The World Can Change Design

September 25, 2011

Finally, here’s the conclusion to my four-part rant, picking up from The Boundaries of Design

Products are passé. Brands are boring. Websites are wearisome. Many designers are trying to break out of the mold of conventional design and tackle bigger challenges. Corporate clients don’t cut it any more. They want their work to have meaning and impact in the world. They want to make a difference. But how? What kind of impact can design really have in the world? Should we even think of design in that way?

Most design schools teach skills and tools to fulfill market demand for “traditional” designers around whom an economy is already built — architects, product designers, web designers, et cetera. The reigning model is to create more goods and services and stuff to support a standard of living that developed countries such as the U.S. have fought to establish and preserve.* Everybody from the unseen overseas manufacturers to the retail superstores to the ad-laden consumer magazines knows we need newer, better, nicer stuff in our homes, on our bodies, and in our culture. Design exists to address these human needs and to drive commerce through a continuous cycle of fueling and satisfying desire.**

Incrementally, design schools and the design industry are broadening the scope of design’s capacity for doing good, though well within the purview of traditional design. Many are rethinking unsustainable practices as they relate to the production, commercialization, consumption, and disposal of physical design artifacts. But addressing environmental concerns only makes for more green design, not “world-changing” design. While that may ease the guilt of buying more stuff that may harm the world and reduce the waste we generate, the consumerist status quo will likely remain unchanged.

Design has increasingly been moving into the social space, further nudging the boundaries of traditional design’s reach. Some designers are directing their efforts toward supporting non-profit ventures by doing design work for existing charities and organizations, as has been the case for many years. Others are launching initiatives themselves to tackle very specific areas of interest (Architecture for Humanity is a great, highly-visible example of this). Again, while tremendous good is being done, design’s impact is still limited to what it can directly affect, whether it’s increasing the public’s awareness or understanding of social issues or helping to provide communities with basic necessities for survival.

Meanwhile at the macro-level of world problems, massive change is sweeping across the world. Regimes are falling, economies are crumbling, jobs are vanishing, and insecurity still prevails. The cost of living and staying alive continues to skyrocket, while quality of life is declining. Cities are aging, infrustructures deteriorating, capacities stretched to the max. Even natural events have become more unpredictable and more destructive, as we saw with the Japan tsunami and more recently with Hurricane Irene. What we’re experiencing now goes beyond independent, isolated events. It’s a network of revolutions — a wholesale paradigm shift in how the world fundamentally works.

Can design solve problems of this magnitude? I don’t think so. Design was never designed to handle large-scale complexity, and for all their best intentions, many designers are incapable of bridging the gap between the work they do and the systemic change that needs to happen in the world. Even the falsely-named “design thinking” as an approach for understanding and solving systemic problems falls short in the face of global turmoil. However, at a strategic level, designers can help map complex situations and draw meaning from data to enable different stakeholders to make sense of a problem (more on this in a future post).

Design alone can’t and won’t change the world, and if you read my last post, I think design actually needs to get over itself and make sense of its own mess first. Contrary to what some in the design cheerleader press like Co.Design think, design isn’t living up to the hype of being “such an important discipline in today’s world.” And I’m sorry to say that “integration, rather than raw technology” has not become “the pressing problem of our world” — complex problems tangled inside other complex problems have become the pressing problem of our world. It takes a lot of different people pooling serious brainpower and resources to even make a dent in that.

I think we should stop celebrating design as the hero and bring our notions of design’s role in the world back down to earth. I know that might not sit well with many designers, but considering the ego trip of the past 10 years or so, it’s about time design was reacquainted with reality and what kind of difference design can actually make.

To close out my rant, I’ve taken a stab at drafting a pseudo design manifesto to sum up my own principles for design in, for, and with the real world:

  1. Design is an enabler of change in the world, not the cause or source.
  2. Designers should be facilitators of dialogue, collaboration, and understanding, not simply creators or producers of design artifacts.
  3. Designers are problem solvers by nature and should be skillful as such, but they should not presume to be able to solve every problem.
  4. Designers should provide greater clarity and honesty in services they are qualified to offer.
  5. Designers should connect closely and directly with those they serve.
  6. Design’s impact should be genuine impact, regardless of whether it’s hard or soft.
  7. Design journalism of all types should be practiced responsibly when covering design and “change-making.”
  8. Design schools and programs should be proactive in orienting newer generations of designers to be service-minded (not to be confused with “service design”).
  9. Design should be an inclusive process that involves more than just designers.
  10. Designers should receive recognition not for the aesthetic appeal of their solutions but for effectiveness and impact. Isn’t that the point?

So what do you think? If you’re a designer reading this, what’s your take on the whole “design saving the world” phenomenon? If you’re not a designer, do you think design can tackle big, world-sized challenges?

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Notes:

* I realize that’s a problematic statement. Is it better to say that design is an enabler of the “American,” “Western” or “northern” way of life? Am I digging a deeper hole for myself?

** Another problematic statement, which is directed toward design for advertising and marketing specifically. Design is a big, diverse field, but the most visible and influential aspects of design are manifest in selling stuff.



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