Politics & Method

Design Thinking Arrives in Pakistan

Ahmed Ansari
26 min readJan 18, 2016

A Method in Politics

Within the current landscape of toolkits (from IDEO’s Design For Social Impact Toolkit (2008), to Nesta’s Design, Impact and You Toolkit (2014)), literature (like Andrew Shea’s Designing for Social Change (2012) and most recently, Ezio Manzini’s Design When Everybody Designs (2015)), and conferences (like Big Think, A Better World By Design) on design for social innovation, humanitarian design, or social design (I will stick to the short ‘social design’ here), two words from its lexicon have been instrumental in its rapid adoption globally: design methods, and design thinking. No toolkit, book, lecture or workshop opens without a clarification or homage to these two terms; one cannot (presumably) practice social design without clearing them.

The first generation of design methods were developed in the 1960s with the explicit aim of externalizing and formalizing the design process, demystifying what had hitherto been considered as a largely black boxed process, and opening it up so that other stakeholders could be involved in the design process[i]. The history of the Design Methods Movement has been troubled: key figures such as Christopher Alexander and John Chris Jones later distanced themselves from it[ii], mostly due to what they feared was the tendency of designers to rely overly on methods to the exclusion of developing flexibility and sensitivity in their work, especially when dealing with projects with rising levels of complexity. In particular, there was a realization that at the very least, the first generation of methods did not add anything to the way designers had designed traditionally[iii]. Subsequent generations of thinkers on design began to turn to the analysis of specific aspects of creative problem solving as observed in the processes of expert practitioners in order to propose better, more flexible models of what designerly activity was. This led to the emergence of the term ‘design thinking’, from Nigel Cross with his designerly ways of knowing based around design codes and object languages (Cross, 1982), to Donald Schön’s observation of design as reflective practice, constituted as a dialectic between the designer and his materials (Schon, 1983), to Horst Rittel’s view of design as a process of argumentation (Rittel, 1988). Cross, tracing the history of the Methods Movement and its practice of design as science down to Schön and arguing for design as an interdisciplinary practice uniquely concerned with the artificial world, concludes that “we must avoid swamping our design research with different cultures imported either from the sciences or the arts.” (Cross, 2001)

Today, it seems that both the Design Methods Movement and design thinking are enjoying a heyday within the context of social design, having become a significant part of its discourse and rhetoric. This rhetoric becomes especially visible embodied in the form of the methods toolkit, that principal instrument of the humanitarian design firm or social organization seeking to employ designerly practice to its own repertoire.

The basic anatomy of the social design toolkit, if we begin to dissect it, is formed thus: there is a statement of intent, usually on behalf of the toolkit’s makers, outlining how they believe the toolkit will be able to empower the organization using it, a definition of design thinking, a description of the design process and the methods employed, and then the methods themselves, with details of when, where and how to use them. But how is design thinking and how are methods, reproduced within the social design toolkit?

For example, in IDEO’s Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit, we find that “Design Thinking is a mind-set. Design thinking is about believing we can make a difference, and having an intentional process in order to get to new, relevant solutions that create positive impact” (IDEO, 2011). Internalizing this mind-set, the toolkit assures its readers, key to which is being human-centered, collaborative, optimistic and lean, is the gateway to understanding that “the design process is what puts Design Thinking into action. It’s a structured approach to generating and evolving ideas. It has five phases that help navigate the development from identifying a design challenge to finding and building a solution”. This is followed by IDEO’s social design methodology explained through a series of steps incorporating a variety of tools and methods that can be employed.

It becomes immediately evident from the example given above that there has been a shift in the way the toolkit introduces design thinking. One could argue that perhaps this is necessary: after all, the aims of the Design Methods Movement and subsequent writers on design thinking were to articulate the process in order to turn it into a pedagogical tool for designers, while most social design toolkits are aimed at teaching design to non-designers. But this shift is a curious inversion: from being the profession that needs its tacit practice articulated so that it can be practiced more self-consciously, it is now the designer who proudly sits in the driver’s seat and lays claim to all the answers. And so what the designer is doing through the toolkit is trying to convince people who are not design experts, whether professionals from other disciplines, grassroots social workers, managers, or policy makers, that there is a tangible, structured process that they can follow and get results.

It is also worth noting that, on the one hand, what these toolkits seem to ask is tantamount to a leap of faith, and this is done by reducing design thinking to a set of methods: design thinking will get you results, since it has proven to be innovative time and again within professional design practice, but for it to get you results you must believe in it and the values it espouses (which, incidentally are the very values that social innovation prizes: a results-focused attitude, collaboration, action-oriented, pro-development etc.), its techniques and its rules. In sum, design thinking, in an oddly Latourian[iv] turn, turns back on itself and becomes oddly scientistic: like scientism, it requires an almost absolute faith in its own universality and authority.

There is also a second dimension to the claim to universality that toolkits like IDEO’s make as well: their particular claims to knowledge and ways of doing things are not only usable by anyone but also anyone anywhere. For example, Frog Design’s Collective Action Toolkit asks: “Is it possible to inspire design thinking outside of the design world?” And then the answer: “frog set out to prove the practice is universal by creating the Collective Action Toolkit, a set of resources and activities to help people accomplish tangible outcomes through a set of guided, non-linear collaboration activities…It is currently available in English, Chinese and Spanish, with more languages to come. The kit is a demonstration of frog’s commitment to social action and goal to make design thinking universal.” (Frog, 2013).

Both these claims to universality can and need, we believe, to be questioned. It is worth asking, what does happen when the universal toolkit with its universally applicable forms of knowledge is translated and exported to other countries? Whose hands does it end up in? How is it used? How does it transform the social sector? What happens to local design practice when it arrives? What happens to local designers?

Questions like these have been raised before in earlier debates around the politics of social design as the movement was gaining steam, perhaps most notably in Bruce Nussbaum’s fiery critique labeling the work of Project H and other design firms that sought to do global humanitarian work as a form of techno-social imperialism. Towards the end of the debate, Nussbaum argued that social design, in privileging and imposing its own values and ways of doing things, ignored the voices and knowledge of local communities of experts: “…what do you do when the local elites are good guys who simply don’t want you doing good in their country for historic reasons? What do you do if they are highly educated, speak your language, go to the same conferences, belong to the same “global elite culture,” and still don’t want you proposing solutions to their country’s problems just because? Do you ignore them, work around them, argue that your mission is of a higher order than nationalism? Do you ask what they are doing to help the poor in their country? And finally, what do you when those local elites who question your presence are design elites — just like you. I’m not sure, but I believe that the reaction to humanitarian design that I saw in Asia was from this group of local design elites. They are a growing, powerful force in India, China, Brazil, and elsewhere — and we need to know what they think. What they really think.” (Nussbaum, 2010)[v]

So, what do they really think?


On arriving back in Karachi after spending two years away in the US in 2013, I returned to find the landscape of design practice rapidly changing. In the span of two years, a startup culture was beginning to establish itself with both local governments and private investors developing incubators[vi], erstwhile traditional engineering, computer science and business schools like the newly established IT University and LUMS, one of the most prestigious business schools in the country, were starting to become interested in the promise of design thinking[vii], and both new NGOs like the Pakistan Innovation Foundation and well established institutions like the British Council launched annual programs focused on encouraging local entrepreneurship, supported with foreign funding from institutions like the UK’s Department for International Development. Design thinking, a term virtually unknown before 2012, has now become a near-ubiquitous buzzword for describing generative entrepreneurial process. While there was almost no discourse about research or method in design a few years ago, method toolkits now dominate the horizon of practice, picked up uncritically by the social sector on the basis of their promise to deliver good solutions[viii].

Having contributed to these developments over the last two years, travelling around the country conducting workshops, delivering lectures, and teaching design in various local schools, I have become uncomfortable with the idea of design thinking and the way in which it has arrived in Pakistan, divorced from its larger history and the kinds of debates happening around it in the Global North. Part of this unease is also because it has arrived, as we shall see, framed as a vehicle for championing a particular model of development that ties all too well into both the current government’s agenda of projecting the appearance of a prosperous, developing economy to boost trade and foreign investment, and into the social sector’s proclivity to be seen as effective in a context as deeply problematic and unstable as Pakistan’s.

At a time when design toolkits and thinking proliferate rapidly in the country’s social sector, both the small professional community of designers and the local schools have remained surprisingly critical and cautious, and for good reason. Art and design programs in Pakistan have generally seen themselves as safeguarding and preserving traditional practice, culture and craft, and historically, there has always been a close relationship between design practice and local artisanship — most resident faculty have side practices where they work closely with artisans and craftsmen, to whom often a surprising amount of the design process is delegated — especially with respect to translating sketches into materials and workable forms. Similarly, and until recently, there was very little conceptualisation of design as complex socio-technical problem solving. Historically, the emphasis has been on meaning-making with design as a form of culture-creating practice. This reflects the fact that most design schools in Pakistan have traditionally housed graphic, textile and fashion design departments, but industrial and interaction design are new disciplines, and in well-established schools like the National College of Arts the boundaries between fine art and design departments have been fluid, with faculty often teaching in both[ix]. It can also be argued that until recently, having been a profession confined to and tied to the interests of an extremely educated, globalized, but small upper middle class that has always shared unclear, permeable boundaries with the vastly more internationally recognised and considerably wealthier fine art community, the Pakistani design community is also wary of what it sees as the democratization of design with outsider groups now intruding into what used to be exclusive social and cultural space. Then there is also the history of visual arts playing a political role in the country; painters, sculptors, and graphic designers could often get away with scathing critiques of government and society where other disciplines could not. Thus, art and design schools have traditionally seen themselves as resisting to what they see as instrumental, neoliberal, and even violent tendencies in society and state.

These traditional ways of practicing design have now been disrupted with the arrival and popularization of design methods as the handmaiden of particular models of development championed by an ascendant technocracy. Design schools have been caught almost by surprise, and now find that they have to deal with the requirements of a radically different professional landscape. Historically, the majority of the local design community has to date remained relatively small, restrained in scope to certain niches of industry, and quite humble in its aspirations. There is a general acknowledgement that the design profession is a luxury, having historically been practiced by the (upper) middle class. It lacks the votive force necessary to create systemic change in a country with a history of decades of piecemeal progress, hard won by dedicated social workers and destroyed by misguided political agendas, change of rule, or even assassinations (the murder of the social activist Parveen Rehman, director of the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) in May 2013 is a particularly tragic example[x]). There are exceptions to this, of course: the architect Arif Hasan and his Urban Resource Centre have been significantly involved in both the OPP and leading the fight for land rights, studying the development of Karachi and other urban centers for decades. Local design schools are very critical of initiatives like the Punjab Safe Pani Company (2015) or the Orange Metro[xi] (2015) projects, which they see as primarily politically motivated, with politicians funding massive development projects to get re-elected and invite foreign investment, using social design as ‘due process’ in order to appease foreign and local donors, and in the process often using violence to get rid of undesirable actors[xii]. By association, the introduction and dissemination of design thinking in the social sector has therefore come to be associated as a tool for the state to maintain the status quo, rather than for radical structural reform.

Design tools and methods are thus never, as most toolkits and models claim, value neutral, but always arrive laden with political and cultural baggage. The claim that packages delivering design methods to social designers and workers in the developing world are ‘neutral’, in the sense that they are just methods, and that politics lies in the domain of their human users, is false. They would not have been picked up had they not already belonged to, and created through, a politics of their makers and sold on the kinds of promises they make. In this sense, the ready adoption of toolkits by NGOs, incubators, and startups seeking to promote a lean, fail-fast and iterate approach to tackling what are incredibly complex, entrenched systemic problems constitute a form of what the Argentine philosopher Walter Mignolo calls ‘epistemological colonialism’(Mignolo, 2002), in which what and how people working within the social sector in the Global South come to understand, know, and design for the world in frame predetermined by discourses set in the Global North.

This is the most frightening thing about the uncritical adoption of design toolkits: that in becoming the de-facto way of practicing social design in the hands of powerful actors like government organisations and foreign-funded NGOs, they crowd out alternative voices that would caution models of development based on unconstrained growth. Moreover, by marginalizing extant professional communities of practice they actually hamper the ability of the discipline to grow and change to accommodate new areas of practice by prefiguring those spaces to receive only a certain form of design practice. In all of the workshops I conducted with incubators, startups and NGOs over two years, there was a persistent tendency among both donor agencies and incubatees to treat the methods as due process rather than as crucial to really understanding and modelling systems — this was because there was little investment in any goals outside of developing a product or service, which is certainly not what local schools and practitioners want to move towards. Design thinking thus becomes a means of extending the ‘colonial matrix of power’, what decolonial thinkers like Mignolo and Anibal Quijano have identified as the global Western hegemony over systems of economy, sovereign authority, subjectivity and knowledge under the rubric of growth and development — it becomes a way of thinking that suppresses and marginalizes local knowledge, thought and expertise.

Far from the claims to universality that the toolkit makes, decolonial thinkers like Mignolo, Quijano and Arturo Escobar propose that in order to challenge the three-pronged economic, ecological and cultural hegemonies of global capitalism, growth and development over natural sustainability, and cultural homogenization, local practices cannot be divorced from a dedicated politics that stresses an ‘ecology of difference’ (Escobar, 2008). Such a decolonial practice of design would be rooted in the need to imagine alternate institutional arrangements and address systemic inequalities and biases, to be politically active and critical, and to be concerned with the preservation of traditional forms of life while extending them as alternatives to globalization-as-colonialism. So far, little offered in current literature on design thinking points toward such a practice, with the exception of the practice of ontological design developed by Tony Fry and outlined most recently in Design in the Borderlands (2014) coedited with Eleni Kalantidou, one of the few works that acknowledges how practices of design developed in the Global North are exported to the Global South, extending Anglo-European ways of thinking and being as well as affirming political and economic power.

Locally, one can begin to trace the beginnings of design practices of resistance, as local designers and design schools are working toward the recovery of a design tradition from Muslim and Indian sub-continental heritage[xiii] by locating practices usually associated with design thinking today within a larger history of making artifacts and environments, and by experimenting with marrying vernacular forms, philosophies, and understandings with new materials and methods[xiv]. Local publications on design and culture have focused on the links between design as a practice deeply tied to spirituality and faith, something that the rationalist, secular Anglo-European tradition has tended to de-emphasize[xv]. Very recent initiatives like the Anti-Art University that are actively pursuing decolonial agendas seek to problematize and contest academic institutions that chose to turn inwards and depoliticize themselves as the space for political engagement gradually shrunk in the post-9/11 era: “Policed by Rangers and surrounded by barriers, our art institutions today display their investment in reproducing and subjecting their student bodies to the daily humiliations and disciplining of hegemonic power structures and relations…we seek then, in the Karachi Art Anti University, not to build structures or walls, but a refuge. To build what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call ‘the fugitive public’ — to flee the halls and corridors of institutionalised education and instead occupy and claim street and public space in the city as sites of study.”[xvi] And lastly, there have been cautious moves to integrate design methods into studio classes, while not necessarily following the proscribed methodologies of imported social design or buying into what is seen as its overly optimistic but culturally and politically insensitive ethos (see the right hand column). [xvii]

And so, coming back full circle, one can conclude that what we need are not toolkits, nor their “universal” definitions of design thinking or their processes, but new, diverse philosophies and frameworks that are tied to local knowledge and practice, informed by local politics and ethics. Great challenges remain: the lack of government support for the arts and humanities; the instrumentalization of education by bureaucratic structures; and the endangered status of social workers, artists and designers alike as it becomes ever more difficult to express views and undertake work that runs counter to entrenched political interests in an increasingly violent country. There is also the problem of escaping the orbit of a history of design as an elitist practice deeply intertwined with the politics of class and social hierarchy. As more and more design programs open up and cater to students from more diverse backgrounds, the field is slowly becoming more and more democratized. Yet, the emergence of a truly decolonial practice of design, one that does not necessarily rely purely on foreign universal claims to knowledge and of where value lies (in growth, consumption, socio-technical innovation etc.), and at the same time is well equipped to deal with the unique problems of the Global South: designing for scales unimaginable in the Global North, rampant illiteracy and a largely oral culture, and basic infrastructural problems in even the largest cities, has yet to be seen.

And yet, as the country’s situation becomes ever more urgent and dire, both old and new academics and practitioners have been galvanized to begin searching for new ways to design. It is still early days, but we hope that the discipline matures so that we do not have to rely on foreign exports of knowledge and power in order to tackle local problems, and where the social sector can rely on the expertise of locally trained designers. Maybe one day, as modern economic and ecological paradigms prove insufficient in tackling growing crises like climate change, population displacement, and political instability, it will be methods and frameworks developed in conditions of adversity and resiliency and drawing from the immense wealth of local knowledge from the Global South that will find their way to the Global North to learn from.

A Politics in Method

After almost an year of trying to persuade sceptical institutions still rooted in a craft-centered, product-driven, expert design approach to develop a practice incorporating field research, we were finally given the green light by the Liberal Arts department to teach a methods course at my old alma mater, the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, one of the more elite private design schools in Karachi. My colleagues and I had selected a site which would be used as an object of study: Karachi’s Civil Hospital, a venerable public institution established in 1898. Over the course of the semester we were to lead undergraduate students through the basics of designing research for complex systems.

The class turned out to be simultaneously one of the most satisfying and frustrating experiences I have undertaken to date. The hospital was a sprawling, crowded, unplanned hive of activity, servicing thousands of urban and rural working class and peasantry every day. Many of these patients could not read or write and spoke only regional dialects, travelling miles from their village or town with their families in tow to pitch camp inside the hospital grounds, sometimes for weeks, as they waited for treatment. In the large courtyards and grounds in between buildings, vendors would set up their stalls and carts to sell goods to the hordes of outpatients. Where signage systems failed, a small army of self-appointed orderlies shuffled in between buildings acting as guides and errand-runners. For 50 rupees (roughly $0.50), they would go run and buy the medicines you needed, find the doctor you wanted, or wheel your ailing relative to the requisite ward. In the absence of planned formal systems, clients, caretakers, and opportunistic entrepreneurial individuals had designed for themselves and between themselves informal systems that meant to plug the gaps.

Early on, it became obvious to both faculty and students that even narrowing down to a specific area of focus and finding a community of willing stakeholders was going to prove difficult — each problem was tied to another, and each presented unique barriers, some linguistic, some political, some socio-cultural. While the school is also a teaching hospital with hundreds of medical students, we did not have the safety of hospital uniforms or expert status to mask our class. Small things like the manner of speech and the way we moved through the crowds gave us away, and groups of students would often find themselves accosted by patients with small chits of paper asking for interpretation, vendors seeking to sell wares, or beggars looking for a small donation. A group of students wishing to understand in detail the way in which medical records were archived found that the entire collection was in the hands of a small number of archivists who had been employed for decades, and had become quite adept at retrieving specific records, employing a system of stacking records completely based on the memorization of a taxonomy divided by theme, time and space (e.g. ‘this particular case from ER must be in the records from such year, kept in this part of the room’). The system had never been digitized because of political reasons. Not only the archivists, but an entire retinue of workers above and below them would have been rendered redundant and laid off. Creativity notwithstanding, we found that many of these practices were developed and inscribed in a confluence of power relations, and under the constraints of hierarchal and material limitations.[xviii]

Students expressed that, over the course of employing both more traditional methods meant to study and explore situations and generative methods where they tried to collectively brainstorm solutions, they found that the politics of class often came between them and useful research. Sometimes, only in exchange for favours would individuals agree to an interview, and even then there was a sense among students that when asked questions like why they did something a certain way, many interviewees would either answer obliquely, lie, tell them what they thought they wanted to hear, or wave off saying ‘that was how things were done’, even after repeated attempts to engage. Some students reported the opposite, talking about how, once identified as belonging to an upper class background, they were harangued by patients with a long list of grievances and complaints or overwhelming obsequiousness.

It was the latter that really brought home to students the realization that their very presence as ‘makers’ intending to make an intervention in the system came with political baggage. Far from the easy descriptions of social engagement and community-enabled design practice found in many of the key texts dealing with social design, they found considerable roadblocks and far from radically reframing the system, they found their work always at risk of being subsumed within the politics of the system itself. Had it not been for an ongoing stream of critical evaluation poring over research findings correlated with extensive secondary historical research and a sensitivity to local behaviours and attitudes, one would have had trouble separating the nuances of what was true from what was false, of how people made meanings and how desires were formed. Most students, after several months studying the hospital, expressed that what the experience had made them particularly conscious about was how deeply embedded in class privilege their own assumptions about design were. Whereas at the beginning of the semester most would have casually dismissed the hospital’s services as unplanned and undersigned, inefficient, slow and corrupt, what they in fact found was that many of the hitherto informally designed systems in fact exhibited a flexibility that allowed them to cope and scale with the magnitude of people they were dealing with. At the same time, the need to streamline these systems to give better service meant building an acute sense of the politics of working and intervening within the space. In the end, while acknowledging the usefulness of many methods, many students articulated a dissatisfaction with the human-centered design process, arguing for a deeper, more immersive process of slow observation and trust-building rather than the lean, in-and-out, process driven approach that most toolkits and methods books advocate.

Even after the semester ended and we continued to work on the project with a thesis student, we found that we had to abandon the guise of the expert, finding that an explicit commitment to understanding the political before transforming it was needed in order to be able to begin making any kinds of propositions for intervention. For example, one of our insights into the reasons for why people were more comfortable asking self-appointed middlemen for instructions rather than the nurses or uniformed orderlies had to do with ideas of a perceived social and professional ‘hierarchy’, where employment meant a kind of status that affirmed a distinction between the formal and informal orders of the system working in parallel, and where the self-appointed but ‘formally-sanctioned’ middlemen mediated this divide. While it can be argued that these ‘undesigned’ solutions are conservative, destined to replicate entrenched relations of power and labour, one can also note that they represent a careful, organically evolving, and above all, stable and flexible means of dealing with the unique set of problems encountered in their context. Above all, because they emerge from the bottom-up instead of being aspects of a totalizing system imposed from top-down, and because they give otherwise excluded subjects a way to negotiate the system in a freer, but also more familiar and accessible way, we argue that such spaces of the marginalized become what are called ‘border’ spaces, in line with Walter Mignolo’s concept of border thinking: “Today, silenced and marginalized voices are bringing themselves into the conversation of cosmopolitan projects, rather than waiting to be included. Inclusion is always a reformative project. Bringing themselves into the conversation is a transformative project that takes the form of border thinking or border epistemology — that is, the alternative to separatism is border thinking, the recognition and transformation of the hegemonic imaginary from the perspectives of people in subaltern positions.” (Mignolo, 2000) Border spaces co-exist and negotiate with planned, designed, top-down space, and defy efforts to order them into any kind of planned and developed space according to hegemonic exterior logics.

While we are still working through the implications of the project, it has become clearer to us that to practice design in the complex, messy environments of the Global South, caught between modernity and tradition, orality and literacy, industrial and pre-industrial materiality, requires a very different kind of designer: not someone who is an ‘expert’ (in the conventional Pakistani way), or even a ‘facilitator’ (here, ‘facilitating what?’ becomes the key epistemic question), but a kind of ‘border-designer’.

We propose this as the third way. The border-designer does not seek to make sense of situations according to any pre-given theoretical frameworks and their political baggage, but traces the flows of power and resistance and how they manifest in materials and practices, operates with an acute awareness of their own political affectivity, and then decides whether and how best the border can be sustained and strengthened, or if need be, weakened or demolished. The border-designer creates both with and also without the community — this is not the disengaged, black box practice of the expert, neither is it the activity of co-designers, where underlying discourses frame the collaboration of both designer and community, but the calculated, deliberate activity of the designer acutely aware of the epistemological and political foundations of their practice, of where parts of socio-technical systems need to be strengthened, reinforced or preserved, and where they need to be shifted or even destroyed in order to make room for the new to emerge. The border-designer recognises the epistemic foundations of colonial reproduction in existing material systems and can identify alternatives in the form of practices expressed by the marginalized that have emerged in both the absence and the perpetuation of the planned. Like the middlemen and mediators that navigate the borders of the Civil Hospital, the border-designer weaves a careful negotiation between the designed and undesigned, between resiliency and fragility, between the unchanging and the new.

[i] Interestingly, this was happening around the same time as the idea of social innovation was beginning to gain in popularity in the social and management sciences (see Drucker, 1957; Lapierre, 1965).

[ii] Alexander in particular subjects the entire idea to a scathing critique in an interview with Max Jacobson, calling it a “barren and intimidating concept” (Design Methods Group, 1971).

[iii] Readers interested in an explanation looking back at the failure of the first generation of the Methods Movement and the subsequent development of the second generation of methods might want to look at Horst Rittel’s interview with Donald Grant and Jean-Pierre Protzen (Design Methods Group, 1972).

[iv] The French sociologist Bruno Latour gives an account in “An Inquiry into Modes of Existence” of the way religions speak as speech that is meant to be transformational in its delivery, and contrasts it with the discourse of science, which speaks to deliver information. I argue that design discourse works in much the same way.

[v] For a complete history of the entire debate and its various conversations, see http://designobserver.com/feature/humanitarian-design-vs-design-imperialism-debate-summary/14498/

[vi] The first of which was Plan 9 in Lahore, set up in 2012 by the Punjab Information Technology Board under the leadership of Umar Saif; since then, the Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA), has set up another major venture, the Nest I/O, in Karachi, with dozens of smaller accelerator programs around the country.

[vii] ITU has established its Innovations for Poverty Alleviation Lab (http://www.ipal.itu.edu.pk/), and LUMS the Social Innovation Lab (http://www.socinnlab.org/), as research centers through which they do both public and private sector social design, although their models tend to vary, with IPAL acting as a working extension of the Ministry of IT while SIL acts as an incubator for the business school.

[viii] For example, just prior to my departure for the US in July 2015, the Acumen Fund approached me to help assist in running several workshops on human-centered design methods for their fellows together with designers from IDEO as part of their partnership with the firm (see http://acumen.org/blog/human-centered-design-common-aspirations-uncommon-action/)

[ix] For example, the painter Zahoor ul Ikhlaq was also well known as an iconic identity designer, while the advertiser Imran Mir was known to be a prolific sculptor and painter — both were also heavily involved in teaching.

[x] Parveen Rehman, Joint Director of the Orangi Pilot Project and a highly influential social worker in Karachi, was assassinated on 13 March, 2013, it was rumored, by the local land mafia. The case still remains unresolved. See http://www.dawn.com/news/796514/who-will-dare-to-be-parveen-rehman

[xi] For a critique of the Orange Metro Project (2015) and the history of communal marginalization by successive governments in Pakistan, see http://www.dawn.com/news/1219398 [Accessed 2 November 2015]

[xii] The Pakistani state’s sanitization of public space in the name of progress has been critiqued brilliantly here by Yaminay Chaudhry: http://herald.dawn.com/news/1153271/anxious-public-space-a-preface [Accessed 20 November 2015]

[xiii] This move to recover a long historical tradition of scholarship and practice has been mirrored in the sciences too — see the report on Muslim science published by Science at Universities of the Muslim World: http://muslim-science.com/science-at-universities-of-islamic-world-2/ [Accessed 14 November 2015]

[xiv] See for example, the work of Coalesce Design Studio, a multidisciplinary design studio that has gone on to display work internationally: http://www.designmena.com/insight/dubai-design-week-pakistan-pavilion-creates-traditional-courtyard-using-local-rosewood-and-henna-dye.

[xv] ‘Mazaar Bazaar’, a collection of articles on communication design and other forms of visual culture, contains a number of essays devoted to how popular contemporary styles and aesthetics are deeply rooted in religious and mythological iconography.

[xvi] See http://www.dawn.com/news/1197318

[xvii] In addition to my own account of teaching methods, I might add that many of the leading art\design schools of the country have now begun to incorporate design studies and research methods courses into their curricula — for example, the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture has a lab dedicated to practice-based research in architecture and interior design (http://adrl.io/), and universities like SZABIST, Karachi University and Habib University have made humanities and social science courses compulsory for design students.

[xviii] Almost all of the early key texts on design methods felt the need to distinguish between cultures that design knowingly and cultures that do not before making a case for the need for method in expert design, where the designer plays an ancillary role in the determination of the solution. In Notes on the Synthesis of Form (1964), the architect Christopher Alexander makes a distinction between “unselfconscious” cultures that rely on tradition and repetition, which are inflexible and unresponsive when it comes to dealing with new problems, and “conscious” cultures which are concerned with planning and envisioning the new. Similarly, the designer John Chris Jones outlines in Design Methods (1970) the difference between traditional ‘craftsmen’ with their slowly evolving, incremental processes still found in pre-modern, pre-industrialized societies and modern ‘designers’, with their rapid reframing and ideation through reflexive sketching. One would imagine that over the decades, this distinction would have been rendered false with new descriptions of the nature of craft practice and informal innovation by social scientists like Richard Sennett (2008) or Trevor Marchand (2011). But it is still possible to find it in contemporary texts by prominent designers such as Ezio Manzini making the similar claims that conventional modes of design by non-experts entail “‘following tradition’ and ‘doing things as they have always been done’”, before suggesting that it is expert designers who serve the all-important role as facilitators, and that is they who, as coordinating methods and processes with a larger vision of how things should be, should classify as facilitators and leaders in any situation at hand.

Instead, we found that local solutions to problems were innovative, intelligent, and deeply sensitive to political, social and cultural conditions, even if it meant, as we have noted above, that they were rigid in the sense that they maintained a certain kind of status quo. Apart from the kinds of service routines described above, we would also include the concept of informal, ‘quick’ innovation to solve immediate problems working with local knowledge and materials to hand called ‘jugaad’ in the subcontinent. In fact, this continuing distinction between what designers like Manzini call “diffuse” and “expert” design and schema like his explanation of the four modes of social design put into action that create taxonomies of design practice become particularly redundant when applied to the practice of design in general in Pakistan. For example, his categorization of “cultural activists” who are involved in sense-making is confusing when applied to local designers, architects and artists involved in sustained, large scale but diffuse projects of cultural enterprise and transformation, as it is observable in recent projects such as I Am Karachi (2015)[i]. We would argue that perhaps these ways of categorizing design practice should be rethought, and seen as not either-or matrices, but as a large spectrum of creative activity engaged by entrepreneurs and opportunists, craftsman and artisans, and designers and planners formally trained not in design thinking but in form giving, as well as those trained explicitly in methods and process.


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Ahmed Ansari

PhD Candidate, Design Studies || Carnegie Mellon University || Design from the Global South || Modernity\Coloniality, South Asian Technics, Power