The ethics of Ubuntu and community participation in design



Design Education Strategy


  • collaboration, ethics, human-centred design, curriculum

In order to produce skilled design graduates schools regularly restructure their curricula to develop knowledge  characterized  by  continuous  advancements  applicable  to  the  ever-changing  design industry. New schools are in demand and a concern arises that these offer little more than specialized software training and do not sufficiently prepare students to become empathetic, thoughtful individuals that may serve the needs of society.  Former president of the International Council of Graphic Design Associations (ICOGRADA), designer and educator Jorge Frascara (2008, sp) confirms this:

“[T]here is a need to change the purpose of design education: from technical to problem oriented; and the frame of reference: from teaching how to work in the consumer society to learning how to contribute to improve society.”

This view is further supported by several design academics such as Roos (2011) and Friedman (2012) who regard design as a tool for transforming user behaviour thereby increasing the probability of the success of artefacts and improving society. Design educators should therefore consider outcomes such as reflection-on-practice, empathy and mindfulness to be equally valid to those outcomes traditionally  taught  within Higher  Education curricula.  Through  its  focus  on all  of  these  aspects human-centred  design  manifests  through  a  responsiveness  to  all  the  stakeholders  in the  design process as well as a consciousness of the community - a principle it holds in common with the traditional African ethics of Ubuntu.

Designers and educators working in a South African context should consider deontological norms and values as well as those traditionally found in African ethics. African ethics are founded on the communal rather than the individual and focus on responsibilities to the family and the clan. The ethics of Ubuntu meaning “a person is a person through others” (“I belong, therefore, I am”) are entirely contradictory to the well-known Cartesian view “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore, I am”) or modern-day avarice expressed in sentiments such as “I have possessions, therefore I am”.

The importance on Ubuntu ethics within a South African design environment is increasingly significant due to its bearing on the principles and ideals of involvement and empathy within the context of communal and social interactions. This paper argues for the consideration of the ethics of Ubuntu in the formulation of new design curricula as a means of integrating social responsibility in graphic design education.

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