“The only thing we can be is optimistic”

At a recent Dutch Design week, a panel discussion was chaired by Dezeen founder and editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs as part of their continuing series “Good Design for a Bad World.” Speakers on the panel asked that “Designers need to think of bigger, more ambitious solutions to the world’s problems . . .” Designer Jalila Essaïdi went so far as asking “I would say yes please, more science fiction.

Designers are trained to be empathetic to various human conditions and keep focused on bettering the lives of the groups they design for. This is a strength of design, to improve or reimagine objects, environments, messages and systems to reduce burdens and increase performance. At this session, there was also a related call for multidisciplinary design in order to create purpose built teams and conversations to solve very large social, political and economic problems. Sjoerd Kluiving said “We need the humanities working with scientists and designers. We need social scientists working with religious people.

Propositional design is a proactive and polemical approach searching to address contemporary problems in new ways, many of which may not immediately seem to be associated with design. It is the largest conception of the word design which is to plan. There is a long history of polemical manifestos and alternative movements that questioned status-quo thinking such as the Arts & Crafts Movements in England and Germany and the Design Methods movement in England.

The Good Design for a Bad World conversation focused on “the great acceleration” of the age of the anthropocene where human behaviors and actions are creating problematic environmental effects. For centuries, the Northern Hemisphere benefitted from capitalism and global trade. This hemisphere is now asking the planet to cut back. Unfortunately, according to Raj Messina “We (the developing world) got late to the party, and now you’re selling us sustainability. We did not get to pollute and enjoy the process of pollution unfortunately.”

Victor Margolin, in his book “Politics of the Artificial” summarized design as a resource intensive contemporary activity that supports the global expansionist model of capitalism. This model, if unchecked will just transfer traditional design activities to frameworks and models that support the consumption of more resources. Empathy is just as resource intensive as unchecked capitalism, just more democratic. Many design communities and consumers support this model, no matter how much individuals try to rationalize their work or behavior as “sustainable.”

Victor has also been involved with the Design of Democracy movement that seeks to create new forms of agency for more engagement, transparency and accountability. Designers are being asked to rethink systems and environments and use new areas such as service design and experience design to create big ideas to reinvigorate democracy. The challenge is that the skills and acumen to interpret the needs of social groups and develop emancipatory proposals is a very tall order. Designers currently are ill equipped for the empirical and critical thinking skills at a social, political and economic level that would be needed to collaborate and facilitate design for democracy.

Thinking big unfettered by any constraints whatsoever and to push one’s imagination to create new concepts and systems is important. The problem is what happens once these ideas inspire, and the realities of implementation with enough short-term utility occur? These implementations will need to prove that big idea hypothesis have enough creedance that it begins to change hearts, minds and behavior to new value. This is a very tall order.

John Thackara, who was head of the London Design Council initiated Project Red which was focused on specific transformational design proposals. It was met with resistance from the design community as they did not see it as part of a designers role to deal with systems and procedures – rather than focusing on traditional design products.

As John Heskett, the deceased design economist highlighted that design has historically been a microeconomic activity with small zones of control due to local production and consumption. While design can become a macroeconomic activity that shapes policies and laws, there is very little history of designers being part of, or even shaping macroeconomic discussions.

To tackle the enormity of the unwanted effects of the anthropocene era, design will have to work at all levels to both propose, facilitate and implement :

  • use propositional design at a macro level to challenge conventional thinking and capture the imagination to at least have groups consider a different future
  • get involved with governmental, non-governmental and large business enterprises to help shape policy based on these propositional futures
  • work at the micro level and have smaller targeted solutions that impact smaller groups of people that are sustainable and reduce human impacts

Thinking big will require the design community to have the mindset and skills to facilitate, prioritize goals, objectives, implement solutions at different scales and measure their effectiveness and efficacy – and then build upon these learnings. Design programs will need to introduce designers to social, political and economic courses that provide a foundation for designers to create a larger context for their micro-economic activities. While science fiction can create interest and curiosity, it is still fiction until it motivates people to turn it into factual everyday realities to make real progress to ameliorate the unwanted effects of the anthropocene era.

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2 thoughts on ““The only thing we can be is optimistic”

  1. Dear Adam,
    Thanks for sending this. The article makes statements similar to ones that I have made. I was pleased to see some of my writings mentioned. Definitely, one aspect of design is moving in the direction that the panelists enunciated.

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