Of the many mind-blowing moments in Caplan’s writing, this one is perhaps the most:
When asked to name the most successful example of design in the 20th century, Caplan chose, “… not the molded plywood chair or the Olivetti Lettera 22 or the chapel at Ronchamp. It was the sit-in.”
Instead of choosing a lauded object, the longtime editor of I.D. (Industrial Design) Magazine cites the historic sit-in at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960.
That sit-in sparked a movement of sit-ins at segregated spaces throughout the South and then into the North, and it brought the fight for civil rights to the national stage. Dining facilities across the South were integrated by the summer of 1960, and the Woolworth’s in Greensboro integrated its lunch counter in July, 1960. The sit-in’s simplicity made it easy to replicate and was part of its success.
Here’s some of what Caplan wrote about the sit-in:
“Achieved with a stunning economy of means, and a complete understanding of the function intended and the resources available, it is a form beautifully suited to its urgent task. The form did not pop into existence with someone’s spontaneous refusal to sit in the back of the bus. It was the conscious creation of strategists like [civil rights organizer] Bayard Rustin and, years later, Martin Luther King, Jr., who adapted Gandhian protest techniques to Western problems. In planning the sit-in, the students were advised and aided by experienced, dedicated professionals who were instantly dismissed as ‘outside agitators.’ (Not always unfairly; that is what designers sometimes are.)”
– From “The Design of Possibilities,” chapter 7 of By Design: Why There Are No Locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV and Other Object Lessons
Caplan framed the careful planning of lunch counter sit-ins as “situation design,” elevating what we now think of as user experience or UX design. It could be argued that he foretold UX Design, but I’m not sure if many UX designers know about his work.
(And just as important: For the many writers and designers who’ve studied Caplan’s work, his oft-cited example of the sit-in acts as powerful evidence for designers that they can and should use their superpowers to make the world a better and more equitable place.)