Seattle Design Festival, Design Change

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A Shared State of Emergency, 2016

Two days on Occidental Square learning from Seattlelites how they think and feel about homelessness.

In Seattle, clusters of worn tents and make-shift shelters form sprawling villages in a city failing to meet the needs of many of its most vulnerable residents.

At the onset of this project, the unhoused population of Seattle was climbing year-on-year. Yet, when my friend and fellow designer—Richelle Dumond—and I looked at our community, we saw a need for more public discourse around solutions and equity. When Design in Public called for installation proposals around the theme of Design Change…

We pointed our design chops at provoking conversations around equity, ownership, and how to make meaningful change.

Our two-lady design-built installation provoked three distinct interaction modes. First, it drew passersby to the installation with an interactive screen that dynamically displayed the story of the Seattle City Council’s actions on homelessness as the person walked closer (it was cool, people wanted to get closer). Second, it prompted people to reflect on their most treasured possessions, considering how they would react if they were taken from them. This, in response to the city’s then-current policies regarding transient encampment cleanups, or “sweeps”. Third, people were presented with information they could take away about how to get involved in making change: local shelter information, how to donate time or money, for example.

The interaction design followed a three-part concept model: discovery, empathy, and engagement.

  1. Discover real information on the city’s policies, actions, and outcomes.

  2. Empathize by imagining the policies applied to one’s self.

  3. Engage in community with resources to take away for the future.

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As designers, we understand that design has both intentional and unintentional consequences. The unintentional consequences of design often affect our communities in disproportionate and inequitable ways.

We believe that design is also fundamentally a political act. It is not neutral and we don’t strive to be in our work. We also want to be clear, that this installation wasn’t designed to solve homelessness, or even to generate ideas about how to solve homelessness. It was designed to show real and up-to-date information about the actions of powerful decision-makers in Seattle, and the impacts of their work, to inspire action.

The installation told a part of Seattle’s story using the city’s real data about how change has disproportionately impacted its unhoused population.

By inviting visitors into the story, an abstract, complex problem and its impacts became approachable.