• Culture And Design: Legacy Versus From Scratch

    It has been two very interesting years since I moved from my native France to the US. Since then it seems I’ve been in a permanent mode of ethnographic observation, taking note of everyday experiences that strike me as exotic. This collection of observations has made me realize just how deeply culture and cultural differences impact the practice of design.

    “Culture and Design” is the overall theme I have chosen to write about in a series of posts covering the following topics:

    • Culture of legacy and preservation versus culture from scratch
    • Culture of collective progress versus culture of individual progress
    • Culture of the “not so much service” versus culture of “customer is king”
    • Culture of public services versus culture of private services
    • Culture of rhetoric versus culture of making

    Let’s start with this one…

    Culture of legacy and preservation versus culture from scratch

    service design usa vs europe sketch

    constraints legacy vs from scratch sketch

    One of the things that is most striking for Europeans is that everything seems new in the United States. This was actually quite a problem for me when I started to drive in Austin, where I live, because I could not recognize places—everything looked new and all the same. It took me a while to distinguish different parts of the city and create my own mental model for getting around.

    In Europe, most cities are characterized by landmarks, which are easy to distinguish and use as references for moving from one place to another. In Europe, history is more apparent and tangible. It’s especially visible in architecture (schools, hospitals, town halls, churches): buildings are living things that evolve over time and according to the changing needs of people. Beyond architecture, a sense of time and heritage are everywhere in philosophy, cultural traditions, food, language. This is great and at the same time almost too much, as it can be a burden to innovation.

    In France, a typical family dialogue could be something like this, “OK, let’s rebuild that house but remember, you’re inheriting it from your great grandmother (so it’s kind of disrespectful to demolish the building) and think of your great grandchildren who, one day, will come to visit your daughter in this house.”

    Europeans will keep, maintain, restore while Americans will easily restart anything—life, house, job, education, and relationships—at anytime. Both approaches have their own pros and cons.

    I think these distinct cultural traits inevitably influence us as designers. In France, I feel like legacy and heritage are part of the design constraints. Don’t mess up, improve what exists.

    Which brings me to the following question: no matter which side of the Atlantic you’re on, what does it mean to practice design with a sense of legacy?

    • Consistency. Standards, rules, regulations, patterns help the design team to think with consistency and relevance according to the context. It’s like working with the same design patterns all the time (it may be boring, but it’s consistent).
    • Timeframe. Design teams must anticipate how the design will evolve when they are no longer directly in control. It raises questions of stewardship / governance / maintenance / curation: who is responsible for this once the design team has done its work?
    • Inertia. Deep roots, big bear, difficult to move.
    • Quiet design. Because things take more time and embrace many constrains, design is quieter but also more sustainable.

    And what does it mean to practice design with a culture of building things “from scratch”?

    • Think big. Innovation is possible. If I think no childcare can serve my child’s needs and if I have the means, I will just build my own and brand it. It may be risky but it’s also a context where great ideas can become real.
    • Unlinked Multiples. Multiple great new systems are spreading out, like honey on bread or like an American city. To go to one another in a city, you need a car. In design, you need a service designer to help you build consistency across multiple atoms, systems, services, stuff (which is great because designers love designing interactions and relationships).
    • Loud design – genius design. If you are starting from scratch and if you are successful, people will know you. It cultivates a culture of the genius designer.
    • Passion. Live your dreams and make them real.

    I think there are interesting things about designing in a culture of heritage and legacy versus in a culture of constantly radical innovation. It certainly affects how much things can change. And sometimes they don’t need to change radically to be effective and sometimes they do.

    This is only one example of cultural differences among many. I think it’s important to take such cultural values into account because design is all about people, influencing their behavior and creating an impact in their lives. That’s why we need to understand values, language, cultural references and nuances to produce meaningful design. Understanding mental models is a key to design success, that’s why design research is so important because it helps us understand such human nuances.

    There are 6 thoughts on this idea

    1. Paul

      You have a good simple contrast here for discussing these cultural differences. All generalizations are wrong, but these are less wrong than others. So let me offer two more items that help me understand the difference between Legacy and Start from Scratch.

      Shared history and cultural reference.
      In European countries there is a common history, set of national heros, major monuments which span many periods. Each modern nation has its own Golden Age reference (when everything was Good).
      In the US the common history is brief — chronologically brief and as a nation of immigrants and minorities whose status has changed over centuries, His-story is not necessarily My-story.

      European culture reinforces long cultural memory. Mozart was once a local musician. Cervantes wrote about us. Shakespeare put on his plays in this town. That battle between the [fill in the name of us] and the [fill in the name of them] took place on this field. The past is (sometimes all too) present.
      US culture has no cultural memory by comparison. Once we have a change of generation, we don’t remember what that kind of music or that war was about. The most popular is the most important at the moment and the easiest to forget in a year, a decade, a generation.

      As you point out, it is much easier to innovate when there is little interest in preserving the present. Create a new service that “revolutionizes” the [fill in your industry]. Put typesetters, shoemakers, small farmers, electronic repairmen, cabbies out of work. It serves them right for not adapting to change.

    2. Julia

      Hi Holger, happy to see that it made your wrote a comment and an entire blogpost! I agree with you that languages shape the way we think, I also have to switch my “thinking mode” depending on the language (English or French) I’m using. I believe one of the role of a designer is the ability to adapt to different contexts. We are chameleons (if it makes sense) 🙂

    3. Julia

      Thanks Paul for adding more examples which all make sense.

    4. Holger Maassen

      Hi Julia,
      thx for your post – I’m doing business in various European States and in North America and I agree. Cultural differences influence our daily work regarding our products (GUI, User behavior, User expectation, etc.) but also our approach doing projects and the way we do it and what’s the aim – it’s a factor that shouldn’t be never underestimated.
      Initially I meant to write just a reply, but then it grew and grew …

    5. miyuki

      I’m another one left my own country. As a designer, I struggled adjusting the culture and couldn’t stop comparing with my own culture for a while. I cannot say I’ve already become a chameleon but say “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Having said that (with my respect) this country’s designs, services will be improved with a little bit of change. While I’m having this thought, I cannot be a chameleon.

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