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.

DESIGN CHANGES

Existing political, economical, ecological and even social structures are widely questioned. … As a consequence design can no longer only be defined by just technical performance, aesthetics, or creativity. …

Dennis Elbers, London Calling, Dee, Issue 3, 2014

It is still quite rare to see a design exhibition in a museum. But thanks to Dennis Elbers and Sven Ehmann’s initiative, and the sensitive approach to design of Nadine Clemens, the president of Design Friends Luxembourg, it is now possible to see Resolute–Design Changes exhibition at the Casino Luxembourg–Forum d’art contemporain. The projects presented in Resolute and Postscript Luxembourg give us insight into how socially responsible designers approach social problems and how they try to solve them on a bigger scale. What’s interesting is that these designers always work in, with and for a community. Their work is no longer just about staging provocations; it is about involvement and finding solution.

Design for Social Innovation applies the abilities of talented individuals to collective creativity and to the transformation of complex systems at great scale. In this new role, the designer’s practice takes place not in private studio but inside an organisation or community. It the invisible dynamics of individuals and their relationship with each other instead of material resources. Its method and value are in collective participation and creativity that engage organisations in finding solutions that work for them.

Cheryl Heller, The Social Innovation Revolution

An interest in social matters has become a hot topic in the world of design. Dutch design, for example, aims to make an impact on a society rather than show off strong visual concepts. With Works That Work, Peter Bil’ak, a Slovakian graphic and typeface designer based now in The Hague, quietly revolts against the usual magazine publishing models and promotes design that happens in most unexpected places and circumstances. Alice Rawsthorn in Hello World casts light on the new challenges we all face when it comes to solving delicate social issues using design systems. In her book she showcases fantastic examples of projects concerned with communities. Everyday Rebellion documents social movements that speak up against inequality, injustice and fraud. And, last but not least, the V&A curators have recently shown Disobedient Objects, an exhibition which explores the role such objects play in grassroots movements.

Conclusion? Designers and people involved in design fight to be sustainable; they put their efforts in growing something, often intangible, rather than creating objects that you can buy and throw away when obsolete.

Look and See

To observe, you must learn to separate situation from interpretation, yourself from what you’re seeing. (…)

Choosing wisely means being selective. It means not only looking but looking properly with real thought. It means looking with a real knowledge that what you note – and how you note it – will form the basis of any future deductions you might make. It’s about seeing the full picture, noting the details that matter, and understanding how to contextualize those details within a broader framework of thought. (…)

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova

The power we have as designers is that we are generalists. Designers have the ability to see systems and patterns.

Cheryl Heller

Designers need to make connections and see the overall picture. When you’re able to assess information and anticipate future impacts, objectively, you can see and understand the whole picture.

Maggie Macnab

So much more than just a buzzword?

Maria Popova  in an interview for Steven Heller’s book Writing and Research said:

The design world, especially the ever-growing piece of it that deals with the intersection of design and business, or creativity and corporation, tends to reduce complex arguments and ideas to sound bites that can fit on a Powerpoint slide. (Okay, perhaps Keynote.) Over the past few years–or, some might even say, decades–words and terms that once stood for something have become vacant of meaning, thrown around as weightless fluff.

What is Design Thinking?

Creative thinking-in-action.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design_thinking 

A discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.

Design Thinking by Tim Brown, Harvard Business Review, June 2008  

A comfort zone where graphic metaphors are the basis for creating and co creating.

Visual Facilitation by Jane Cheng, ID PURE, issue No. 30 

 

Can designers design without thinking?

Do doctors feel the need to remind us that they think about health?

…As designers, we can stand at the intersection of creativity and enterprise; the place where thinking and knowing and creative leaps of faith are integrated.

Cheryl Heller 

Whether or not I like the buzzwords, they have strategic muscle. I have long been suspicious of the term ‘design thinking’, believing that all designers think, so to separate it from quotidian matters is basically marketing-speak.

Writing and Research by Steven Heller 

Design Stinking? No, Design Thinking.

It lulls people into thinking they are being creative when they are not. It harbors procrastination and stereotypical thinking, substitutes process for real invention. It robs design of dimension by placing it solely in the world of the brain when design is much more than rational thinking – it is emotion and intuition and sensing and gut.

Cheryl Heller 

How Design Thinking happens?

The design process is best described metaphorically as a system of spaces rather than a predefined series of orderly steps. The spaces demarcate different sorts of related activities that together form the continuum of innovation.

Design Thinking by Tim Brown, Harvard Business Review, June 2008 

Unlike analytical thinking, design thinking is a creative process based around the “building up” of ideas. There are no judgments early on in design thinking. Outside the box thinking is encouraged in these early processes since this can often lead to creative solutions.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design_thinking 

Finally, since Edward de Bono is many designers hero, I thought the quote below might be a good ending, or a beginning…

Wasps chew up wood, mix it with their saliva and make it into a fine paste which dries into a material that is both lightweight and strong – paper. The common European wasp produces a very high-quality paper, and with it builds nests of great perfection. Within identical hexagonal cells, a huge workforce is raised to serve the queen and maintain the nest.

From Trials of Life (Home Making) by Sir David Attenborough