable populations, the ethical issues surrounding this task will require continued exploration and challenge. Do you work with vulnerable populations? What is your take on the ethical landscape? Should designers consider a “do no harm” oath or would that simply be paralyzing?

Next time, in the concluding part to this series I’ll take an integrated look at the forces underlying the ethics of design activism.

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