WEs, WEs everyWhEre

By Sara Jo Johnson

We have two large pieces of Woodtype from my husband’s letterpress studio that seem to turn up in different locales around our house—and change meaning regularly. They are the letters W and E—or perhaps M and E. Our three-year old daughter constantly rearranges them. My husband and I sometimes even passive aggressively talk through them; if we’re in the halcyon days, they usually sit on the bookshelf as WE. If one of us deems the other one selfish or annoying, they may be on the dining room table as ME. I’ve even found the need for EW when I felt like I was alone in desiring a clean house.

During the DesignEthos 2012 DO-ference, I felt an oddly physical and visual connection when Chris Miller of Illuminomics—during the first DesignEthos panel—discussed this necessary shift in mentality for designers from ME to WE. And yes, we’ve all seen this shift. We actually embodied it at DesignEthos:

Gone, we hope, are the days where designers are publishing tomes about themselves [ourselves] and generating isolated ideas from their hip but isolated studios. Now our lexicon is: humancentered, cross-disciplinary, collaboration, wicked, systems…And we are attempting to tackle the scary, daunting problems that reflect our cultural systems’ (education, workforce, transportation, food, health care, etc.) need to evolve. And now we see Waters Avenue’s true complexity—because it seems like a small-scale project—but rather it has issues from all of these systems that have tangled together permanently.

So now the WE needs to be a small army—minus the domineering hierarchy that this metaphor might contain. Does this conflict with the mantra that I chant to my contextual research students—like a broken record: the change must come from within… the change must come from within…? Instead, the WEs need to be preserved, respected and then part of a larger WE—that represents all of the players.

Hannah Du Plessis and I kept talking about this—and she is wisely cautious about this; but I felt like this mantra/perspective was making me too cautious. Yes, we all know the negative extreme. Exploitation. And this would look like design strategy consultants [or other entities] swooping in, doing their thing, then moving on to new, similar projects with minimal afterthought. But this is the extreme. And I start to realize where this mantra can be polarizing and create inertia.

We, designers, don’t want to do that [the egregious “that”] so what do we do? In my head, I’m trying to be so careful about protecting the THEY that is Waters Avenue from this exploitation, that I start feeling paranoid and anxious when I’m around the local Waters Avenue community people. They unfortunately—and fortunately, because that would just be creepy—cannot read my mind and could possibly interpret this as ego or ignorance [but in turn I cannot read their mind] and the odd cycle perpetuates.

This is when I started realizing these different situational WEs. And how it really helps if you think of them this way; instead of our natural tendency to make them US, not YOU, exclusive and non-inclusionary. Why do humans set up so many arbitrary boundaries? Brenda Laurel refers to “situatedness” in the book that she edited DESIGN RESEARCH. In any given day, I change my roles depending on the context and the environment. I am a mother, a daughter, a neighbor, a grocery customer, a faller downer, a dental patient, a teacher, a driver, a gas pumper, a weeder…

Can we also do this with WE?

Hannah and I are in many connected WEs. WE went to the same graduate school; WE are women; WE are bikers; WE are committed to DO-ference together. I am also part of the local WE. I live here. I hear Sid J. Johnson talk—and I can realistically imagine what Waters Avenue was—a vital local African American community. And this is the South, right?! Shouldn’t there be areas like this all over Savannah? YES!! And are there? NO. That’s why this is so delicate and deep and important. This is uncomfortably embedded with larger racial and political issues. So then there is the core WE—the Waters Avenue community.

And in this sense, yes! The change must come from within, in the sense that it must embody them and represent them. It must take who they are into account, and not jam another reality down their throat. To bring some well-needed spirituality into design: they are the soul. This is where the poetry and the authenticity comes in. If WE [the small army] are designing [or creating or improving] services, systems or things for people and their environment, well…then every idea must start from within and pay attention to the every day happenings on.

Waters Avenue. What are they doing? This question alone could have myriad answers—and all of them are important. What motivates them? What specific actions make them happy? What frustrates the hell out of them? Myriad answers, right? Ooooooof. Enter Operation Difficult. Ooh, or Operation Ooooof does have a nice ring to it, hmmmm? Small WE armies are feats among themselves. They require effective communication, respect… something that we refer to as collaboration in design.

Collaboration—ooooof—is the melding of visions and ideas with its own wickedness: swelling egos, I-can-talk-louder-than-you champions, myriad schedules, multiple vernaculars, subjective viewpoints that are declared as scripture…and existing [polarizing] stereotypes—especially towards the bureaucracy, who happens to be a key player. Time to hit the RESET button and shake off existing stereotypes. They really have NO use here.

Now is where the key ingredients come in. Trust, rapport, empathy. And the kicker—which does not necessarily align with our human nature [wanting things NOW and getting immediate results] or our overly hectic work/life schedules:::: this takes time.

Trust, rapport and/or empathy are not instant—and they are the stuff of relationships. Collaborating can create necessary tension—but if you are trying to collaborate immediately as strangers—then you just get tension. It helps to allow for the down time; time where you accidentally talk about collard recipes or start identifying your other intersecting WEs.

Allow for some time to be human and less serious.

I realize that students are trying to understand their potential roles or mode of approach. So students: be empowered that today’s projects are wicked [crazy] and so there is no definitive ‘right’ answer. And every project can bring a whole new team of WEs. Manzini and others have referred to what WE [designers] can offer in preceding entries, comprising:

facilitators, listeners, scribes, post-it cowboys, sketchers or creatives, listeners and learners, system map makers [where you offer the entire system as it exists as a one-page map, thus promoting autonomy for the future.]

DO-ference folks realized this. And I think the local DO-ference WEs could also give advocacy and potential linking to other existing and evolving [related] projects, systems, events…

Infinite positive things happened during the Do-Ference. But in my humble opinion, the seminal event: the after party. There were no expectations—and the bonding elements of food and alcohol were ubiquitous. It doesn’t necessarily need to be this fancy; it just needs this light ludic undertone. In a perfect world, there would have been more community folks there. And though we were all a WE at that moment, some people chose to remain in their smaller, comfortable situational WEs; while other clusters were visitor folks and Waters Avenue folks—for whatever reason. [I’m now navigating my 3-year-old through social realities; and recently told her: If you feel weird, they probably feel weird. Words to live by, no?] I left that night and felt happily thoughtful because three community folks came up to me to say that they liked what I said during the panel. And, unfortunately, I wasn’t profound or wise. I just mentioned the touchy racial realities. And the WEs. I may have chipped away a presumption that they may have had about me—because when we don’t know people that’s all that we can rely on. And I realized that WE built a little connection. These little connections have to be a foundation.


Sara Jo Johnson is a professor of Design Management at SCAD. She possesses a degree in Journalism and Master degrees in Graphic Design and Design Strategy (with a sustainability focus). As an adult, she’s dwelled in San Francisco, Chicago and Savannah. Professionally, she has worked as a grantwriter/graphic designer, web designer, design strategy consultant and design management professor. She believes that there is a waste-is-food riddle to be discovered in everything. For sanity/pleasure, she obsesses on food (not ‘food’) and its endless systems (cooking, sourcing, growing…), marvels at her family, putters around her garden, reads and shares (reads), and tries to learn as much as possible.

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