photo from ISIS

Last month, I presented at the Sex Tech, a conference that, to my surprise, had nothing to do with making sex better through technology. Instead, the conference brought together people involved in adolescent sexual health, sex education, HIV prevention, STD prevention, and sexual literacy. I was there with Carrie Chan to talk about our work in designing a mobile service to help HIV positive youth take their medication and stay healthy.

This was the first conference I had been to that was not design focused. Very few attendees knew much about design. But that didn’t stop them from trying to understand the people they hoped to impact and designing solutions in an attempt to make positive change. Are they not designing, I wondered. I was reminded of the many discussions I’ve had about enabling design capability in others, and the authors who assert that everyone designs or has the ability to design.

But something appeared to be missing. While we often say that design roams in fields of ambiguity, these guys seemed to be muddling around in a different darkness. Each effort at developing a solution, while based on much personal knowledge of the people for whom the solution was aimed and experience in developing past solutions, still seemed like a shot in the dark. Research data, while rich, provoking, and confirming, offered little way to move forward.

Overall, though commendable, I felt the efforts lacked the discipline and rigor that a design approach offers, and the quality that designers strive to ensure. What would happen if they had some designers on their team? More broadly, this question led me to wonder what if all important issues had designers involved? If as a people we were more skilled at design, more skilled at bringing meaningful changes into the world, what might that world be like? Is it naive to consider that design could have such great impact in the world, and that designers could facilitate this? Or we are just immature in our knowledge and use of design?

A hypothetical talk aside, the conference illustrated an opportunity for design in the issues surrounding youth and sexual health. What other issues are out there that design is not involved in where it could make a difference?