Jon Kolko on How to Design Culturally Relevant Social Solutions

In Chapter 16 of 21 in his 2012 Capture Your Flag interview, design educator Jon Kolko answers "How Have You Learned More Effectively Across Cultures?"  Kolko notes how design work is culture-dependent.  He notes how impact-based design is local and often constrained by the cultural environment.  This often limits scalability yet allows students to better focus their solution design for the communities it will serve. 

Jon Kolko is the founder and director of the Austin Center for Design.  He has authored multiple books on design, including "Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving."  Previously he has held senior roles at venture accelerator Thinktiv and frog design and was a professor of Interactive and Industrial Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).  Kolko earned his Masters in Human Computer Interaction (MHI) and BFA in Design from Carnegie Mellon University.


Erik Michielsen: How have you learned to work more effectively across different cultures?

Jon Kolko: Design work is explicitly tied to culture and in a super nuanced way. So, a design solution that works in this particular culture may or not work in a different culture and I don’t necessarily mean country or geographic boundary. It can be culture as defined by style, as designed by fashion, anywhere there are shared values. And so, when you're dealing with design for impact, it's really, really local and micro-driven, which is directly at odds with most impact investing and a lot of the places where you will find big money like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who are looking to fund scalable solutions, solutions that aren’t going to affect 500, or 1,000, or 10,000, or even 100,000 people, that are going to affect 10 million people, 100 million people, a billion people. And I don’t claim to know if that’s a good or a bad process for them. I don’t know anything about their inner workings but for where my students are, which is nowhere near that in terms of impact, their solutions can’t, by definition, can't scale outside of a certain locale without changing.

It's not to say they can't change, but it's not a cookie cutter approach and traditionally design has been all about cookie cutter approaches. That is what design for manufacturing is about. It's about taking a single part and mass producing it exactly the same a hundred million times with no defects, shipping it all over the world. You can see where that breaks down in a really, really obtuse and dumb way with adapters on PCs that the same PC, the manufacturer has to make six or seven different ends to plug the thing in, in different countries. That has nothing to do with culture, it has everything to with these Legacy electric grids but that’s the equivalent of how prepared designers are to deal with that issue. It's like that’s all they know. Well, we got to localize it by changing the language and by using a different cord. No, no, no, it's so much deeper than that. The homeless in Belo Horizonte and the homeless in Austin, it's a different world. And to say somehow, “Yeah, I conducted a thousand hours of research with homeless in Austin and therefore my solution transfers to the middle of Brazil,” is just ridiculous. And so, I don’t know how my design work has changed as a result of that but my philosophy toward it is certainly crystallized around this idea of local design decisions being okay, that we don’t have to design for scale en-mass right away.