We use the term “public design” as an inclusive label that points to the past as well as the future. It aims to respect and sustain the heroic work of socially progressive designers of the past, and at the same time, it names what appears to be an emerging new force in contemporary practice. Similar terms such as: community design, community-based design, community-driven design, and the newest term: public-interest design, communicate an aspiration for designers to be responsible to society. We like the fact that both words of the term “public design” are imprecise to welcome a broad range of current practices and leave room for future inventions and reinventions. Nevertheless, even though the term is intended to include diverse activities, we believe that there are several qualifications for a practice to be called “public.” First, the practice has a mission that is driven by service more than profit. Second, the practice is able to provide design to groups that do not fit the standard definition of a client. And third, the practice uses various activities to address issues that are relevant to the general public.
The term “public design” is also used to associate with other professions that have a public segment, such as law and medicine, in an attempt to make progress in design as we learn from other practices. Technical progress in design advances naturally as material science and product development inform the design and construction of structures and landscapes. Such progress is built into the building industry because technology is already driven by market forces and does not require changes in the way we practice. However, social progress in design does not happen without effort. Changes in the social forms of practice are less apparent, in part because defining and measuring social progress is not yet institutionalized to the degree of technical progress, as evidenced by the popularity of LEED and the relatively unknown status of SEED**. Nevertheless, if we want to move practice forward we should be able to define social progress and consider the effectiveness of a practice accordingly.
A comparative view of progress in health care offers a way to look at progress in design practice. In health care, technical progress can be seen as advancements in the tools, procedures, and treatments that help people get well more effectively. Social progress can be seen as improvements in access to health care and as an increase in preventive activities among the population, to reduce health problems. In short, progress is being made if more people get the care they need and if fewer people need medical treatment to begin with. We might ask: can the definition of social progress in health care inform a definition of social progress in design practice? Can we define progress similarly, as increasing people’s access to design and reducing problems of the general population resulting from deficient physical settings?
A public design practice is shaped by such questions about social progress. Efforts to achieve social progress are often framed by a critique of traditional client-driven practice methods. A public design practice strives to overcome the limitations of the traditional relationship between an architect and a client. This traditional relationship is built on a fee for professional services, which means that access to design is limited to those who can afford it. It is impossible to significantly increase public access to design if each additional person is expected to be a client who can pay for design services. Likewise, preventive public design to address problems of the physical environment would take a rare client, one who was willing to pay for work beyond the self-interests of their project and to take responsibility for problems beyond their control. Overcoming the limitations of client-driven practice motivates public design practitioners and results in a range of innovative methods found in various public design practices. At the same time, sustaining a public design practice when the funding source is not a traditional client requires an alternative business model.
The Gulf Coast Community Design Studio has now been in practice long enough to be self-conscious of our own evolution. We are aware that our name continues the tradition of place-based, community design work, though we wonder if we should replace “community” with “public.” For the past year, our own work has been energized a new tool: the public design certificate program. This program is changing our practice because we are becoming more reflexive. The interns that commit to a year in the program are looking to learn from the work we (they) are doing. We are also more conscious of how our local work has become part of the national landscape. With each semester, when we add one or two public design interns, we get a larger number of applications. We are currently accepting applications for two new interns and have received over 90 applications so far. For those that have applied, this number may be daunting – though we hope it will not discourage their dedication to public practice. But for those of us that are committed to service-oriented practices, seeing the increasing demand for public design experience is very encouraging and a good indication that the design professions are going through a positive transformation.
We are living in a time when well-founded encouragement is certainly needed.
–David Perkes, Director of the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio
**LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a green-building certification system designed to provide building owners and operators with a framework for identifying and implementing practical and measurable green building design, construction, operations and maintenance solutions. SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design) is a network and certification process to guide professionals toward community-based engagement within design practice.