John Cary is an architect, writer, speaker, and curator focused on design and philanthropy. He lives in Oakland.
In an excerpt from his book Design for Good, John Cary considers the achievements and future of the social-impact design movement.
The following is excerpted from Design for Good by John Cary, with a foreword by Melinda Gates (Island Press, $30). The book collects 20 case studies of public-interest architecture.
If you asked 100 random people or even 100 designers, “What is design?” you would get approximately that many different answers. In the most positive sense, this explains the pervasiveness of designers working in and touching every imaginable aspect of our lives. Beyond built structures, the products we rely on day in and day out, the services we use as members of society, are all designed.
We designers have long stumbled over how to capture this reality—that design is so pervasive and people have so many perceptions of it (if it is even in their consciousness). This has especially been the case for those of us who are trying to expand design’s reach beyond its traditional, elite client base. In the past few decades we’ve struggled with nomenclature: What to call this growing field of practice that focuses on engaging entirely new communities and populations?
For years, in my role as executive director of the nonprofit Public Architecture, I advocated for and advanced the term “public interest design,” akin to the well-developed fields of public interest law and public health. To my mind, if designers modeled their engagement after what was already working in other professions, it had a shot at reaching scale, further and faster.
An equal number of designers have utilized the term “social impact design.” Such work directly favors community, environmental, or humanitarian causes and the change it can create. This term is perhaps most closely aligned with social justice. The term that has actually gained the greatest traction in recent years is “human-centered design,” popularized by the innovation firm IDEO.
In the dozens of interviews that I conducted for this book, there was one term used universally: “design.” The qualifiers that were once useful may have finally outlived their usefulness.
But a lack of awareness persists about how this socially oriented practice of design has evolved and matured. While there has been a steady uptick in media coverage, the vast majority of press focuses almost solely on designers’ intentions. Rarely are the voices of clients and actual users presented. The result is that we’re hearing barely half of the story and limiting our ability to fully understand the impact of design.
At every level, design is a matrix of relationships—from clients who make decisions about projects to designers who bring life to those clients’ visions. In between, in a health-care setting, for example, are users who range from doctors and nurses to patients and family visitors, among many others. Then there are those who give physical form to the structures: construction workers, artisans, craftspeople, and scores of others.
From Atlanta to Angdong, China, and from Dallas to Dhaka, some of the best of this new body of work is not just beautifully designed and constructed but also painstakingly documented by world-class photographers and filmmakers once reserved for only the most elite of projects. This imagery and storytelling has been essential in elevating design for the public good to its rightful place alongside other forms of design, again without the need for special categories or commendations.
The conventional wisdom is that design costs more and is only a luxury. Yet people from all walks of life deserve good design. The power of design to dignify will never be fully explored until average people have some sense that they deserve better.
Here are three of many recent projects around the world that improve the lives of regular people through design.
The Cottages at Hickory Crossing, Dallas
The Cottages at Hickory Crossing was built by the Central Dallas Community Development Corporation to house 50 chronically homeless people. Designed by the architecture firm bcWORKSHOP, each 400-square-foot home includes a kitchen with a cooktop, sink, and full refrigerator, along with a bedroom and an accessible full bathroom. In interviews with the architects, formerly homeless people said they saw the door itself as a symbol of dignity. Having an individual unit, as opposed to a unit in a larger building, sounded downright luxurious to them, a true point of pride.
Gregory Philen, who had been homeless for many years, arrived at his new home in 2016 to find his cottage fully furnished, with a range of small comforts including a toothbrush and a slow cooker. “I feel like it’s a home. I don’t even look at it like an apartment or anything like that,” said Philen. “We have Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and I now spend a lot of my time trying to help others.
“I know it’s been good for others here, too. We have classes or meetings every Tuesday or Friday. We just go do what we call ‘coffee talk.’ Most everybody in the community comes. You don’t have to, though. They pretty much leave us alone and let us live like it’s just a regular neighborhood.”
WelcomeHealth, Fayetteville, Arkansas
“Our attitude is that even people who don’t have a lot of money, who are poor or not very well educated, deserve both care and the chance to receive care in a building like this,” said Monika Fischer-Massie, director of WelcomeHealth, a free clinic in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The clinic operates out of a single-story building that once housed a state agency and then an exercise center. Highly regarded architect Marlon Blackwell turned it into WelcomeHealth, which became the first LEED-certified healthcare facility in Northwest Arkansas in 2013.
“We have a lot of daylight in the facility now,” Fischer-Massie says. “When patients walk in, they get a feeling of health because of the light and materials, which include bright surfaces and lots of wood.” Fischer-Massie often hears visiting doctors say, “My office is not as beautiful as your office.”
St. Jerome’s Centre, Nakuru, Kenya
Thirty children live in the St. Jerome’s Centre, a children’s house on the outskirts of Nakuru, the fourth-largest city in Kenya. Rather than the customary barrack-style sleeping wards, the center was designed as a home, with bedrooms limited to four children each.
Security was a major consideration, and the center insisted on having no windows on the ground floor, which made cross-ventilation of spaces and access to natural light very difficult. The Nairobi-based design firm Orkidstudio decided to create a thick earth-bag wall wrapping around the buildings’ external facades. This type of wall has thermal qualities to compensate for limited ventilation. The walls and rooms facing the courtyard, meanwhile, are clad in thin wooden-rod screens. In this way, light can filter all the way downstairs to the lower bedrooms.
Coming to a community as an outsider and designing sensitively for it requires not just good intentions, but humility. James Mitchell, Orkidstudio’s founder, recalls a project he did in Bolivia that chipped away at the confidence he had built up working for the famous Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. “We argued and we pulled in different directions, we got a lot of things wrong, and we had a lot of tears on the project. But it really taught me so much; I think it was the biggest learning curve of my life. It was maybe a bad place to be, but, in hindsight, a good place to be.”