Design Is [Multicultural]

Back in 2014 I was talking to a chap after a speaking gig in London and I had become the dictionary definition of a big dumb mess. I told him how I hadn’t slept the night before, how I was extremely nervous about the talk (which turned out very poorly in the end), and how I was starting to think the whole thing was a bad idea. This chap was speaking right after me (his talk was thoroughly lovely), and I was immediately inspired by how calm, collected, and thoughtful he was. He also gave me some very kind feedback. And so we haven’t kept in touch at all, I’m sure he wouldn’t recognize me today, but that one meeting all those years ago, that one impression, has remained so strongly in my memory.

This was my first impression of Senongo Akpem.

I remembered our brief chat yesterday when I stumbled across a talk of his about multicultural design and now I can’t stop thinking about it. Throughout the talk he argues that when it comes to making mistakes in design, our intent doesn’t really matter all that much. If we made something that hurts people then that’s all that matters—the pain and damage is what counts, regardless of how we feel about it. And so to reduce the pain that we inflict we must reimagine what we think about other cultures, other ways of being a person in this world.

There’s a lot of great stories in here but the part that really stuck out to me was the one about the researcher asking folks in India about the design of a train ticket machine. She asked people how they might improve the UI but nobody would give her a conclusive answer. It was only when the researcher changed the scenario that folks started to care about this dumb little ticket machine and have opinions about how to make it better. It starts at around the 9:00 mark and that story alone is worth the price of admission.

In fact, I loved this talk so much so that I picked up Cross-Cultural Design, Senongo’s book on the subject for A Book Apart. All of this is to say that I’m really excited to check it out because I feel like there’s so much left for me to learn on this subject.