Speak UpA Former Division of UnderConsideration
The Archives, August 2002 – April 2009
advertise @ underconsideration
---Click here for full archive list or browse below
Why Awareness is not Enough
Guest Editorial by David Stairs

Last month Bill Drenttel from Design Observer contacted me to say he and Michael Bierut were seeking a way to do something about the tsunami disaster, and they thought maybe I would have some ideas since this is more my line of work. I’m afraid my reply disappointed them. I said that Designers Without Borders is not a relief agency, but a non-profit dedicated to education and economic development. When it comes to emergency aid, one of the established charities is as good as another. If one wanted to feel good about donating to a design non-profit, one could give to Habitat for Humanity, but Oxfam or the Red Cross were just as credible and probably more experienced when it comes to putting water, tents, and rice into disaster ravaged areas. As the days passed and I watched Americans ante-up to the tune of a wide variety of fund raising techniques, everything from children selling cocoa to innumerable online entreaties, I began to marvel at what a Donation Nation we’d become.

Far be it from me to disparage charitable efforts, especially those of children wanting to help others in desperate need. I too gave to choice charities, how could you not? But the immense outpouring of sympathy and cash felt an awful lot like one of the unending media-orchestrated events we’re exposed to in America. On January 20, USA Today carried a story buried in the back of the Lifestyle section that repeated Medécins Sans Frontieres’ claim that most disasters of the developing world go underreported. At the top of the list was the child abduction crisis in northern Uganda, a nation near and dear to me and my family.

I knew about the Ugandan crisis; it’s a longstanding tragedy of epic proportions. And the other examples from MSF didn’t surprise me either. I understand that four-fifths of the world’s population is not properly provided for. What I can’t understand is the way my fellow countrymen look the other way in most cases, but apply the knee-jerk to some. I suppose the ferocity of the way in which a quarter-million souls were snatched from life by pitiless nature makes for better copy than the tedious conflicts in Congo or the Sudan. And, after all, how can we be expected to do anything about the civil conflict in rural Colombia? Actually, the American and European powers have been presaging African disasters like those in Sudan and Congo for more than a century, and the U.S., with its unquenchable appetite for drugs, is the primary reason for the problems in Colombia.

Having stated the obvious, is there anything substantive to add to this discussion? There are many Americans risking themselves as volunteers in faraway places, and back here at home people are becoming more aware. Take, for example, the AIGA’s World Day of Design poster competition. Pulled together by the Miami Regional Chapter of the AIGA (what you’re supposed to think about when you hear the word “design”) the competition will be one of the American entrants in this newly formed event (2002). This is not a bad idea as they go, just not a terribly forceful one. Safe, but ineffective.

What would be more effective? Well, tsunami warning buoys, for one. At a quarter-million dollars apiece, had Americans had the foresight to spend a piddling $2 million installing eight of these devices in the Indian Ocean, we now might be 150,000 lives and many billion dollars richer. This should appeal to those of us who are designers; we’re supposed to be interested in planning to improve human life, not in efforts at wishful thinking. Then there’s Architecture for Humanity’s efforts at rebuilding the village of Kirinda, Sri Lanka to more sustainable standards. This should be a prerequisite for aid.

One of my friends lamented that we Americans have never been very good at prevention. If this is true, even slightly so, it’s a great shame. We are, after all, the tribe with the biggest army and the hugest economy, not to mention the most advanced technology. Why can’t we apply our resources toward becoming the people with the longest view?

Which brings me back to my reasons for writing this missive, other than to enrage my critics, namely to encourage young Americans, especially designers, to answer the call and visit your brethren in the far-flung corners of the globe. Follow the example of my young designer/teacher friends Megan and Michael. Help others with your hands, as well as your tax-deductible donations. And wherever you can, urge your government and your fellow Americans to act to prevent disasters before they happen in the world. Too many people live in the flood plains and along the fault lines, awaiting the next natural catastrophe. We have such great national resources, let us apply them with an ounce of design-prevention rather than an air-dropped billion pounds of cure.

David Stairs is currently planning Designers Without Borders’ 2006-2008 biennium African outreach program. Learn more at www.designerswithoutborders.org.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Feb.10.2005 BY Speak Up
marian’s comment is:

I completely agree that there is a long-standing emphasis on cure over prevention. This is particularly true in medicine. Aside from cynical views of greed/profit, I think the main motivating factor is heroism. Are Americans particularly prone to this? I don't know, it would seem to me to be a fairly universal human trait.

When you prevent something, your acts go largely unrecognized ... because, after all, whatever you prevented doesn't happen. It is a non-event. Prevention is not sexy, and gives no ego boost. Cure, on the other hand, is extremely heroic and egotistical. Most people are driven toward heroism for largely selfish reasons; it makes them feel good. This is not a bad thing; ego does not equal bad, it's just an explanation for motivation.

I've been reading some things lately about competition vs. cooperation. We live in a society based on competition, but many people are starting to wonder if a cooperative society wouldn't be more efficient, more humanitarian, and just as profitable. The issue is, at heart, the same. When you compete, you draw attention to yourself; when you cooperate you subvert the self toward a larger goal.

Recently i was asked to contribute to the upcoming issue of Building Letters, the procedes of which will, yes, go to tsunami vicitms. I was asked to choose representing one of a couple of quotes by Gandhi. How could I resist: "Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it."

On Feb.11.2005 at 11:20 AM
kleid’s comment is:

I heard on the radio recently, that Bush was asking congress to up aid again. And I don't really care about the motives, I don't care that upping aid will result in the United States being the #1 aid-giver, possibly giving the US a PR point in the muslim world.

It's money for people who need it.

What I'm mainly concerned with is two things:

1. Misappropriation. 9/11...cough

2. After the limelights turn off. I heard that most money alotted to the affected (or is it effected?) countries has a time-limit on it. Although a country promised 100 million, it has to be spent NOW.

Which plays into the whole "sexy to donate" idea. An out-pouring of support, and then a trickle 5 years from now.

As Mr. Stairs brought out, an innumerable amounts of awareness sites were made within days of the disaster. But I wonder, how many will be up next year, and who will even care to check them.


Real Action,

Long-term Awareness.

On Feb.11.2005 at 02:12 PM
Eric Heiman’s comment is:

Ah, how I long for a country that takes the long view! (Pun surely intended.)

I'm ambivalent about even posting here—let he who is without sin cast the first stone, right?—but I think David's post warrants a discussion where all of us can forward our honest thoughts and dreams in this arena, regardless of our own actionable successes and/or shortcomings.

Maybe I lean towards the cynical side on these issues, but I have to admit that my eyes eventually start to roll when I hear that the AIGA is doing another "Get out the Vote" poster campaign, or any other project of this ilk. It's not that it doesn't help—I stuck Marks Fox's poster (for the local San Francisco chapter) in my car window for months and it elicitied response and discussion, especially on a drive up to Portland through the heartland of California and Oregon—it just seems too easy to design a poster and say, "Hey, I designed a this to protest the war, to get people out to vote, to question consumption. I'm making a difference." I would buy this if we were designing posters AND going out to help with our bare hands nearer to the source of the problem. But designing a poster alone, though a noble act, is also a cushion, a cop-out. It allows us to "help" within the comforts of the monitor glow in our studios, rather than actually spending time to dirty our hands helping people with something other than silkcreen ink on paper. Expand this to most other forms of charity—we give money and our consciences are clean—and you see a pattern. This isn't a bad thing, simply an observation, though there is something perversely and appropriately poetic about this, being America and all.

I bring this up because my wife and have started to work at a soup kitchen one Saturday a month for 6 hours. It's a great crew of people and you really get an immediate sense of what poverty and homelessness is like here in our own country. One week I was assigned the door position, where one greets the incoming patrons. Simply looking each one in the eye and saying "Welcome" to them with a smile on my face made their day (the food helped, too). I really couldn't believe it. Sure, doing design work for foundations that make these programs happen helps, too, but without people on the front lines to facilitate the actual charity activity, what good is it?

My new mantra is simply do both: design for good but also get out there on the front lines, too. You may begin to see the long view in sharper focus.

On Feb.11.2005 at 03:05 PM
Rob’s comment is:

I'm not sure whether I should yell, scream or just grab the nearest hammer. Why is it, when Americans do respond in someway to an disaster outside our borders, the general reaction always seems to be that it's a little too late and we should have done something sooner? And are we alone in the world of overlooking the day to day disasters of humanity while reacting with such an outpouring of support to natural disasters?

And why is it always positioned like it's our responsibility alone to prevent all the horrors, natural or otherwise, that plague the world around us.

Then I look at our national debt (and why doesn't the government ever file for bankruptcy?), the homeless people on our own streets, the number of children living in single-parent homes that are below the poverty line and wonder— if we can't prevent that, through design or otherwise, what hope does the rest of the world have for us coming to their rescue?

Not to downplay the importance of David's ideas, but I think it's a bit of a cheap shot to drop all the responsibility on the doorstep of the US. The US has been quite involved in an early monitoring system for tsunamis but in this particular situation it wasn't enough for one simple reason:

(from Newsweek) At Hawaii's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, shortly after 3 p.m. ... Stuart Weinstein, noticed a spike on the seismometer in the Cocos Islands, south of Sumatra in the Indian Ocean. The initial reading was for an earthquake registering 8.0 on the Richter scale. Quakes of such magnitude are not all that unusual....THIS EARTHQUAKE IS LOCATED OUTSIDE THE PACIFIC. NO DESTRUCTIVE TSUNAMI THREAT EXISTS BASED ON HISTORICAL EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI DATA.

By the time the scientists realized that they were wrong, as was history, the tsunami was making it's way across the Indian Ocean. Calls were attempted to warn people ahead of the fast moving waves (which took about two hours too wreak their havoc) but the communication infrastructure in Indonesia and that part of the world is not what it is here in the US, and most calls were receieved too late. Or not at all. So, yeah, let's blame the Americans. And even better American designers.

On Feb.11.2005 at 03:48 PM
Steven’s comment is:

To paraphrase the Gandhi quote in Marian's post: Every little bit helps.

If everybody just did one small thing, it would have an enormous effect. And whether you're on "the front lines" or in the safety of your own home, the most important thing is to think beyond your own needs and give just a little to those less fortunate. Doing something, anything, is better than just apathetically consuming.

I would say, however, that I'm less impressed with efforts like poster contests, in comparison to more active (read: effective) efforts such as Designers Without Borders or the Building Letters magazine, which directly help people.

And people from other countries have a right to be critical of Americans, because we almost always get our way with situations and we consume more than any other nation on the planet. It should be expected that the top dog gets the most grief.

(BTW, I have regularly donated to eco-friendly and socially progressive organizations over the years. I've even done something as simple as give extra food to a homeless person and talked with him for a bit.)

On Feb.11.2005 at 07:43 PM
Schuyler Crawford’s comment is:

The idea that as designers we can do something for our fellow humans is a noble cause that unfortunatly dosen't get acted upon often. What Steven said ("I've even done something as simple as give extra food to a homeless person and talked with him for a bit.") really struck me. It can be that easy.

In our huried lives we tend to overlook the people right in front of us. To treat another human with dignity and respect goes much further than throwing money at them and pretending that they don't exist. Don't get me wrong, every bit helps, but what we really need to do is concentrate on improving the quality of life for all.

As designers, we can chose to work in an isolated environment or collaborate with those around us. We must allow ourselves to engage with others and not allow ourselves to fall into the "comforts of the monitor glow in our studios," as Mr. Heiman put it, "rather than actually spending time to dirty our hands helping people..."

Sometimes it's as simple as a smile and acknowleging another person with dignity.

On Feb.13.2005 at 05:17 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

What!? You're advocating that Americans take a more worldy view of what's going on on this planet? How anti-American!


Why is it, when Americans do respond in someway to an disaster outside our borders, the general reaction always seems to be that it's a little too late and we should have done something sooner?

Normally, because it's usually a little to late and we could have done something sooner.

FYI, if you haven't seen it yet, go rent 'Team America: World Police'. It seemed to sum up the situation quite well. ;o)

And Rob...dude...no one is blaming America.

On Feb.13.2005 at 04:38 PM
Tan’s comment is:

In my opinion, this is an issue that's beyond the profession, beyond nationalism. It's about being human, about compassion, about action.

It's not about making PR points as designers, or Americans, or Christians — it's just not right to take advantage of human suffering that way.

Compassion is up to each individual. Some people can devote more than just money — and lots of Americans have responded to the call of humanitarian aid and hopped on a plane to the region to offer help. A good friend of mine, who is a surgeon, did just that — he had a few weeks off, and decided to spend it to help the disaster. But the Red Cross had too many medics in the region already, so instead dispatched him to Guyana to battle an outbreak of cholera.

Since I'm not a physician, and I don't have a few weeks to spare from work for such heroism —�I've decided to help in other ways, like millions of other Americans and people from around the globe.

How long will this global awareness and giving effort last? Realistically, probably not nearly as long as is needed. But that doesn't negate the effort, the human compassion, or the impact.

Let's stop talking about what could've been done, who has done what, or the motives of this group and that group. What a horrible way to put the situation and the global response in context.

Don't point fingers. Don't talk about design, or Americanism, or XYZ organization, or any particular religious group. Don't make matters worse.

Just give what you feel and just be a human being.

On Feb.13.2005 at 08:31 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Tan, you nailed it.

Years ago, I adopted a 10 year old Tibetan refugee, a child who was studying to become a monk. It was personal. My view was help one other person, but do it completely & do it for the long run and the world would be a better place.

He wrote to me recently, now that he's a young man in his 20's, that summed up this call to compassion and awareness: The world will always have disasters and suffering, but it's how you respond that counts.

On Feb.13.2005 at 10:44 PM
Nick’s comment is:

I jerk my knee with the rest of society, doing my charitable bit for the latest disaster/fundraiser not out of compassion, but duty. Once some noble humanitarian of one's acquaintance starts the ball rolling, it's churlish to say no.

I am extremely cynical of people's motives. When a citizen of a wealthy, ruthless, militaristic nation such as the US ot the UK gives to a disaster charity and attaches their name to the act, I don't assume it is compassion that motivates them. It could just as easily be a need for absolution for living so comfortably, vanity and pride in demonstrably doing the right thing, or joyful release in finding an ideologically-free cause. It is also a form of mass hysteria.

On Feb.14.2005 at 07:31 AM
szkat’s comment is:

what knee-jerk things do is give people an answer. people know that shit is going down all over the place. you're handed a visible way to help, and you have a ready-made team who's in it with you. it appeals to the masses b/c it IS the masses.

Mohammad said, "do not dig many shallow wells. dig one well and dig it deep."

my NFP client has a long-term goal of helping a nation, but a short-term one of helping a family. does this mean i have no heart for kidnapped tsunami children? certainly not. but working for the Elias Fund fits what i'm prepared to do. i guess i'm saying that just as there are invisible causes, there are also invisible fighters. the outlook we're building here seems so bleak, but i don't think it necessarily is.

David's fight is in Uganda, mine is growing in Zimbabwe, and i'm sure there are people all over this forum who have similar causes. but ultimately, all of it is comprised of people to people, chasing what they connect with. i give people and their motives the benefit of the doubt because i've seen the difference it's made in my life to give freely and compassionately to something that has absolutely nothing to do with me. i think it was Mandela: "our purpose of life is to plant trees, under whose shade we do not intend to sit."

On Feb.14.2005 at 09:36 AM
Emma’s comment is:

I just got back from 10 days in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan and I agree with Tan on approach.

Categorizing anyone's response to those in need rings hallow once you experience the recipients in person. They certainly don't care about your reasons for coming, they just care that you came.

I was in Peshawar working with micro-enterprises that had been started for the minority population -- a group relegated to low-paying jobs like sewage clean-up and street cleaning because they are not part of the Muslim majority. I had been invited to come make these community development projects that had been in operation for 10 years "profitable" through design. "Design" in this case meant more effective product design, sourcing of materials, branding and marketing.

This could easily smack of presumptive American capitalistic swagger, arrogance on the role of design or worse except ...

I only went because I was invited. In what will be a long-term project focused on building sustainable business solutions through design, my hosts remain focused on the bottom-line at all junctures.

And so it becomes my job to focus on the "cultural capital" that already exists in Pakistan, to encourage a maximizing of resources they have in hand. At the end of my stay, my host corrected a common misconception. He said donations would be useless without creative and strategic thinking. Well-intentioned grant money has gone to waste countless times over the past decade.

What does he value most? Not extra funding or overblown proposals or even good intentions. He wants people to come over and visit, spend time, and form personal links with the communities he is trying to sustain. This type of "aid" defies boundaries, categorizations, and (hopefully) critiques.

On Feb.14.2005 at 12:59 PM
Zoelle’s comment is:

I completely agree that there is a long-standing emphasis on cure over prevention. This is particularly true in medicine. Aside from cynical views of greed/profit, I think the main motivating factor is heroism.

I think part of the problem is that American’s are fixated on instant gratification and have developed a skewed perception of freedom in relation to personal health. How many commercials for fitness equipment and diets promise fast results? Eight Minute Abs ring a bell? As I see it Americans want to be healthy, they want to live long, but they don’t want to change their own behaviors. Many people go on diets as a temporary quick fix for obesity instead of making lifestyle changes. Somehow limiting portions and forgoing the deep fried cheese curds became an attack on personal freedoms. We are experiencing an epidemic of childhood diabetes. Hmm, who buys the food in the house? Do you need to be personally affected by diabetes before you at least skim through the http://www.glycemicindex.com/" target="_blank">glycemic index?

I think that people can make large changes in society by making small personal changes. You could: quit smoking, eat better, stop tailgating, vote, put your kids in a car seat, compliment someone, give. My charity of choice is the http://www.childrenshungerfund.org/pro_inter_uganda2004.html" target="_blank">Children’s Hunger Fund, but making a positive impact on the world doesn’t need to be a long sighted approach.

My father-in-law channeled his knowledge and passion for helping people into a project which he hopes will help feed (and possibly shelter) people around the world. He invented a low-cost portable floating raceway system. The recycled plastic raceways are an alternative to costly permanent traditional concrete raceways. He has donated raceways to aquaculture charity organizations. He has hopes that an inverted land version of his design will provide durable weather-resistant temporary housing in disaster situations. There are always ways to help.

On Feb.14.2005 at 03:03 PM
szkat’s comment is:

I think part of the problem is that American’s are fixated on instant gratification and have developed a skewed perception of freedom in relation to personal health. How many commercials for fitness equipment and diets promise fast results?

yes, well, welcome to capatalism, consumerism, and the freedom that we conjure when everything is controlled by dollars. media oversaturation, fortified by natural entrepreneurs (hello, 8 minute abs), lead to people giving the wrong solutions to problems.

american's need for instant gratification has long been overindulged by media and inventors. i think it would be a lark for steve jobs to take ten of his best and "think tank" some low income prefab housing ideas instead of creating the next iSpinoff. not that i don't love my apple, but what if they had a tiny little unknown division that solved bigger problems? instead of filling a perceived consumer gap, maybe it would be beneficial to consider what the human NEED is, as opposed to the human WANT.

of course, then you're not pursuing the bottom line in the equation - the cash return bottom line. and then you're brushed off and told you're just being silly.

On Feb.14.2005 at 04:28 PM
Zoelle’s comment is:

instead of filling a perceived consumer gap, maybe it would be beneficial to consider what the human NEED is, as opposed to the human WANT.

Your post just jogged my memory. Take a look at a section of the MINI UK site. Look under Fun & Adventures > Whizz Kidz.

On Feb.14.2005 at 04:55 PM
david stairs’s comment is:

As an example of how the world could be enhanced, take a look at Nicholas Negroponte's initiative to build a $100 laptop for the developing world.

On Feb.16.2005 at 11:20 AM
Emma’s comment is:

And Amy Smith's inventive work. She teaches a course at MIT on sustainable design in developing communities.

On Feb.16.2005 at 12:22 PM
szkat’s comment is:

don't forget about Sappi Ideas That Matter.

who else is submitting this year? i have the application on my desk right now.

On Feb.18.2005 at 11:16 AM
gregor’s comment is:

My spouse is a development direcctor for a non-profit that provides housing and life skills training for women in transition (from abusive relationships, drug abuse, chronic homelessness, etc.). If you're a Seattleite with a few bucks to spare, feel free to give them a holler: sojourner place. Small organizations while apparently affecting change for a few, can make a difference.

She has also held positions with others including Executive Director for an international NPO. When I asked her about trends in giving her response was that by and large americans are more generous to causes outside the country and for any number of issues inclusing emergency relief such as the recent Tsunami, abandonded and orhaned children, world hunger etc.

We as a country are less inclined to give locally to an organization that supports the "crazed looking drug addict" you see on the corner every morning on the way to work.

Unscientifically and more so an experience based perspective, the profile leans toward suburban, wealthy conservative, and practicing christian donors who support out of country causes and more liberal in-city upper middle-class professionals who support local causes -- lawyers are among the most frequent donors (and in larger amounts) to her organization.

Our own giving - and we are by no means monied folk (after all I work in design, my spouse in the non-profit world), is spread across several organizations that ranges from both money and volunteering with several organizations and includes schools, the arts, micro-credit lenders such as global partnerships, and support organizations for young women.

I think international, national and local causes are all worth our attention as individuals and it's a matter of spreading our charitable donations wisely.

As designers we can make a difference as well. pro-bono is always good as you can reasonably fit it into your life as is a fee ratew specifically for NPOs for those of us who freelance or run studios.

And yes, that Sappi grant is one great way to get an organization

high quality marketing collateral. Thanks for pointing that one out to everyone szkat! While not this year, next year my application will go in for a 15 year anniversary publication for a local NPO.

On Feb.18.2005 at 06:47 PM
szkat’s comment is:

i'm very curious how many people have stories like Gregor's, or David's. what causes are important to the people here? how did you get involved? how does it satisfy you in the creative sense, but also in the humanitarian sense? do you think you're striking a balance between prevention and cure?

i've mentioned mine a few times, but i want to see what matters to you.

On Feb.20.2005 at 11:29 PM