Design Observer Twenty Years 2003-2023

Tony Whitfield | Opinions

Prepared for Haiti

Flattened building, Port-au-Prince, January 15, 2010. Photo: American Red Cross.

I had been told about poverty in Haiti, but it was only in a caravan of vehicles crawling along a dusty two-lane road to the Toussaint Louverture International Airport, on my way back to the States, that I realized I was in a ring of hell. Mountains of garbage lined the road for what seemed like miles. Climbing, crawling children, animals, adults young and old dug through the mounds for food, clothing, anything that might be of use. It was an ordinary fall day with clear skies and temperatures in the 90s. The stench was unbelievable.

This was the culmination of a trip for which I had not been prepared. It had been scheduled in the late summer of 2001, but between the planning stages and departure time, 9/11 had changed the world, and simply being in Haiti took on new meaning. For one thing, Haiti felt safer than New York; it was an unlikely target for terrorists looking to cripple the West. On the other hand, I had gone there to discuss a potential project with Aid to Artisans that involved collaborations with my Parsons students and traditional craftspeople in the development of designs for U.S. markets, work that now seemed alternately critical and irrelevant. None of the delays or corruption I saw in crossing the border from the Dominican Republic into Haiti suggested the possibility that it might take more than two days just to fly out. A new wave of demonstrations against Aristide would begin the next morning, filling the streets with burning tires, while every U.S. airport would be shut down after a Dominican Republic–bound aircraft mysteriously crashed after takeoff in Queens, New York.

The other thing I hadn’t anticipated was how quickly I would fall in love with Haiti. Everywhere I looked there was something to learn, something about art, something about a culture that felt like an answer to a question I couldn’t yet articulate. I have since learned that adherents to Vodou believe that you are singled out for care-taking by an orisha, or god. By all indications, my orisha was Bawon Samedi, the guardian of the dead. I frequently ran across him on buses, fences, buildings and trucks. I was even invited to be a guest of honor at a ceremony dedicated to him. Bawon Samedi wears dark glasses, smokes and does lewd dances. Like the rest of his pantheon, he is vibrant, rough, immediate and exciting. I knew I wanted to come back.

Now, in a small town in Andalusia, Spain, where I'm on sabbatical, little has prepared me for the recognition that a place that held so much inspiration, cultural wealth, human potential, resilience and faith could be leveled before our eyes in a single day. These are horrifying times. We know not only our personal disasters but also those of the world over. We live with them in a way no one has before. We believe there is something we can and should do. They make demands of us that become part of the fabric of our dreams and shape our understanding of our value and effectiveness as professionals and human beings.

As a designer, I know there are tools we use daily that could be deployed in response to situations like this. I am also wise enough to recognize the conceit in thinking that I would have the right skills and resources to address these issues effectively. Responding to disaster was not what I imagined or embraced as my life’s work, and this is not the time to entertain dabblers.

Now, at least daily, we witness situations that would have been unimaginable in the recent past. The image of Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton joining forces to benefit Haiti is filled with symbolism and potential that leave us incredulous but hopeful. Can the concentration of power, knowledge, faults and strengths represented by these men really get this job done? Is the underlying impetus for their response a fear of what may happen if this hemisphere’s poorest, least-educated and most neglected people are set adrift?

The inclination in the face of disaster is to focus one’s attention on immediate needs. For those who have limited ability to deliver help where it is needed, meaning most of us, the wisest thing to do is send money. Find the organizations dealing with issues that are close to your heart and send as much money to them as often as you can. In a world of text-messaged contributions, Twittering watchdogs and Facebook friends, there are many ways to respond, though we must be aware that our sense of power in embracing these media will diminish when our goods and services sit on runways in real time, real space and sweltering heat. We have seen how system failure impedes the delivery of aid. It seems that part of the business of disaster relief has become identifying whom to blame. Inevitably, new and improved procedures will be put in place, but will that solve the problems of the next unforeseen circumstance?

Each time we confront a situation like the crisis in Haiti, I, an educator, become more certain that we must train designers to step up to these challenges. We need to be a field of compassionate researchers, committed to processes that enrich our understanding of the interrelatedness of our disciplines and other professions, trades and industries. While the notion of the doctor/designer, the sociologist/architect, the urbanist/fashion designer are all exciting to me, I recognize that viable, ongoing partnerships across disciplines and communities are essential to enriching long-term responses to future disasters.

After reading four days of exchanges between architects of African descent from throughout the diaspora, who are engaged in crafting a substantive response from NOMA (the National Organization of Minority Architects), I understand that I am watching a new generation of activist professionals working to reach consensus in ways that have stymied their predecessors. It seems very possible that these overlapping groups of practitioners, who have grown familiar with one another’s work in a virtual world, will find such agreement.

Looking at Haitians remove rubble, bury bodies, tend to the injured, I am also struck by the importance of understanding the physical nature of this ordeal and the reality of physical labor for most of the world. The hands, the work, the care, the craft, the culture they represent and keep alive are all connected. There will be new strategies, new technologies, new equipment, new corporate titans, new cultural influences brought to Haiti’s rebuilding efforts. Through that process, the primacy of the traditions, the skills and the spirit of Haitians must be maintained. I worry that the economics of the efforts ahead will result in a new tourist playground that obscures the persistence of old problems for the Haitian people. Booming tourist industries, as the Dominican Republic demonstrates, do not necessarily mean significant improvements in living standards for an area’s residents.

Over the last decade, one thing has become clear: human beings have played a role in augmenting the catastrophes triggered by nature. Katrina is now deemed a man-made disaster. The debris that acted as battering rams in the South Asian tsunami came from the developed world’s playgrounds. Racism and class stratification contribute to the mounting death tolls from landslides in Brazil’s favelas. And now a lack of consistent building standards combined with environmental malpractice and the systemic role that poverty plays have helped reduce Haiti to dust.

Is this a time when the prosperous nations of the world should be focusing on the contributions design and designers can make not only to our survival and recovery in a disaster but also to our ability to predict and prepare for such eventualities? To what extent should interdisciplinary research and development activities in which design plays a central role receive more profound, long-range support from foundations and government agencies? To what extent are a design business’s nonprofit activities important for its sustained relevance and viability? To what extent should advanced education for designers who are interested in addressing these issues be encouraged through scholarships and fellowships? To what extent is this activity supportable by incubators that focus on systems and strategies as well as products? To what extent should culturally specific practices become integral to the education process of all designers to prepare them to take part in development efforts around the globe? At what point does this discussion become unavoidable for any designer? Are these questions critical if we are to become prepared for the next calamity? I think so.

Posted in: Business, Social Good

Comments [21]

I feel that as much as your arguing for designers to ask questions you are also avoiding your own personal responsibility, essentially telling readers to throw money at it and telling them they really are insignificant in the face of disaster.....

Maybe if you think a little harder it will solve the problem, or possibly if you give enough money away you'll feel better about the situation and forget.

maybe if...

maybe if..

talk is cheap.

Haiti earthquake is the biggest natural calamity the world has ever see, I feel this is the beginning of the doomsday.

Great questions posed to the reader, though the tone of the article is obviously retrospective. While questions of any kind will always lead to a better understanding of the subject, retrospective questioning has the fallacy of assuming too much knowledge of the situation. It leads us to unrealistic expectations of what was expected of the us prior to the event, as well as what is to be expected of us in the future.

In any case, this disaster will hopefully provide Haiti with the international resources to rebuild their infrastructure to a building standard that would have prevented this devastation in the first place.

i was hoping to read a very pointed doctrine outlining very concrete ways in which designers as an industry and as individuals could rise to this, and future, catastrophes. instead i found a meandering, navel gazing piece, lamenting the evils of modern society while celebrating the self-imposed guilt we should feel for being unknowing participants. it's a shame because had the message of this essay been better designed, it might have prompted more immediate and positive action.

Tony's questions are totally relevant, especially the idea to focus design education on emergency relief or at least promote this focus in design practice. I think of Shigeru Ban's emergency shelters. The Buenos Aires-based architecture collective m7red's "Inundacion!" is a great example of how human-centered design research generated useful ideas to help future disaster response.

But these are solutions from architects and urban planners. As a graphic designer, I feel incredibly helpless and am still trying to figure out a way that my knowledge could be applied to help critical needs. In Haiti, knowing that problems in the relief effort included obstacles to food supplies is one example.

I think Tony's article gives us a chance to share our perspectives. I also believe that these exchanges can lead to meaningful collaborations and hopefully some concrete solutions! It's hard for me to do something like Ban did on my own. But if we can join up and try to explore ways we can help communities in developing countries to learn better how to prepare themselves, we should. As a matter of fact, we shouldn't wait. Anyone who's interested in joining up, please send me an email! Or if you started one, let me know and I'll join you.
Julietta Cheung

I am a designer/ anthropologist! I felt the article is a tad reflective, yet it is important enough to reopen the topic, if not to point at the lack of joined-up thinking and joined-up action that is lacking in Haiti. In other words the most well considered objects are pointless unless they are part of a positive and inclusive effort. We need more than research, we need a full-on review of systems and the imposition of 360 degree relief management that places relevant objects on the ground before situations dissipate. Objects that change lives on reception are needed, graphic design and all other design fields have a part to play before and after the calamity.


I have to agree with John. After reading, I feel even more helpless at the fact that there is nothing designers can do to immediately alleviate this sort of situation. What good have we been with redesigning and building infrastructures in other countries? Who really expects Haiti to just begin again, build up a new, productive country above the rubble and debris that is its current state? The people are no different, and now their debts will be greater. How could interdisciplinary design studies, scholarships, or fellowships help anticipate or solve natural disasters? Since when is it the responsibility of any old joe designer to help develop the rest of the globe, or to prepare to respond to a natural disaster? You expect a lot from a very small minority of designers.

As a graphic designer I only see other designers respond to needs like this typically with posters to build awareness or as Mr. Whitfeild ask readers to do – throw money at the problem. Neither of these solutions will help Haiti in the end, especially if recent disaster recovery efforts are any indication of what is to come in Haiti.

I would like to give my fellow designers a concrete call to action since the author here clearly did not. Contact aid orgazations to see what the real needs are. Research the situation in Haiti as you would any other design project to determine where the root problem is and devise a way to solve it.

I view our profession as one of problem solving, not making beautiful messages. So DO NOT design posters, organize telethons, or donate money. Donate yourselves to this with time and your expertise. Contact aid organizations to see what they need, what they are doing currently. If you are familiar with design research then there is no excuse not to get involved, because you simply can't say I don't know what to do.

Just because you may feel like it is out of your realm of expertise, don't let that hold you back. I am a graphic designer by training, but I have being trying to get a rapid response, emergency housing system off the ground on my own design for over five years now. Now, to my extreme frustration, I am having to respond to emails from Haiti saying that I am still trying to convince potential manufacturing partners that they could make a solid profit from it in hopes of getting it produced and into service. So a word of caution, designing for the greater good comes at a cost. The greater good is broke and will not pay your rates, reimburse you for travel or materials. The greater good may not be able to build what you propose, because there is no CFO to write the check; no global tax base for income. Keep your solutions mindful of that to actually realize them. That does not to mean you can't devise a solution that costs money to produce. I am saying this to make you aware that you may have to be creative not only in the solution, but also in the production.

Haiti is shifting from rescue to recovery now. Months from now they will slowly shift into rebuilding which is a phase that will span years itself. So be passionate, be persistent, and be helpful.

Go solve problems. That is what we do!
Michael McDaniel

I've done design work for several organizations that are driven by a human services mission. These organizations tend to be so completely committed to their mission, to providing whatever service it is that they provide, that they cannot necessarily see any value to design. Well, that is unless they can see how design *directly* impacts and supports their mission. Otherwise, they are simply too busy carrying out their mission.

In other words, I think if you call up a Haitian aid organization today and say: "I'm a designer, how can I help?" They are going to respond with some variation of: "We need money, we need food, water, medical supplies. Do you have nursing skills? Can you come help dig bodies out of the rubble?" Sorry folks, but the last thing they need right now is design or design thinking or design strategy.

Maybe when the dust settles a bit (when the rebuilding comes), it will be time to start to think about how design can contribute to preventing future problems. But I don't think anybody is particularly interested in giving design a seat at the table unless they can see how design can contribute directly to the mission.

Meanwhile, in line with the author's original suggestion, donations of money, food, etc. to the organizations who are providing aid are probably the very best way to make a difference--unless you can personally go to Haiti and provide effective hands-on work without getting in the way. Yes, we know much aid to Haiti has historically been diverted by corruption, but we still have to keep trying. It is absurd to suggest, as Ian does, that sending money is simply a way to make one feel better about one's self. Financial and other resources can make a difference.
Rob Henning

A couple of things. This concept of demeaning the donation of money makes me want to go on a shooting spree. Sometimes – particularly at the very beginning of this tragedy – "throwing money at it" is entirely appropriate for the majority of people.

And yes, defeatists and cynics, design isn't really top of mind in the heat of an emergency. However, as others have noted, designers should be in a unique position to look at what happened in this situation and help to devise better systems of communication, distribution, organization and management. Perhaps designers can help to answer and solve questions about why it took so long for the U.S. to get medical facilities up and running. Why aid sits on the tarmac. How decisions are made in terms of who gets what and when.

We can leave this to aid organizations and industrial engineers and "experts", or we can start thinking about these things ourselves and do the work. I would be very interested to know how Change Observer would address these issues. What educational institutions are doing about this kind of design training.

Oh yeah, and if you think it will make a difference, or it just makes you feel better, go design a great poster. Life's too short to literally do nothing.
Jason Laughlin


What, so they can cut it up and eat it?

The need and purpose of thoughtful/relevant design is unquestionable. Especially when it can be life-saving! The day-to-day designer, however, is hardly so profound....stuck making identities for art shows, burger joints and packaging for new CDs.

This article reminds me of so much that I have been reading online and in the papers about people preaching that, "This is our chance!!", "Let's make it right!".

Well....zealous designer...50,000 are dead! 50,000 dead was the catalyst? A pile of bodies was needed to start asking the questions and reflecting upon our craft, the industry of design, as a tool to progress humanity. THAT IS ABSURD. In the face of the worst catastrophe of any of our lifetimes, being a designer seems more futile than ever.

This, and other "commentaries", are to me, perfect examples of the generational malaise that has swept the capable American youth like a giant smothering black blanket.

(It must be bittersweet to write from a beach in the south of Spain.)

Ryan A.

This is a chance. It's a chance to realize that our design education is lacking and we need to address the way we teach. It's a chance to realize that if we all wait for experts and aid agencies to change how they operate we will wait forever. This kind of thinking didn't start with the tragedy, but this truly awful thing most certainly shows that what we do can be relevant to things beyond selling stuff. Perhaps it will make those that are "stuck" shake loose.

I'm certainly not walking around in a malaise. I actually feel like we can really do things to make things work better. Does that change the fact that 50,000 – indeed, in the end, much more than that – people have died and people are suffering. Not right now. But if we don't think about and write about it, we can't take action to try and do things better in the future.

And yes, if it makes you feel better to vent frustration with a poster. Do it. Even if you are in the South of Spain. People can bitch or sigh all they would like. They can attack people that are simply trying to put things in perspective for themselves, call them navel-gazers or lament that "talk is cheap."

If it's so cheap, then stop talking and see where that gets us.
Jason Laughlin

Jason, in answer to your question, the matter of how designers can help alleviate the world's miseries is fundamental to this website. Change Observer has addressed it not only through essays such as Tony Whitfield's but also through dialogues such as the debate conducted last October between Valerie Casey and David Stairs ( and programs such as the 2009 Aspen Design Summit, sponsored by Winterhouse Institute and the AIGA ( We see no end to our investigations in sight and very much welcome everyone's input.
Julie Lasky

Maybe it is a chance for the designers that have the resources, contacts, connections, and authority to do some work for those with nothing instead of the corporations and businesses with the big bucks. Because if we're talking about wanting to create solutions for future rescue and recovery missions, to problem solve for organizations that cannot use a designer's help at this very moment, it means that someone has to commit to them. Someone has to agree that working for the big bucks in a fancy office isn't going to HELP others. It might make you feel good, that you can do fancy packaging with foil stamps and laser die cuts, win award shows and attend receptions where everyone knows the coolest logo or ad you just made... but an occasional pro bono project doesn't cut it.

Maybe it's a wake-up call to the professional population that a huge part of graphic design is self-serving. How many designers -- as strategists and critical thinkers -- are employed by relief organizations? Charitable foundations? Maybe the bigger call to action is to decide whether or not today's designers are working for things that really make a difference.

It's a chance to realize that if we all wait for experts and aid agencies to change how they operate we will wait forever.

There's an implication here that design should be stepping in to effect changes.

On one hand, I do fully believe that thoughtful, careful, and innovative design solutions to real problems can have an enormous positive impact on people's lives.

On the other hand, I think there's an outrageously arrogant conceit embodied in designers' notion that they can somehow come to the rescue with their superior thinking and problem solving abilities. It is a mistake to assume that "experts and aid agencies" are doing things wrong. Until we walk a mile in their shoes, I don't think we're really in a position to be offering them much advice. The point is that we have to learn what they are trying to do, what they are doing, what they have done right, and how/why they have failed (if they have) before we can start trying to fix what we think is wrong. Of course, that'd be part of a good design process: identify the problem before you try to solve it. Maybe we even ought to try to do what they are trying to do before we get too critical of their efforts.

I'm not saying that we can't or shouldn't try to make a difference. We should--even if it is just by sending money. I just think that there's an enormous learning curve involved in going from "making identities for art shows and burger joints" to making a difference in Haiti (or anywhere else there's human suffering). Designers who want to get involved in the latter ought to approach it with humility and the understanding that lots of other people have been engaged in aid and human service missions for far, far longer--and already know a lot more about it. Designers who rush in on a white horse waving a "design to the rescue" flag and spouting rhetoric about how design can save the world are not likely to succeed. If we approach it with humility, open minds, and a spirit of learning we might really be able to do something. And we might even learn, to our surprise, the design is NOT the solution!
Rob Henning

As events unfold in both Port-au-Prince and Jacmel and the numbers of dead, dying, and decimated rise, I too feel useless. I have been to Haiti several times, met and worked with wonderful people, and fell head over heels in love with the country and it's people. I was there recently and it is difficult at best to do "nothing."

But as I stand back and assess the situation, I realize that funding relief agencies such as The Red Cross and Yele Haiti is the smartest first step. The reality of the abysmal situation on the ground dictates that the best and brightest be supported in their efforts to rescue survivors, render aid, deliver food, construct temporary housing away from the crumbling cities, clear roads, and maintain security.

While the call to send supplies, clothing, etc. is heartfelt, this is not the best approach. For example, there was so much "stuff" sent to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, that it seriously hampered the speed and effectiveness of relief efforts, as the city, in effect, becoming a dumping ground.

Secondly, the call to design something for the effort isn't an egotistic or frivolous endeavor. Can a poster save those in Haiti? By itself, absolutely not. However, Haiti will need moral, spiritual, and financial assistance from all of us far longer than the collective attention span will allow. So, if a well-designed poster can keep the need for help in the public eye long after the headlines have faded, and cause assistance to continue to flow, then yes it can help.

And really, isn't that how it works? We all do our small part individually, but collectively effect our world for the better.
James D. Nesbitt

Amen, Mary.
Ryan A.

you are like the pink ribbon that supports our troops. that is what designers like you create. you are passive from the comfort of your banter creating mind (banter=what you call dialogue; and something you can't have with 50,000 dead people).

I agree social design is typically reactionary. This isn't the first earthquake to devastate a land. Darfur isn't the first genocide. Forrest fires in California happen every year. Are we really surprised anymore when shit happens. So, use your amazing skills and superior ability to precede these disasters. I mean get some balls.


I appreciated Tony Whitfield noting that now is not the time to entertain dabblers. However, Mary's first comment prompted me to think: so, if you do call up an aid organization, who are already well-established and know exactly what the immediate needs are, and they tell you "We're good on awareness campaigns, but we really do need people with shovels"... you may not be functioning in your capacity as a working designer by choosing to answer that call. But you ARE functioning as a human being.

And so is the designer who isn't willing to take that step and instead chooses to answer the need for donations.

Yes, it's a big step to walk away from your first-world occupation for several weeks or months, and not everyone has a livelihood that can remotely support that. I have not personally done it, and I fully acknowledge the hypocrisy of telling other people to do so. However, it seems to me that if you really can't sleep at night "as a designer", then maybe you should take on a different role; otherwise, supporting the work of others with your money is a reasonable and ethically defensible option.
Ari L

I'm shocked at Whitfield's snippet on the home page but I guess that was the point. It drew me in. I've just spent a few moments reading the whole article and I'm glad I did. It took me on a very real thought journey and covers a lot of what I've been considering in my little mind:
Rebecca Taylor

I wholeheartedly agree with Rob Henning's and Ari L. 'S Comments.
We are human beings first and foremost, and then designers. Implying that as designers we have superior problem solving skills that trump any level of expertise Aid & Development Organizations may have is just pretentious. It is easy for us to criticize and imagine we'd have better ideas from the comfort of our homes without any real time, on-ground disaster experience. These organizations have been involved in relief efforts long before this natural disaster (specifically in Haiti) and they know precisely what their needs are and what their aren't. Design may not be one of these needs right this instant, yet money undoubtedly is.
Judith U

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