You Are Not Your User

// In pursuit of models for social impact design & community engagement in practice //



Jul '14 - Sep '14

  • Rabbit Architecture

    Matt Kleinmann
    Sep 30, '14 11:04 PM EST

    This post comes as the result of a lively banter on twitter, one that involved members of the KC design community. It's far from perfect - watching your hometown team potentially choke away its first playoff game of your lifetime will shorten your attention-span too - but below is my long-form response:


    I enjoyed following the 20+ notifications I got in the conversation between @freshbreadkc @KCMidtowner @MattNuge @Yeslikedavis and @lscott1967. I wanted to add to the conversation, but since this is a passion and occupation of mine, it would've taken more than 140 characters. Here's my thoughts:

    Speaking as just one architect (non-licensed, mind you), I think my profession is uniquely positioned to envision, design, and then build within the urban fabric systems and structures that support the community. We're not the only ones that do it, as Sean (@freshbreadkc and baker-in-residence as well as social art provocateur) can attest to, nor are we always the best at it (Sean would probably agree here too). But our industry, from how we're educated to how we're licensed by our state to who we work for and what we ask to get paid for the work we do, makes our industry uniquely suited for developing projects. Most of these projects have the very real potential to raise the quality of life in the surrounding community. But here's the kicker: by and large, we don't know how to do it.

    That's changing, however, as is the overall myth that good design comes from inherently singular (and therefore insulated) 'designers' is continuing to erode. In terms of 'high design', or design that graces the cover of magazines - and affords name recognition akin to Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, Le Corbusier, Zaha Hadid, etc. - design does still rest on the laurels of the artistic genius. The issue is that, in pursuit of greater relevancy and more lucrative commissions, both the universities that train architects and the design firms that aspire for greater prestige amongst other design firms, we've effectively limited our involvement to only what we are liable for, insured for, and therefore tend to care less about the concerns others. For example, the new Louvre Museum being designed in Dubai is a modern marvel for an architect... but the artists in the area refused to collaborate because of human rights violations related to its construction.

    At the same time, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction towards more socially sustainable forms of architecture. Following the models found in the fields of law and healthcare, designers are finally starting to take on a 'do no harm approach', and beginning to work primarily in the public's best interest, and not solely in the interest of their client. The emergence of Public Interest Design (or Social Impact Design), speaks to the larger trend among architects and planning professionals interested in forming non-profit design firms that take on the wicked problems in cities. Community Design Centers, a hallmark of the 1960's and 70's, are returning back in style, where entrepreneurial designers are aligning the design of a project with a greater mission for social welfare, and then helping design the systems that fund and eventually build their projects.

    Public Architecture, SEED Projects, Structures for Inclusion,, MASS Design Group, BcWORKSHOP, Gulf Coast CDS, Tulane City Center, Detroit Design Collaborative, Hester Street Collaborative, Kounkuey Design Initiative, Enterprise Rose Fellowship... these are just a few of the examples of this shift in design. The key thing about each of them? They all have established partnerships with others (looking at you, Eric! @KCMidtowner and Bike Walk KC advocate). Hester Street works with neighborhoods and the Center For Urban Pedagogy to create projects like People Make Parks. Tulane City Center works with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority to identify community partners. Enterprise works with low-income housing organizations to place young architects into primary design roles on projects that serve the community.

    We're finally figuring it out that we can't (and shouldn't) do it alone. We need to collaborate, and not just with the professionals (planners, politicians, economists, developers), but also - especially - with the community (advocates, neighborhood associations, artists, small business owners, etc.). Along the way, these groups are figuring out that the people we aspire to work with know far more about a place than we, as designers from the outside, ever could. So instead, we're (re)developing new (and old) ways to work together, designing tools for engagement more than developing our own ideas for a single building or site, and letting people be a major part of the process. This is what I'm introducing to my students in architecture school, and while it's been positive so far, it's a major culture shift for many of them, especially since they haven't experienced the status quo yet.

    The goal of all this is that if people feel that they were incorporated as active participants, and not just a token box to cross off the list from some agency or institution, they'll then embrace the process to a greater degree, and feel a stronger sense of ownership of the end result. They then become the best advocates and caretakers of our work. To many architects, there's a fear that this process dilutes the 'design', or to funders that opening it up to input will unnecessarily complicate or divide the community. For that very reason, we often see 'Town Hall' meetings, where architects don't invite a dialogue, and maintain the existing power structure in the decision making process. To push back against that, public interest projects are moving beyond the 'build it and they will come' approach - as certain tactical urbanism projects are popularizing - but are now beginning to design for ways to invite the community in and afford them tangible opportunities to do it themselves, thereby empowering people to generate their own designs and systems long after the initial project is done.

    Here's just a few of my favorite links/examples:

    Thanks for reading.

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  • "We Have Good Taste, But There's a Gap"

    Matt Kleinmann
    Aug 7, '14 11:25 AM EST

    After three consecutive posts on the 'need' for a greater awareness of community engagement, or design for the public good, I thought I'd transition instead to one of the secret weapons in the toolbox of community engagement: storytelling. When I was in architecture school, my final design... View full entry

    Beyond The Building by MASS Design Group

    If You Build It

    Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio

    BC Workshop: Community Design Workshop

    Next Rail KC by BNIM

    Ice Cube Celebrates The Eames

    THE GAP by Ira Glass

  • To Hell with Good Intentions

    Matt Kleinmann
    Jul 29, '14 7:27 PM EST

    If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if... View full entry

  • Values-Based Design

    Matt Kleinmann
    Jul 14, '14 1:13 PM EST

    You don’t know what you don’t knowYou don’t know until you measureYou don’t measure what you don’t valueYou don’t value what you don’t measureThe above is an adage that relates to business management. It indicates an awareness of the values we place on anything of consequence in... View full entry

  • Wisdom From the Field

    Matt Kleinmann
    Jul 10, '14 3:45 PM EST

    This is the first post of, what I hope, will be a series of posts exploring the nature of architecture as it relates to social justice in current design practice. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and if this is of interest to you, you can respond to me here or on twitter -- MattWhere... View full entry

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