Designing with heart

Published:  December 13, 2012
Veronica Grow
Designing with heart

Why Trying to Look Good Limits Your Life

Why we design, not what we design has been a hot topic up at Old School New School recently, all stemming from the discussions ignited by recent graphic design awards and competitions. In fact Patrick Carroll, our designer in residence, felt compelled to discuss this in his essay entitled the Pursuit of Style.

We all love praise and it would be hypercritical for me to suggest that I don’t like winning awards and receiving commendations. But what I find more rewarding is knowing that what I create has a focus on local people and helps change the way they think. In turn, this builds social cohesion and a stronger, more resilient community.

It’s important to ask who the awards process serves aside from egos and the bottom line.

Can you imagine what would happen if there was a change of heart? A social change brought about by many more designers interacting and working together in positive, supportive and mutually beneficial ways would be incredible.

Sagmeister says that designing with heart is becoming more relevant. When we talk about the heart we are talking about love, which does not necessarily run contrary to making money. Many commercially successful studios design with heart when they undertake small pro-bono projects to help needy social causes. For example 3 Deep Design, Ortolan, Paper Stone Scissors and tin&ed are currently undertaking project work for The Lighthouse Foundation to help homeless youth (Project 21). This is an example of the way design can provoke, inform and delight in doing something that matters.

Project 21 for The Lighthouse Foundation

“Trying to look good limits my life,” says Sagmeister. If looking cool and on trend is your only criteria for design quality, I’m with Sagmeister. Your life is very limited. His forecast for the future of graphic design is our current reality. Most corporations are comfortable to pay a meager salary to rows of stylists who have little creative involvement in design strategy. They are willing to sit like a series of sterile lab rats, producing snappy layouts for annual reports, websites and those bland generic advertising campaigns that pollute our visual environment.

I have respect for stylists. The problem is that style and those that rely on it are ephemeral. Everyone I know who obeys the corporate giant feels frustrated and disempowered. Quite often they feel disrespected, hating their managers and dreading Monday mornings.

On the other hand, good design is experiential. Experiential design by its very nature touches and shakes people’s core emotions, encouraging them to think and change their behaviour for the better. Design strategy creates a social environment in which people come together to participate in a shared activity.

The practice of experiential design has origins in fine artist, Nicholas Bourriaud’s 1998 essay on relational aesthetics. In relational art, the audience is envisaged as a community. Rather than the artwork being an encounter between a viewer and an object, relational art produces intersubjective encounters. Through these encounters, meaning is elaborated collectively, rather than in the space of individual consumption.

Your Neighbour Says - Old School New School project

With this in mind, the fact that we are not all super designers with super clients and big budgets is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Starting locally to ignite a grassroots intervention, altering the dynamic of the space you share with your neighbours can create positive reverberations. Communication Design Students at the New School for Design recently initiated such an intervention as part of their curriculum. An open brief gave them only three hours to alter the way the New School’s neighbours value, perceive or interact with the common domestic street space we share. Improvisation was key, and students had to work creatively and quickly. A massive coloured banner was constructed and hung over the court entry. The next morning the sleepy residents were pleasantly shocked from their usual routine by huge yellow stickers on their mail boxes and a landmark installation over the court entrance. The sticker instructed them to visit the installation which fluttered and beckoned to find out what “their neighbour says.” Here hung a series of cards upon which was written:

Your Neighbour says you have great hair
Your Neighbour says you have a beautiful garden
Your Neighbour says your kids are delightful
Your Neighbour says you have a wonderful day
Your Neighbour says you tell wonderful stories
Your Neighbour says I bet you are going to cook a tasty meal tonight

They were delighted when a community multilogue was triggered and they were asked what they would like to say in return. To feel included as part of a delightful and spontaneous process felt exciting and they quickly responded by writing further positive return comments.

Your Neighbour Says

As you can see, our Communication Design students demonstrated good and intelligent design by creating an experience, and triggering a memory that familiarises a sense of place to help a build strong and resilient community. They are the cultural producers. They didn’t create a poster, nor will they win an award. 

When I know that so many of us want to become more than tools to the corporate giant of consumerism let’s initiate a celebration of design with heart. It’s time to raise awareness of intelligent game changing design by valuing and celebrating experiential design. If not we will fulfill Sagmeister’s prophecy and limit ourselves and our capacity as positive game changers.

You can read more about the intervention project here and if you are interested in projects like these, the Frog Design Collective Action Toolkit can help you collaboratively create solutions for problems impacting your community.

One Response

  1. Diane

    I am Graphic Designer that works for herself at home out in a rural community on the east coast of Tasmania, I was trained and worked for the ‘corporate giant’ for 10 years in Sydney… many moons ago.
    I produce work for paying clientele, but also temper this with quite a lot of freebee jobs for local community groups, in fact I get great pleasure in producing designs for great community orgs that inspire and create cohesion in my local community. My local historical society needs a sign, a new logo and a regular newsletter, my kids school needs a logo redrawn or a yearbook, the local SES needs a sticker designed, or a map on the wall of the ambo station, a threatened species group needs a design so they can get info out to volunteers… it is REALLY important to get good design out there so community standards rise.
    I benefit hugely for my love of design that I can give away, this in turn makes that group look better, others then want to be involved with their cause and the good feeling roundabout goes on… give it a go – you will be pleased with the results!

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