How Public Interest Design Can Win Over the Public’s Trust

If public interest design is going to grow into a valued field of practice, we need clear measures of performance for the profession and the public.

Doctor injecting a patient with placebo as part of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Courtesy wikipedia originally sourced from the US National Archives

For the past ten years, evidence has been collecting in publications and exhibits that a new field of practice is emerging. It uses design as a tool to serve the public, including those who cannot afford design services. And it’s becoming clear that we now have a movement, not just a collection of well-documented projects and well-meaning people. This is a new field of practice. The name that best describes it as a profession is public interest design.

While many other catchy and descriptive names have been used such as community design, social impact, humanitarian, and pro bono, only public interest design bears the systemic permanence of a profession. As this term enters the public discourse, will it be used by anybody to mean anything? Or, are there professional standards that need to be defined and understood—especially by the public—if this quickly emerging field is to make the valuable contribution that it can?

We don’t have to look very far into the past to see why clarity and definition are essential. Just ten years ago, “green design” could be falsely applied to anything; therefore it became almost meaningless. The term only acquired meaning when professional performance standards were defined.

Here it’s useful to look at other emerging professions and the steps necessary when these professions passed through similar moments of creation.

Take public interest health, for example. In 1932 the U.S. Public Health Service started a study of rural low-income men in Tuskegee, Alabama, who had syphilis. The 600 men involved thought they were receiving free health care, but in reality they were just being monitored like lab rats. When penicillin was discovered as a cure in 1947, the study continued for another 25 years without ever treating the men as patients, allowing many to die awful deaths and infect family members. Those conducting the study considered it to be in the public’s interest; and the last director went to his grave never acknowledging that ethical mistakes were made.

Without clear professional standards the public’s interest is left to individual interpretation. Due to the Tuskegee project and others as poorly conceived, people were harmed and their trust was violated. Public health and medicine now have ethical protocols such as informed consent and internal reviews to protect the public.

Other professions with less dire consequences, but also dependent on public understanding, have faced similar moments. Journalism is an example. In 1937 Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White published You Have Seen Their Faces, a collection of photographs and captions of low income rural southerners. The captions to the photos are striking: “No place to plant me a little garden when the white-boss says to plow the cotton in right up to my front door.”

Picture-4

What is even more striking is that these captions, presented as quotes below the photos, were made up by Caldwell, never actually spoken by the persons shown. This is a breach of journalistic ethics, as we now understand them. When asked why he did this, Caldwell replied that he didn’t believe there was a difference between fact and fiction. His personal ethics did not create a profession that served the public. But we now know that without the public’s trust and understanding the difference between fiction and journalism, credibility is not served. Under such conditions the value of journalism was diminished greatly. Had such practices continued, journalism would never have achieved the value it has today for the public.

Here is the point: The best individual intentions do not make a professional ethical standard. If public interest design is going to grow from a “movement” of individuals into a valued field of professional practice, we need clear measures of performance for ourselves and for the public. These measures need to be made explicit.

Learning from medicine, one basic standard should be accountability. Claims made to serve the public should be evaluated after the results are in. Failures should be clearly identified and those responsible held as responsible. Successes should also be identified.

The second basic standard should be transparency. Design decisions have historically been made by the wealthy and the powerful, those who hired the designers. But the public’s interest cannot be defined behind closed doors like the Tuskegee precedent was.

But besides the basic standards, the field of public interest design should define the highest capacity that design can achieve. What are the aspirations of the field? What is the highest goal it can achieve?

Practitioners who have worked hard to shape this field have begun this conversation more than a half a dozen years ago. In 2005 a group of designers started the Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED) Network. The group is open to all. It now has 1,350 diverse members from across the world.  The SEED Network has shaped a mission and set of principles well suited for public interest design.

The SEED Mission: Every person should be able to live in a socially, economically, and environmentally healthy community.

  • Principle 1: Advocate with those who have a limited voice in public life.
  • Principle 2: Build structures for inclusion that engage stakeholders and allow communities to make decisions.
  • Principle 3: Promote social equality through a discourse that reflects a range of values and social identities.
  • Principle 4: Generate ideas that grow from place and build local capacity.
  • Principle 5: Design to help conserve resources and minimize waste.

In a poll of its members, the American Institute of Architects conducted through the support of the 2011 FAIA Latrobe Research Prize, 77% of AIA members agreed that the SEED mission was appropriate for the field of public interest design. And 75% of AIA members agreed that the SEED principles were appropriate for this field of practice.

Another statistic from the Latrobe research is revealing. Of licensed AIA members, 58% said that if a field of public interest design existed, an ethical violation by a professional could result in his or her removal from the field.

Together, these survey responses suggest that a distinct field has emerged, and that there is a consensus on how it is defined.

The goal here is not to stifle the creative entrepreneurship and activism that have been so effective in the many projects undertaken in the last ten years. The Latrobe research concludes: “Public interest practices are broader and more interdisciplinary than the current prescribed model of practice. They have had to be more innovative in their protocols, procedures, economic models, and relationships to make these practices possible. Public interest design practices may represent a future trend of architectural practice in general in the U.S. as we adapt to a changed concept of client and changing economic conditions.”

To realize this future, public interest design must have a clear set of professional standards that the public can trust.

The 2013 SEED Awards Competition for Excellence in Public Interest Design is open until October 1, 2012. Winners will be announced November 12, 2012.


Bryan Bell worked with Samuel Mockbee in 1985 on three houses in rural Mississippi that won Progressive Architecture First Awards. In 1991 he founded Design Corps and subsequently added a fellowship program with the AmeriCorps. His effort to share ideas with the newest generation of architects has led to a series of conferences, Structures of Inclusion, hosted at universities. Selected presentations from these events have been presented in two publications: Good Deeds Good Design, (Princeton Architectural Press, 2003) and Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism (Metropolis Books, 2008). In 2010 he became a Harvard Loeb Fellow where his work includes a triple bottom line evaluation using the Social/Economic/Environmental Design (SEED). His current work includes “Public Interest Design,” funded through the 2011 Latrobe Prize awarded by the American Institute of Architects.

Categories: Design, Ideas

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