Friday, November 15, 2013

On bathrooms, hurricanes and my new approach to design

On a recent flight I was reading some blogposts that were sitting in my Pocket for quite a while and I came across an article talking about the famed architect Michael Graves that originally appeared in Metropolis Mag in 2006. After a long career as an established, yet accepted quirky architect, Graves became paralyzed and wheel-chair bound due to a nerve condition. The way that he approached his work ever since that day has been altered. He did not stop dead in his tracks, but as a designer, he started to see the world around him with a new lens. Now he was seeing how inaccessible the world was how this was an opportunity for design thinking, problem solving and perhaps a  bit of innovation.

I finished reading the article, heard the pilot announce the infamous "10 minutes to landing" - bathroom call to action, and I got up to go to the restroom. Only this time, when using the restroom, I wasn't just using it - I was noticing it. I was thinking to myself "how on earth does anyone in a wheelchair use a toilet on a plane?" and wondering how they can even fit into this itsy bitsy space! Because Graves shared his personal struggle, he made me think about design solutions.

I guess I am writing about this because it helps me to understand why I feel compelled to share the story of how my life changed and how the way that I approach design has changed. One year ago, hurricane Sandy hit my hometown of Rockaway Beach, NY - and in many ways devastated the geography and the lives of the locals. At the time, I reacted by doing emergency webmaking - creating places for people to connect to volunteers, acting as a technology translator and inadvertently I became a resource for hyper local open news. Weeks went by and we found my displaced friends and family and started to repair their houses. Months went by and we dealt with long term repairs. A year went by and we moved from response to rebuilding.

During this time a tornado hit Oklahoma, and a flood hit Colorado - horrible natural disasters where people reached out to me for help - due to my so called expertise. I told them what I did and they iterated on it in their own communities. But like Graves, I had identified a problem - and an opportunity. The problem is the way that we are handling large scale emergency response and our opportunity is to use our webcraftsmenship and various kinds of innate skills to address the challenge.

If we are living in this blended environment of the web and the real world - how can these environments help eachother out when one of the environments is in trouble? My hope is that because I spoke out about things (even though I am no Michael Graves), you will see the world through this lens and approach your design problems by thinking about this story. This event changed my world and I can't help wonder if perhaps it could positively change many others as a result.

Right now I am sitting here feeling a bit pissed and angry - as I watch yet another natural disaster on the television - in the Philippines. Often people think that all they can do is give money for someone else to do something amazing and helpful, but really, we are a community of designers and developers and THINKERS. Lets use our anger and new lens to make something innovative so that when emergencies strike - people can feel empowered to help each other and help themselves.

I know I am feeling a bit cranky because I also know I have this prototype that I am itching to work on and just haven't had the time to work on it. I feel committed now more than ever and am going to push it forward. I don't just design for solutions or for work, I design to help people - and I feel that planet earth is giving us a kick in the ass and saying, come on - create, work together.