Bryan Bell on public interest design

Over the last decade, organizations such as the Make it Right Foundation (of Brad Pitt fame) and exhibitions like Cooper Hewitt’s “Design for the Other 90%” have raised the profile of public interest design. To learn more about the evolution of the field, I spoke with Bryan Bell, founder of Design Corps and one of the forces behind SEED, a rating system that wants to do for socially responsible design what LEED has done for sustainability.


How would you define public interest design?

I’ve been doing public interest design for 22 years, and only two years ago did I know what to call myself.

I sort of had a traditional education: Princeton, did a masters at Yale, then went to New York, got the job I wanted at a good firm. And for some reason, that was not what I was looking for. I felt that we were not addressing the critical issues in the world. We were doing some things that were very valued in the architectural community, but I didn’t feel that this was what the non-architectural community was valuing.

That was my moment of looking for a different approach. At the time I felt like I left architecture, but now I realize I just have a different definition of what architecture is. The main difference for me was that I wanted to serve not just a small segment of a population, and I wanted to address the really big issues that were challenging people in the world. Those are really the two key elements of what I now call public interest design.

So I left New York, went to work for a nonprofit in central Pennsylvania, and designed migrant housing with them for five years. I learned a lot about how they built affordable housing and served migrant workers, who are some of the hardest-working people in our society, but also some of the least paid and worst housed. It was somewhere I really felt like I could be useful.

That was sort of the beginning of my career. One important thing about the term “public interest design” is that this is a profession. This is not traditional practice with a little bit of pro bono, and it’s not student work. It can be a full-time, professional career, like public interest law and public interest health. That’s an important statement to make — it’s not something that we sort of dabble in. We can really be devoted to it.

I wanted to serve not just a small segment of a population, and I wanted to address the really big issues that were challenging people in the world

One of the things we’ve found as part of a research project we won AIA Latrobe funding for, called “Public Interest Practices in Architecture”, is that there are many people who are paid to do this full time, and they just sort of all made it up on their own. It’s ad hoc, sort of spontaneous and grassroots; it’s not really shaped into a professional practice.

The data we found is that about 30% of all architects go into the field because they want to improve the quality of life in communities. That’s second only to people wanting to make use of their creative talents, which is the #1 reason why people go into architecture. But these are not exclusive reasons; you can apply your talents to serve communities.

Bryan Bell

Basically I think a lot of people have always wanted to do this work, but there hasn’t really been a professional track. The professional paths are becoming clear, and we’re helping to explain them. The past 10 years have been very valuable because there’s been a lot of exposure through publications and exhibits about the work going on out there. It’s been great to show the public — and designers — what can be done, and it’s really starting to change public consciousness about what design can contribute.

But the problem is that these are individual people and individual projects. Individual people go away, and individual projects go away. We want a permanent change in the profession. So we’re trying to look at systemic change, not just inspiring examples.

And so that’s the background of SEED?

Yeah. For ten years we’ve sort of known what this field looks like. We could identify work, we’d invite people to speak, and I published two books. But we hadn’t really clearly stated what it was that these examples have in common, and I realized, if we couldn’t say this to each other, how on earth could we explain it to the public?

In 2005 a group of about 20 of us got together at the [Harvard] Graduate School of Design to address the challenge of how we could do a better job of serving communities. LEED was very successful in 2005; the green design movement was rapidly growing, coalesced around that standard. We said we need something like that, and we came up with the acronym. Then we had a SurveyMonkey sent to 200 people about what the principles should be. There was a majority vote on six; one of them became the mission, and five became the principles of this approach to design.

Manufactured migrant housing unit at factory

Missions and principles are great, but if they don’t have a way of becoming real projects they’re just ideals. We came up with some actionable tools that take the mission and principles into actual built projects that are seeing results. One is called the evaluator; it just walks you through a design process that includes the participation of the community and includes principles from grant writing, like what are your benchmarks and how are you going to measure your success. You want to have a clear process that’s explaining to the public how they’re involved, when they’re going to be involved, confirming that these are the goals that they’re going to have, and then at the end of the day confirming that the project did what we all said it was going to do.

What’s the reception in the design community been like? How do you find people to work with?

SEED is also a network, and we have almost 1,500 members now. It’s a growing community. We have members all over the world.

We also did a survey of the AIA as part of the Latrobe work, asking “Do you feel that this mission and these principles are appropriate if the field of public interest design existed?” 75% of AIA members said yes, that mission is appropriate for public interest design, and 77% said yes, those principles are appropriate.

This is important because it’s not just this group of alternative practitioners who feel that we need a new type of practice, but it’s also the main center of the profession. That’s been very important, to realize that there’s a growing consensus about what this term means. Which is pretty interesting, because you might think, well, architects think anything we do is public interest design. But actually they’re saying no, there are some distinct qualities to public interest design.

Another kind of a geeky statistic — 57% said that if there was a profession of public interest design and someone made an ethical violation, that person should be made to leave the profession. That says that this is not just people doing anything they want and calling it in the public interest — there really has to be a set of standards that have to be met.

This is actually a very fascinating point. If you look at public interest health, for example, when it was being formed there were some really terrible things that happened with human subjects before they developed a public code of conduct that involved informed consent and transparency and accountability. Like the Tuskeegee Study, where they let men suffer through syphilis for 30 years after a cure had been devised — this is the US public health department — because they thought, well, this is in the public interest, we’re going to let these guys suffer because then we can study them. Unbelievable. But there were no professional standards.

So I think we’re at this point now of saying what does this mean, what does this stand for, and how can we be clear with the public on what to expect from us.

This is not just people doing anything they want and calling it in the public interest — there really has to be a set of standards that have to be met

And do you expect that a separate field with separate companies will develop, or do you think that traditional architecture firms will have departments devoted to public interest design? What do you think is the most likely evolution?

I think that the four of us working on the Latrobe prize all hope that this becomes a part of the existing design profession. That’s where our assets are — that’s where our education has been invested, that’s where our talent is, that’s where our personnel are. But it’s very much like green design; it’s a very distinct practice, but it fits easily within certain architecture offices.

For a while there was a threat of it becoming a separate profession, because architecture was not really acknowledging it, or was sort of saying this is a different thing. For me, the wonderful thing about the AIA giving this award to this study was that they’re acknowledging that there is public interest practice in architecture. That made me feel like, wow, I am a part of architecture, this really is something that a lot of architects want to do. They weren’t educated to do it, they didn’t do it in their training, but this is what they want to do, and many have tried to do it in a huge variety of creative ways. And I think that it’s not just in architecture, but in communication design and planning and landscape. We all believe that serving the public is a part of the design profession, but I just think we need to say it is happening, figure out how to learn from the best practices, and expand the number of people who have a career here.

Metaphorically, I like to look at the little pie chart that shows who we’re serving now — 2% — and then look at the 98% we’re not. Anybody with basic marketing knowledge understands that that’s a great growth potential. I think one of the other things the AIA is thinking about, with the very high unemployment rate: if traditional practice is suffering, where can we conceivably grow?

Let me give you one or two possibilities of how this can be a professional area of growth. Every time we give evidence that a new issue is a design issue, we expand that piece of the pie. Here’s exhibit A. Michael Murphy was a first-year grad student at the GSD, and went to hear a lecture by Paul Farmer, who’s the founder of Partners in Health. Michael went up to him afterwards and said, “I’d like to work for the architect you use.” And Paul Farmer said, “Why do I need an architect? The last hospital we designed I drew on a napkin.”

What Paul Farmer was doing, and is still doing, was building hospitals in Rwanda, replacing military bases with hospitals. So Michael convinced Paul Farmer to let him design this hospital. And what Michael realized when he looked at the hospitals in Rwanda was that people were coming there with communicable diseases and giving them to each other. Paul Farmer was hurting his mission because he did not know how to design.

Michael designed a hospital with a group of classmates while he was still in school, and that hospital now serves 400,000 people in a region called Butaro, Rwanda. And that hospital directly reduces disease. What do you think Paul Farmer thinks about that? Paul Farmer thinks that is incredible, and now he’s hiring Michael for everything. Michael is two years out of school, and he has an office of 33 paid people.


Butaro Hospital, designed by MASS Design Group

Other people are exploring unbelievable issues. There’s a woman, a Loeb fellow now at Harvard, she’s studying restorative justice. I mean, when she is able to crack that issue and demonstrate the relationship between design and restorative justice, she’s tapping into a multi-billion dollar prison industry. With the resources that go into prison, she can present an alternative through a design solution.

So this is how we start to create a value that we don’t have now, and this is how we start to show our value to this 98%. So sometimes we have to do the work first, like Michael — he did one free to show that he could do it. But after that he was paid.

But Michael also quantified results. He showed that not only is he providing this health service, but he provided a thousand jobs to local people to build the hospital. So these are the metrics we’re talking about. That’s an economic metric. It’s a SEED project, so you have a list of quantifiable metrics that the hospital has provided. It’s a one-page concise summary that Michael can show to people, including the Ministry of Health in Rwanda, and say, “I’m going to build all the hospitals like this.” It’s not saying “Look how beautiful it is, you should hire an architect,” it’s saying, “You want to make people healthier? Let me show you how design can do that.”

So you think being entrepreneurial in the sense of identifying issues that haven’t been addressed before through design is the answer?


How do you see this fitting in with established firms?

Well, first of all, established companies have incredible resources and networks. I think of it as an investment. I’m not a proponent of pro bono, to be honest with you. I’m not a proponent of entering competitions. I’m a proponent of taking that same amount of time and investing it into research into issues about how a contribution can be made. So just like Michael’s, a typical model is that you have to spend the time understanding an issue, you have to spend some time nurturing partners that understand an issue, and then real jobs start to come out of it. There is an investment up-front of research and partnering, just like Michael did, but then once the nut is cracked then that’s when the jobs can result.

Now, what doesn’t work is for us to say, “OK, nonprofit, I’m going to do this top-down idea about what you need. I don’t know anything about tuberculosis, but I’m just going to make something up.” I think the problem too many of us are taught — I certainly was — that somehow we know everything about everything. If I go into an architecture school and say, “Ok, our studio project is to design migrant housing,” everyone will go to their desks and start designing migrant housing, without having any idea what they’re doing.

Unfortunately, architects aren’t taught to respect the expertise of collaborators and understand how we need that knowledge as much as they need our design ability. I’m not advocating turning design over to anybody; we are the designers. But we are certainly not the people who understand the issues. There are experts who understand the issues who can guide our designs to be effective.

So if the issue is that designers don’t connect with the right information they need to understand a problem, is that a problem of solving process issues and educating people about the importance of reaching out to the correct parties?


The better we demonstrate a value, and the better we discover an unrealized potential value, the better we can discover these frankly profitable marketing opportunities

The profit margins in design are fairly low compared to other industries. I think a lot of firms are always concerned about keeping people employed, and they might feel like they don’t have a choice about which projects to accept, or how to allocate their resources. How does that tie into your thinking?

Well, you develop the expertise one time and you’re able to capitalize on it. After six months of designing migrant housing I was recognized as a national expert, because there was no competition. I was getting calls from Florida from people paying me to come design migrant housing.

So I think that there are huge segments of social and economic fields that are these opportunities. Exactly what the profit margin will be I don’t know, but it’s related to the value that we have. That’s why Michael has 33 paid people. He doesn’t have a single volunteer or intern. They’re all paid.

The better we demonstrate a value, and the better we discover an unrealized potential value, the better we can discover these frankly profitable marketing opportunities. So it’s all about proving our value. We can’t just say “Look, we made up this new profession, you should hire us.” But once you prove your value, people say, “Look at this! This is what we need!”

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