Friday, 31 July 2009

Design and social change- entrepreneurship, economic paradigms and movements waiting to happen

Today I read an article a good friend, and old colleague of mine, Natalie emailed me from Communications Arts magazine, titled Design ignites change: Design as social educator.

I have to admit, I have not read much from graphic or communications design of late. When it comes to discussing socially responsible graphic design, and as the article points out, I often find graphic design sees it a bit too narrowly in terms of working for not-for-profit clients and/or using environmentally friendly materials. Both of which are really important, but social responsibility goes deeper than that. The Design ignites change piece has actually made me reconsider my view on the discipline that I started out in as a designer. Mark, who authored the piece and also runs Worldstudio, a marketing and design agency, proposes some really interesting viewpoints which got me thinking about the viability of pursing socially responsible design.

The article brings up so many issues. I wish I could discuss them all here, but blog posting is not really for essays, and I am only blogging this because Communications Arts doesn't actually provide a platform for readers to discuss the article and provide their perspectives. In short, here are some interesting things I drew from the article.

The designer as social entrepreneur
Mark says:

"We designers have the ability to contribute so much more. As the definition of designer expands we should add social entrepreneur to the list."

Like this because it provides nice evidence for my own analysis on Dott 07, but I wanted to profile it here because it prefaced a simple, yet elegant explanation for what designers are doing as social entrepreneurs:

"Those designers in the forefront are using their design-thinking skills to develop and execute their own solutions to social problems-pushing the boundaries of what design can do."

The author gives the example of Rural Studio, which Mike told me about last week. Rural Studio gets architecture students out of the university studio and into the real world of designing and making/implementing community housing and social projects. These projects are undertaken in some of the most deprived areas of the USA, and designers also grapple with the reality of those less fortune than themselves.

Image from Rural Studio website

Economic paradigms for design
The article also brings up channels for showcasing design work as exemplars of design that ignites social change, and I have to say that as I was reading, I was expecting to be a bit disappointed as I thought the article would launch into something about how we should promote the social work and good, designers do. While it is great to provide evidence of what designers can do, it also begins to turn the attention of non-design audiences toward sentiments such as, "gee, look how pretty that piece of communication is" and reverts design back to its widely held perception of just making things look pretty.

But, Mark spends the rest of his article addressing critical issues that often don't have as much to do with designing per say, but other challenges designers must contend with in order to work in socially responsible design. Now this is the interesting bit.

Mark says:

"How do we create space for designers to do this type of work at the professional level where concern about the bottom line is often the driving force. All too often the professional design community generates a flurry of activity around social issues in the form of a manifesto, a symposium or conference without much follow-through. The road is paved with good intentions, but in comparison to all of the discussion, there rarely seem to be enough tangible results."

This is a question my supervisor, Bob and I have been discussing since we attended the Changing the Change Conference (CtC) in Turin over a year ago. The conference addressed broad issues in design and sustainability, and mostly from a design research point of view, so there were many, many academics, and a few designers, presenting on the potential good, design could do for society and the environment. Bob and I felt one key thing was not being addressed with enough weight at CtC, and that is what Bob calls the "economic paradigm" of designers working in these areas. ie. How do designers make a living while doing this kind of work?

I have to say though, I did see one presentation by Work Worth Doing (WWD) on this issue. WWD founder, Alex, talked about one of their projects, Now House, a demonstration of a low energy home.

Image from Now House Project website

It was in fact a R&D type project funded by one of their clients to explore the possibilities of low energy homes. At the end of his presentation, Alex, spoke of the difficulty in doing this kind of work where at the end of the day, he has to run a business and make a living.

So the question, as discussed with Bob and asked by designers Alex and Mark, burns in my mind. And it's also been interesting to see that this question seems to only be be asked by designers, and not addressed by those studying design in an academic sense. Having come from a business background as well, I have been quite interested in the business models of design, and the viability of projects such Now House and those run by Dott 07. Dott 07 was special, like Now House, because it guaranteed flexibility for designers to explore uncharted territories without the risk of losing funding to do so. But these opportunities are rare and don't come around often, so how does a designer make a living out of doing such projects? Mark says that attitudes need to change:

"... in order to create a sustainable model that not only promotes this type of work, but also encourages it in the marketplace."

Though I think Mark refers to attitudes of designers, but what about clients and commissioners of design? Is it a designer's responsibility to change that too? How far can designers go in doing this? Wouldn't it be great if someone could look at economic models for design to function in this space? The first step, might be to look at the design companies whom I listed in my post Design and social the social sector, who run businesses doing great design work on social issues.

Movements as motion or change in position
The final thing I want to say about Mark's article is that he critiques the fact that "movements" can be well-intentioned but not actually go further than that. He asks of movements such as the Designers Accord (DA) "a global coalition of designers, educators, and corporate leaders, working together to create positive environmental and social impact":

"Will the Designers Accord be yet another well-meaning but ineffective movement in design history?"

Logo from Designers Accord

Wikipedia says a movement is, "a motion, a change in position." I guess depending on your view of what a movement is, it can be a motion ie. a move forward in which DA is when one looks at its widespread support. And/or a movement can be a change in position, which the raises the fundamental ideological question of does it mean to be a designer today?

I think the discipline is really grappling with this now. When design students enter uni with an intention that they are about to spend 3 or 4 years making beautiful objects, this contrasts starkly against the journey of some, who get a little disenchanted with this because in the journey of discovering design, we see that the potential for design is that there is so much more to design (than just pretty objects. Though I agree with the fact we still need designers for this too).

And when this happens, we find ourselves in this fog... asking what exactly are we doing? Do we even call it design? And then when it comes to finding a job, do we take the traditional road which gives us job security and finance OR do we find/create our own thing/business to explore design + make a living + do what we want to do OR do we set up a community with intentions of adding to this movement OR do we take time out to try and figure out what this all means for design, designers and our own identity....

("..." is purposely added to indicate that there are probably many other avenues others might have taken)

On a final, final note Worldstudio is a partner in setting up a programme called Design Ignites Change which "promotes and encourages talented high school and college students across the country to use design thinking and innovation to create messages for, and solutions to, pressing social problems."

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