“The subordinate place of history, theory, and criticism in design education is concomitant with the difficulty most designers have in envisioning forms of practice other than those already given by the culture.” –Victor Margolin
When Victor Margolin published those words in 2002 in his Politics of the Artificial I chastised him for being too tentative about change. It seemed to me at that time that the design world was on the verge of embracing socially relevant design, one of the new forms Margolin was advocating for. I had just returned from two years overseas. HOW magazine had published an article about my initiative starting a 501(c)(3) called Designers Without Borders, and there had been a mild ripple of interest, mostly from younger designers ostensibly looking for alternative design practice opportunities. This was the era before Speak Up and Core 77 had made blogger/activists out of a majority of the designers in North America. Designmatters was a new program at Art Center, not a New York radio broadcast. Design for Social Impact was Ennis Carter’s studio in Philadelphia, not a Rockefeller Foundation initiative to “explore fresh business models for systematically engaging with the social sector.” And Ideas That Matter, seemed, well, like an idea that really mattered. It’s only seven short years ago, but I’m beginning to think of it as “the good old days.”
Nowadays, on any given afternoon, I am reminded how different things are. Social networking has struck the design world with the force of the Indonesian tsunami bringing changes of sorts, but no guarantees of lasting change. For example, the nomenclature conflicts referred to in the preceding paragraph have grown exponentially, resulting in unnecessary and unwanted turf battles. I never imagined I was being terribly original when I named DWB back in 2000. God knows there’s Reporters, Engineers, Doctors, Lawyers, and probably Janitors Without Borders. What I did do, at least, was conduct a Google search before claiming the domain name, which is more than this group at the New York Institute of Technology bothered to do. And while I’m happy to concede the acronym DWB to Catherine Wentworth at Designers Who Blog, I’m less likely to bless the Norsk Form group Design Without Borders. They have worked with the art school at Makerere University since 2005, or about five years after our first association there. I met their representatives during my last stint in Uganda (2006-2007) and can personally attest to their generally naïve and uncooperative approach to development through design, but you wouldn’t know this from their online presence. And even they have competition for their domain name! For all our talk about “planning,” human beings don’t plan very well in the collective sense— civilization is just too complex. The beauty of the hives’ single-minded purpose doesn’t translate to people. As Americans we are raised to love independent choice, but this is precisely what leads to disaster when applied on a global scale. And it is no different with social design, where competition for the Internet “commons” is much more prevalent than cooperation. Add to this the fact that 98% of designers when asked say they want only to design, not plan, write grants, fund raise, correspond, or do any of the nine-hundred other nitty little things necessary to helping less fortunate people and you’re left with a large, well educated audience wearing blinders.
GEAR UP critique Mariana Amatullo at Central Michigan University, April 2009
My friend Mariana Amatullo is fond of saying that, where design assistance for the world’s troubles is concerned, “more is more,” and on a good day I very much want to agree with her. But the amount of available funding seems to be in inverse proportion to the deluge of books and blogs devoted to “the cause,” which are beginning to overload my circuits. In addition to Cameron Sinclair’s Design Like You Give A Damn are recent books by David Berman (Do Good Design), Emily Pilloton (Design Revolution), and forthcoming from Peleg Top (Designing For the Greater Good). Do a Google search of the latter title and you’ll hit a long list of related-by-sentiment-but-otherwise-unrelated courses, companies, and design coalitions. The blogosphere is even more bloated. Design 21 Social Design Network, not to be confused with The Social Design Site, (the only design site to make the list of 100 Best Blogs for Those Who Want to Change the World) beat Change Observer out of the box by at least two years. Its lists of organizations and individuals include, again, my Design Without Borders friends from Norway, Socially Conscious Graphic Design, and the Designers Accord, a group that refers to itself as “The Kyoto Treaty of Design.” All these organizations could fall under the self-definition rubric of Designers Accord: “The Designers Accord is a coalition of designers, educators, researchers, engineers, business consultants, and corporations, who are working together to create positive environmental and social impact.” Didn’t forget anybody there, except maybe the world’s have-nots, whose lives all of these professionals are ostensibly working with the zeal of missionaries to improve.
Part of the problem has to do with saturation. The best way to spread an ideology (or organization) these days is to give prospective participants a sense of belonging and having a job to do. George H.W. Bush branded it forever in his infamous “Thousand Points of Light” speech, where he tried to justify government indifference by encouraging personal volunteerism. Problem is, where everyone’s a volunteer there’s considerable redundancy and little or no coordination. Just check out the AIGA Who’s Who list of “consultants” at Project M’s site. They’re achieving what I’d call a critical mass of celebrity endorsement. (Project M is an initiative where young designers “do social good” by ponying up $1500 or more in a sort of altruism by subscription scheme. I suppose it feels better than paying the same amount of money to attend a national conference.)
Any number of organizations would like to corner the title of “advocate supreme” in this online world game. Designers Accord claims 170,000 signatories, while Design Observer, always proud of its numbers, boasts millions of page hits per year. AIGA, which oversees the Aspen Challenge (design the future of water indeed!), is married to ICOGRADA and ICSID, and collaborates with INDEX (talk about consolidating politically correct power!) even has competition from its own baby aiga’s. The AIGA San Francisco chapter’s started running a competition entitled cause/affect, “a biennial graphic design competition which celebrates the work of designers and organizations who set out to positively impact our society.” Given that competitions are part and parcel of design education in its currently ossified form, many designers fix on the unfortunate idea that entering competitions is the best way to help people. And did you ever meet a designer who had set out to negatively impact society?
Developed World Guilt, or Fashion Fetish?
If this blur of hysteria begins to make you feel a little woozy, join the club. I’m all about helping people, spend much time doing so, and I agree with Mariana that there’s more than enough pain to go around in this world. The people trolling the net and re-posting RSS feeds for the pleasure of their Twitter “possees” are just engaging in a big circle jerk. But beyond such dim sighted initiatives something else lurks: the sudden widespread enthusiasm for social amelioration through design. It’s so terribly trendy to care, about the poor, the environment, and every form of “betterment” that I begin to assume we must be selling more design by fetishizing social relevance.
In reference to this weblog some people have asked me, “What the hell does Design-Altruism mean anyway? Do you really think altruism is the solution for social problems?” And I’ll answer, “Of course I do,” which gets me into many long-winded debates. Others may wonder whats to complain about; after all, designers, design students, and educators are finally paying attention, or so it seems. But I’m also interested in celebrating younger people who have acknowledged and are working respectfully to bridge the nearly impossible divide that exists between the haves and the have-nots in this world. Arvind Lodaya put it cogently, ironically in response to another Margolin article this time on D-A-P, where he politely pointed out the limits of the design world’s understanding of and ability to affect society’s power imbalances.
My concern with the popularity of Facebook design groups and socially conscientious design blogs is that, rather than muster wider awareness, they will cause both a false sense of general accomplishment, and result in donor-fatigue. The growth of a category of what are called “slacktivists,” people who use their interest in design/politics to justify joining online groups and building websites for remote non-profits, fails to address the world’s problems with feet-on-the-ground solutions. Such solutions must be, in development parlance, sustainable, not as an international set of environmental standards like Designers Accord is trying to push, but as a continuing physical presence in the world’s “difficult” places. A two-week seminar, or a three-week “design camp” might be fun and informative, but ultimately, it is just more of the design-for-profit-business-as-usual mentality where busy people tear themselves away from other more lucrative commitments for brief-but-expensive feel-good professional gatherings. As a faculty member who leads semester-long socially based projects, when the semester is over it is often hard to sustain student interest and momentum in the project. Ironically, in graphic design education there are now so many people attempting to do this, one no longer really needs corporate sponsorship to “ignite change,” although much more could be said about differing definitions of what change should entail.
According to Wes Janz, “For way too many people, ‘changing the world’ is equivalent to ‘controlling the world,’ ‘telling the world,’ ‘educating the world.'” He goes on to say, “I don’t see many people understanding, as I said to Tyree Guyton, that we can change the world by being changed by the world. It’s always, my terms, our terms, our intentions, our actions, our ideas, and in the end, it’s just the same designer-as-hero bullshit to me, whether in Malawi, Kosovo, or Muncie.” I seem to have painted my idealism into a skeptical corner by asking the question, “What are we doing with this social design trope?” Are we really helping the world? To the design devoteé the answer to this last query is an unequivocal “yes.” But there are certainly more questions that need asking than the ones those who believe design will save the world are willing to ask. Personally, I continue to do what I’ve been doing all along, and try not to be distracted by the membership organizations. To me assisting flesh-and-blood people matters, not LinkedIn group sizes or number of site hits or strings of Tweets. These latter items will continue to factor to funding organizations that must justify their portfolio management quantitatively. And where they might make a difference, they can be part of the mix (some online examples, like Simon Berry’s ColaLife initiative, have been successful).
At the end of the day isn’t it the person with the most mud on his or her shoes, not the one with the most conference speaking engagements, who is doing the important work? Then again, perhaps Wes Janz said it best. Describing a recent social design presentation he attended he said, “…And, you know, it’s all good, an orphanage in Sri Lanka, house inspections in Mississippi post-Katrina, a community center in Kenya… But I just got sick of it and had this idea that you should change the name of DWB to Designers With Borders. As in, maybe there should be some boundaries, some active awarenesses that we are unqualified, or unfit, or unable to work borderlessly.” I think he’s got something there.
David Stairs is editor of Design-Altruism-Project.