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.

LOCAL CRAFT MEETS DESIGN

Briefly Noted

Dans le cadre de Design City 2016 – LXBG Biennale

The exhibition Local Craft Meets Design organized by Circle Cité and inprogress.lu presents twelve personal projects researched and developed by twelve young luxembourgish designers. The exhibition is an open platform where the public can meet and talk to designers. It is an attempt to develop relationships between the local craftsmen, designers, local business and the customer.

in_progress_local_craft_meets_design_2 (1)
Luxembourg Notebook by Isabelle Mattern
in_progress_local_craft_meets_design_10(1)
The Revolution of Things by Lynn Harles
in_progress_local_craft_meets_design_8 (1)
Lampignon by Mett Hoffmann

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.

Social Innovation, Communication and Language

Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design is a selection of essays written by Michael Bierut for his blog http://designobserver.com/ They’re inspiring and stimulating and, definitely, worth taking a closer look at. It is a great source of information not just about design but also about history, politics, sociology, art, architecture, literature, you name it. The book was designed by Abbot Miller. The fact that each essay is set in a different typeface is intriguing and gives the book a special flavour.

Number 2 Why designers can’t think is set in Atma Serif by Alan Green (http://www.fontshop.com/blog/fontmag/002/02_atma/)

The following fragment is particularly interesting:

Nowadays, the passion of design educators seems to be technology; they fear that computer illiteracy will handicap their graduates. But it’s the broader kind of illiteracy that’s more profoundly troubling. Until educators find a way to expose their students to a meaningful range of culture, graduates will continue to speak in languages that only their classmates understand. And designers, more and more, will end up talking to themselves.

Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design by Michael Bierut

Now, the perfect answer to this problem would be Cheryl Heller and her MFA Design for Social Innovation programme at SVA in New York http://dsi.sva.edu/
Cheryl Heller is a communication strategist, she’s a founder of Heller Communication Design http://www.hellercd.com/ and a board member of the PopTech global innovation network.

The following text is a fragment of Cheryl Heller’s lecture that took place in March 2011 at MCU School of Design in Pittsburg.

http://www.design.cmu.edu/designthefuture/cheryl-heller/

The lecture Language, Design and Social Innovation is a part of a series of lectures titled How do you design the future?

In human society COMMUNICATION plays an enormous role because we talk all the time, we’ve become communication freaks, everybody has a platform, everybody is a platform, everybody uses multiple devices, everybody is an author, and we have limitless ways for people to be heard but we don’t hear each other and we don’t listen. So, if you imagine, if the communication plays the same role in our society as it does in nature, where it would connect ecosystems and high rockies and create shared ethics, and trigger congruence between Fractions and Truth and Power and Justice and Political Boundaries, …, but this is what our language does, we label everything and then we separate and then we create silos, and even beyond the labels we have labels above the labels, we abbreviate them through acronyms, to make them double (in) meaningless. So, in a service of efficiency we’re murdering language (…) Language creates silos that are artificial boundaries. We do it with everything and it impacts the way we see and the way we touch the world. So, silos between countries, between rich and poor, between generations, between liberal and conservative, between executives and workers, … we have the truth of science, the truth of politics, the truth of religions, and, I hardly need to say that they don’t align. We created this notion of environment that is separated from us and we judge people and we put them in separate categories, and, language creates experts (…)

Language creates war (…)

Language, Design and Social Innovation by Cheryl Heller

The text that follows are the fragments of Margaret Mead’s Warfare is only an invention – not a biological necessity ASIA, XL (1940).

(…) One may hold a sort of compromise position between these two extremes; one may claim that all aggression springs from the frustration of man’s biologically determined drives and that, since all forms of culture are frustrating, it is certain each new generation will be aggressive and the aggression will find its natural and inevitable expression in race war, class war, nationalistic war, and so on. All three of these positions are very popular today among those who think seriously about the problems of war and its possible prevention, but I wish to urge another point of view, less defeatist, perhaps, than the first and third and more accurate than the second: that is, that warfare, by which I mean recognised conflict between two groups as groups, in which each group puts an army (even if the army is only fifteen pygmies) into the field to fight and kill, if possible, some of the members of the army of the other group – that warfare of this sort is an invention like any other of the inventions in terms of which we order our lives, such as writing, marriage, cooking our food instead of eating it raw, trial by jury, or burial of the dead, and so on.Some of this list anyone will grant are inventions: trial by jury is confined to very limited portions of the globe; we know that there are tribes that do not bury their dead but instead expose or cremate them; and we know that only part of the human race has had the knowledge of writing as its cultural inheritance. But, whenever a way of doing things is found universally, such as the use of fire or the practice of some form of marriage, we tend to think at once that it is not an invention at all but an attribute of humanity itself. And yet even such universals as marriage and the use of fire are inventions like the rest, very basic ones, inventions which were, perhaps, necessary if human history was to take the turn that it has taken, but nevertheless inventions. At some point in his social development man was undoubtedly without the institution of marriage or the knowledge of the use of fire. (…)

If people have an idea of going to war and the idea that war is the way in which certain situations, defined within their society, are to be handled, they will sometimes go to war. (…)

(…) The people must recognise the defects of the old invention, and someone must make a new one. Propaganda against warfare, documentation of its terrible cost in human suffering and social waste, these prepare the ground by teaching people to feel that warfare is a defective social institution. There is further needed a belief that social invention is possible and the invention of new methods which will render warfare as out of date as the tractor is making the plough, or the motor car the horse and buggy. A form of behaviour becomes out of date only when something else takes its place, and, in order to invent forms of behaviour which will make war obsolete, it is a first requirement to believe that an invention is possible.

COMMUNICATION DESIGN now is all about content and artifacts created to inform, gain support and educate. COMMUNICATION DESIGN presents the systems with data visualisation, but remains the representation of the systems and doesn’t change them.

COMMUNICATION DESIGN = silo, content, artifacts

DESIGN COMMUNICATION = designing a system of communication

Nature is communicating life saving information, truthful and relevant and we’re not communicating the things we need to know. (…) Social innovation needs design. (…) Designers have the ability to see systems and patterns, and, really, the capacity to be integrators (…)

View a language as a connector not just a way to express yourself.

Language, Design and Social Innovation byCheryl Heller

CHAP. III. 1. Tsze-lu said, ‘The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?’ 2. The Master replied,’What is necessary is to rectify names.’ 3. ‘So, indeed! said Tsze-lu ‘You are wide of the mark! Why must there be such rectification?’ 4. The Master said, ‘How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. 5. ‘If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. 6. ‘When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music will not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.

From The Analects of Confucius

By Confucius

Translated by James Legge