Designing a better life

South Africa remains among the world`s most inequal countries. High inequality is perpetuated by a legacy of exclusion, and the economic growth does not contribute to diminishing poverty and generating new, decent jobs. Inequality in wealth is striking: the richest 10% of the population held around 71% of net wealth in 2015, while the bottom 60% held 7% of it. Furthermore, inequalities are passed down from generation to generation with little change in inequality over time. (Worldbank.) The structural inequality and exclusion lead up to more fear and less trust among the citizens, and less participation in the community.

How does design fit in a reality, where so many people lack even the basic services: water, energy, shelter, food, sanitation, health care, transport and education?

Picture: getinstantdeals.com

This question was explored by Head of Department and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Industrial Design, Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture (FADA) at the University of Johannesburg South Africa, Angus Donald Campbell, as the keynote speaker in Studia Generalia lecture “Designing with the Underserved: An Exploration of the Complexities of Design in South Africa from the perspective of the SDGs” organized by the Finnish Design Academy on 17 November, 2020.

A time of crisis and protests contains within it the seeds for transformation and change. According to Campbell, philosophical and practical re-design of the society is possible in South Africa. While many feel helpless, small and collaborative interventions of change are needed.

Local and sustainable innovations can play a key role in the path towards the United Nation`s Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs. Reaching high-minded and noble goals does not always mean million-euro budgets or heavy structures. Instead, a locally and culturally sensitive approach, combined with an immersion into the life of people can help the researcher or designer understand the small everyday challenges people face and thus identify appropriate opportunities to improve the quality of life in big scale.

“My face isn’t designed for glasses!” 

This was an exclamation of one project participant in a project that Angus Campbell`s student Marcha Naudè implemented during 2017-19. It reflects the way how underserved and excluded people, but also people living a middle-class life in European countries, can perceive services: they should fit the services, and not the other way round. Should eye-glasses be designed for the people, or people`s faces be designed for glasses?

Poor eye-sight often causes other problems, such as weak performance at school or work, difficulties in reading, doing manual work, driving etc. These in turn can deepen the exclusion and inequality. In South Africa, the challenges within the eye-care services include lack of sufficient private and public eye care services, and eyewear frames that do not consider the contextual needs. The majority of available eyewear frames are imported and most of them come from one monopoly organisation, which designs eyewear from a predominantly Eurocentric perspective. For example, there are currently only two types of eyewear fit, the “regular” fit, based on European facial data, and the “Asian” or “global” fit, which was developed in reaction to the inappropriateness of the “regular” fit. (Campbell 2020.)

Picture: ISTOCK/UBERIMAGES

However, the wide ethnic variety of people in South Africa caused that neither the “regular” fit nor the “global” fit suited well the facial features of huge numbers of south Africans. The nose pad did not sit well on the nose, the frame width was incorrect or the arm length was too short or too long. Improper fitment causes discomfort and leads to blurry vision and long-term vision problems. (Campbell 2020.)

The project focused on trying to solve the problem with frames, applying human-centered design. Naudè conducted a comprehensive field research about the needs and challenges concerning eyesight among the deprived groups. The needs of glasses wearers in local context were analyzed. The final outcome of the project was an adaptable and customatized eyewear frame that was of local design, could be produced locally and fit well the common facial features of local people. Local production helped make the frames more affordable.

Picture: United Nations

This well-focused design project shows the way in which small but smart interventions at local level can achieve visible (literally!) results at the lives of local communities, and at the same time help the country reach the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations. This particular case contributed to the SDG 3 (Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages) and 10 (Reduce inequality within and among countries).

When solutions to local problems are identified, they can be scaled up. A similar design research approach could be applicable in a number of countries in the Global South.

Laura Ekholm

More information can be found:

Campbell, A.D. Adaptable Glasses.  https://www.angusdonaldcampbell.com/project/glasses/

United Nations. The 17 goals. https://sdgs.un.org/goals

Worldbank. https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/southafrica/overview

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