Activism by Design, Casino Luxembourg - Forum d'art contemporain, Charles Booth, Cheryl Heller, Curating, Curators, Dennis Elbers, Design, Graphic Design, Museums, Postscript, Social Design, Social Innovation, Socialmatter, Sustainability, Sven Ehmann, Writing
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Activism by Design

In the new issue of Traces published by Casino Luxembourg – forum d’art contemporain there’s an article I wrote last year.activism_by_design_2

Design awakens desire. Design infatuates and seduces. And design has the beguiling power to stoke our appetite for contraptions and gizmos we don’t yet possess and hardly need. There’s no question about it, design is a business, and as such it feeds on us. This is the sophisticated and predatory ecosystem modern designers must fit into, although the reason they get into design in the first place might be a need to do something worthy, to solve problems, to change the world.

Dennis Elbers and Sven Ehmann, the curators of Resolute: Design Changes, are showing how the design community, empowered by technology, is experiencing a change in which independent creative individuals, with the help of crowd funding, open source platforms, and social media, can have impact on society. “Resolute is the outcome of an ongoing conversation between me and Denis Elbers, the force behind the Graphic Design Festival in Breda”, said Sven Ehmann when I asked him how the project came about. “We did a show about visual storytelling together before. When we were reviewing that earlier show and discussing a potential subject for a next exhibition at the festival, the idea for Resolute evolved. Behind all that is our curiosity about the latest changes and developments in creative culture. We were a bit fed up with nice looking or crazy looking or fancy looking designs and were impressed by the attitude and dedication of a next generation of designers and projects”.

Originally shown in 2014 at Design Festival Breda, Resolute showcased 21 socially involved projects. Organized into three categories—Revolt, Review, and Refresh—and presented through posters, campaigns, pop-up books and board and video games, Resolute addressed topics ranging from urban farming to drone surveillance and genetically modified leather. It traveled to Luxembourg on the occasion of Design Friends’ fifth anniversary and was accompanied by an additional selection of six socially engaged projects called Postscript: Luxembourg. Designers based in or with some link to Luxembourg tackled topics like the reintegration of inmates in a penitentiary, badly designed urban space, and happiness. The recurring element threading through the work was the designers’ concern for people as a community. As Elbers noted in an article for DEE magazine, “The avant-garde of the emerging generation deals with social values by placing their design practice in the middle of society, rather than trying to influence it from above”.

So what does it mean to design from within society? As Cheryl Heller writes, “In this new role the designer’s practice takes place not in a private studio but inside an organization or community”. Today a new breed of designers is on the altruistic mission of growing something good. To do so they are stepping into the world and getting involved with people and communities to understand the dynamics at the root of a problem. Research and the representation of its results has become not only a crucial part of design’s domain but also a powerful weapon against manipulation, corruption and fraud. Communication and collaboration are also an intrinsic part of the new equation, as only by working with other professionals can designers make an impact.

Ruben Pater’s Drone Survival Guide is an example of this. His typology of drones is one of the elements in Twenty-first Century Bird Watching, which itself is part of a larger series of works called Untold Stories. These are politically and socially engaged visual narratives in which Pater researches, analyzes, and presents stories that shed light onto, as he puts it, ‘the unspoken issues’. In this case the issue unspoken is drone warfare and when I asked Pater what inspired him he wrote, “In 2012 there was a lack of reporting on drones, particularly the use of military drones and its devastating effects in areas of conflict. The Drone Survival Guide was an attempt to familiarize the general public with this phenomenon in a visual way”.

Raising awareness may be a first step in change, but obviously it is only a beginning. As Predatory Policy shows, designers have to partner with other professionals to make a lasting impact. Making Policy Public by the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) is a series of campaigns in which designers, advocates, and CUP tackled public policy. As CUP’s website explains, Predatory Policy is about stopping “predatory equity takeover of affordable housing in New York City”. CUP’s team first did an impressive amount of research and then presented the data skillfully enough to speak to both tenants and decision makers. Looking at the result you can see how carefully the text and graphics have been balanced and how a specific set of solutions is presented to encourage people to take action. This foldable poster became a tool to empower individuals to fight predatory equity.

Socially engaged projects don’t always produce tangible outcomes or results that are easy to measure. Lynn Schammel and Giacomo Piovan are the founders of Socialmatter and the creators of the Jailbird Manual. While talking with Lynn about the Jailbird project she told me that the work they did for the penitentiary’s woodshop gave the inmates hope and self-esteem. Inspired by Enzo Mari’s Open Design Theory, Jailbird Manual is a guide containing a set of woodworking techniques that are tailored to the inmates’ needs. It is the outcome of a collaboration between inmates and designers, at once a manual to be referenced and a point of departure for the inmate’s creativity, autonomy and self-confidence.

There has been a lot of interest in design for social causes over the last decade. MFA Design for Social Innovation at SVA, AIGA’s Design for Good, the Finish INDEX: Award and the Changing the Change conference in Turin are just some of the design initiatives that have been launched, and this year’s Utrecht Manifest biennale was called, appropriately enough, Design For The Good Society. But this impulse to design for good is hardly new. Whether Charles Booth was a designer by accident or intuition, the design of his first poverty map in 1889 demystified the state of the poorest parts of London. Meticulously researched by a team of social scientists, economists, statisticians and philanthropists, the color-coded data produced such a public outcry that the government was forced to take action and handle the issue with care.

People like John Ruskin, William Morris, Richard Buckminster Fuller, Guy Debord, Ken Garland, Victor Papanek and other design activists have inspired subsequent generations to design responsibly and consciously. Yet their work has not always led to immediate change. Something—be it the nature of mass production and mass consumption, politics, the commercial character of the design industry—has always got in the way. Why might the new wave of design activism meet with more success?

Design activists are afraid of neither commitment nor hardship. They avidly research and do whatever it takes to fight injustice and corruption, to help the disadvantaged, to help communities, to understand complex systems and cast light upon the thorny issues of our time. But, maybe every new generation thinks they are the first to know how to make the world a better place. Is it not naive to think that the responsibility for growing something good rests solely on the shoulders of designers? Do we not all need to embrace activism, as chances are this is our best hope for meeting the challenges we grapple with? Each of us has to look for integrity in our work and lives, to be sustainable, to learn how to grow something good rather than just buy and throw away. After all, we are part of a community.

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