* if we change the way we approach design.
I remember saying ‘design can change the world’ a lot, particularly when discussing the role of design as an agent of change. In recent times, however, I have found myself using these words less and less. I still like to believe the Utopian view that design can effect positive social change. But, in reality, design has done more damage to our world than most other human inventions. Design is the preferred tool of overconsumption and greed.
The poster is a favourite design artefact of the communication designer; it is used as an intervention by designers who wish to have a say on a particular social issue. It could be the environment, an economic meltdown or even an attempt just to try and make people smile. Most often, communication designers engage in these issues through poster competitions, where they are encouraged to explore important issues. If our aim is to use design to change the world, how much impact can a poster have? Can a poster really change the underlying structures of society? Are design competitions really the best way for communication design to change the world?
For a moment, let’s put ourselves in the position of a student who really wants to make a positive contribution to society. They want to practice communication design and they want their practise to be more than just designing consumer objects. These students want their work to have meaning; they want to use design to change the world. How does a student like this go about designing for a better world? Are our educational institutions adequately prepared to deliver this kind of design education?
Being Australians, we usually look abroad for our answers. The US answer is for students to enrol in a social design degree. Usually, these programs are positioned as postgraduate study, where the student will pay around US$35,000 per year to be educated as a social designer. In the US, social design is being positioned as the solution to meaningful design practice. Social design is the new cool degree to have.
I wonder how students are expected to work in the ‘social’ or ‘community’ space and pay back student loans of US$70,000? Putting aside the US’s present economic woes, how long would it take for a student to repay this amount of money and what kind of work would they have to do to generate a sufficient income to live and pay back the student loan? Would they actually be able to practise social design with this kind of economic weight hanging over their heads?
For me, social design has great promise, but at this stage in its development I think it falls short of many of the promises it makes. I believe we don’t need social design degrees, but we need to embed the principles of social design within our current design degrees, so that graduates are better prepared to juggle the social and the economic realities of the real world.
Design for community
If we look deeply at the principles of social design, what we really find is a human centred approach to design – where design is recognised as a tool that can assist in a range of situations beyond the generation of design artefacts. For communication designers, what this means is that the design process becomes more important than the design artefacts it generates. I would like to see the communication design profession move away from glorifying a beautifully designed poster, book or package, and focus on valuing design as a process. If we valued the possibilities of design, perhaps we would be in a better position to tackle the real social issues of our time and our design annuals would be a much more relevant representation of designs value to society.
In order for social design to change the world, I believe we need design to connect with community, and I mean really connect. My Utopian vision for social design is that designers begin to design for communities. What I mean by this is that designers use their skills in a participatory manner that enhances community engagement and fosters a sense of trust. Design for community uses design as a collaborative tool where the designer is embedded in a range of situations and transforms and promotes communities for the betterment of society. Design for community removes the designer’s ego and takes a humble approach to design.
From desktop magazine.
Illustration: Oslo Davis.