Fisher calls for public-interest design in Chronicle of Higher Education

Dean Tom Fisher (Architecture) published an op-ed piece, "Needed: Design in the Public Interest," in the May 1, 2009 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education calling for public-interest design. "The world desperately needs a design version of public health, and so do architectural schools and the profession itself," writes Fisher, championing a design-for-all philosophy. Fisher calls for a completely new business model for public-interest design fashioned after the one developed for public health in the mid-19th century and speculates that public-interest design firms might develop a hybrid consisting of both non-profit and for-profit aspects. "Do we really want to continue to be servants of the superrich," asks Fisher. "[O]r does our responsibility -- and our overlooked opportunities for new types of services -- also lie with the health, safety, and welfare of all?"

The work performed by public-interest design firms would also necessarily evolve:

"While public-interest designers would still provide solutions to particular problems, the scope of their work might involve an entire slum or region of a country, addressing basic needs of shelter, sanitation, clean water, and energy production. Much of the work, though, would probably entail the development of prototypes that could be produced at very low cost in local communities and be carried out by unskilled laborers in myriad cultures and climates. The development, testing, delivery, and continuing evaluation of easily replicable solutions would constitute a major portion of the work of public-interest design. That, in turn, would require an education that draws from a wider range of disciplines -- anthropology, cultural geography, economics, industrial engineering, public health -- than most design programs now do."

Fisher closes with the question of whether public-interest design can coexist with existing design fields. He partially answers his own question by observing what happened with public health. "But traditional aspects of design education, such as the creation of high-cost, resource-intensive solutions to meet the needs of the world's wealthiest, would be largely irrelevant to this new field. Public health became separated from medicine for similar reasons, and I suspect the same will happen with public-interest design."

  • The May 8, 2009 issue of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) newsletter, eye on design, features a blurb of Fisher's article.