Who are the forgotten?

When it comes to design, Miriam Pastor of Designit describes the forgotten as an out-of-the-frame population, a minority of people for which a design wouldn’t appeal to or communicate effectively. Throughout the article published on Medium, Pastor frequently refers to the designers as we and us and the forgotten as they and them, and according to her observations, we as designers cannot claim that our designs speak to humanity (or are “human-centered”) if we’re only designing for the majority.

So what does she mean by the majority? Think of designs rooted in Westernized culture and masculine interests; designs appealing to upper class socialites or artsy city dwellers; designs flaunting pop culture references and slang terms only an American teenager who spends waaaay too much time on Twitter would understand. Some people might interpret the majority as the target audience, but if you the designer want your work to speak to the human experience—and to the global population—then maybe you’re approaching things all wrong. At least, that’s what Pastor would want you to think. But I can’t say the same for myself.

I agree wholeheartedly with Pastor on the significant roles that design plays in the world. Design is a problem solver, a process, a tool for overcoming challenges and limitations. Designers know how valuable a particular design can be for a business, a social network, a spanking new product aiming to compete with Apple’s latest innovation—but do they sit down and decide to make the design human-centered? Is humanity a purposefully imbued trait of a successful design?

Actively pursuing a design that appeals to both the majority and the minority—or a mutation of the two—is not only impossible but also potentially fatal to the design process. Especially for amateurs in the industry, attempting to appeal to every human being on Earth would likely produce a generic or abstract design with very little to say.

While working on my Bachelors in Writing, I took poetry classes with a professor who always enforced this one principle during our class workshops: “The universal is the local fully realized.”

In other words, we as writers couldn’t communicate a broad topic from the get-go—at least not in a successful or meaningful way. Instead we needed to start small and draw from our own lives and experiences in order to reveal the bigger picture, the deeper message.

It’s very likely that Pastor is referring to designers who make a definitive job commitment to designing for a global population or another country whose culture differs entirely from the designer’s. If that’s the case, then the designer should indeed accept the responsibility of effectively communicating a design on a global scale. As Pastor says, the designer must be aware of her own biases and limits, and conduct herself with caution and respect when presenting a design meant to be human-centered.

For the rest of us, however, our responsibility is to create the best design in the best way, typically with a target population in mind. Whether a design lacks humanity for ignoring the smaller population isn’t the problem. Forgetting our own humanity and behaving like anything other than human—that would be the gravest mistake.

What are your thoughts on Pastor’s definition of the forgotten? Do you believe designers are doing enough to design for the minority while appealing to the majority? Is humanity a trait that should be forcibly instilled into a design, or should it be allowed to emerge naturally over time? What does a human-centered design look like to you? Leave your thoughts in the comments below. Until then, thanks for reading.

—james

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