David Stairs

When it comes to saving the world, I’m a reformed do-gooder. Yet, not a day goes by that I am not reminded of how many people are working mightily to save the world. First and foremost, there are the entrepreneurs, those who float websites and publish magazines and manage non-profits. These have been flourishing since before Mark Zuckerberg made it chic to connect in cyberspace, and seem to bloom at a rate of 100 for every 1000 members of population on the West Coast.

Next come the corporations. These caught the buzz that being good was cool over a decade ago (remember Beyond Petroleum?), gaining their entrée from the environmental movement. More recently, they have included everything from corporate foundations (Coca-Cola and Siemens) to rewards programs that make charitable donations (McDonalds and Amex). This trend, referred to in Europe as CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), is becoming widespread. Not to be outdone, there’s been a land rush of design-related rescuers, everyone from the builders (AfH) and communicators (AIGA) to the product designers (Project H) and the networkers (The Designers Accord). Caveat: I’ve locked horns with all of these organizations over the past few years. But today I’m not here to criticize their efforts. On the contrary, as I tried to put together a list of sources for subsidizing “creatives” and their socially relevant ideas, I came up with an embarrassingly short list.

Every year a small number of design rewards are doled out for projects dedicated to helping other people. Sappi’s Ideas That Matter probably holds the record with the $1,000,000 it has distributed on three continents each year for the last decade. Following at a distant second are four organizations that bestow $100,000 each through competitions and endowments: the TED Prize, which isn’t strictly design related, the INDEX award, the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, and the CurryStone Design Prize. (This is not an exhaustive list by any means, and social entrepreneur organizations, like Echoing Green, could be included in a pinch.) The problem with each of these organizations is that they dangle their small money over dozens, sometimes hundreds of worthy projects, limiting the recipients to a bare minimum through single elimination jurying, as if to suggest there is any one, or only a few good ideas in a world full of need. For example, in 2003 my partner and I received a small grant from Sappi. We were among 36 recipients out of 825 entries worldwide to be so honored. Now I’m not saying it did no good; Sappi spreads the wealth further than anyone else. I’m just saying that these competitions, often juried by the same “experts” who adjudicate other competitions, including design competitions, are giving us a false sense of feel good. And feel good ain’t about nothin.’

Lest this seem like a reversal of my 2009 essay Arguing With Success, I need to stress I’m not suggesting, as I did there, that there are too many design non-profits cropping up. Rather, it seems that the state of funding for other than commercial purposes, while better than it once was, is still pathetic. To put my argument in perspective, one need only look at a few countervailing examples such as US Internet 3rd quarter advertising revenue for 2010. I’m not here to complain about the absurdity of US defense spending, or to rail about Fortune 500 corporate profits. I won’t even go near Superbowl 45 ad revenues. The point I’m trying to make is that, in a society as profligate as ours is about wasteful spending, the notion that every little bit helps the needy is incredibly offensive. And that’s what we’re giving humanitarian design ideas, the littlest bit imaginable.

I realize this overview does not take the vast majority of humanitarian spending into account. Whatever you think about public entitlements, or whether you support charities like Oxfam, World Food Program, or the Red Cross is beside the point. Welfare and emergency aid have been around for a long time, and arguments about whether an enlightened society should finance them will continue to be mooted for years. I’m strictly talking about all the mom-and-pop non-profits and organizations that compete at the same trough, and I’m sayin’ funding is not growing at a rate anyway near proportionate to corporate tax breaks despite what the media buzz leads one to believe. Wes Janz draws my attention to the 1%. Founded in 2005 by Public Architecture with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the 1% coordinates non-profits’ needs with architecture firms willing to do pro bono work. As Janz points out, “While it’s difficult to argue with such efforts – Google “pro bono architecture” to see the overwhelming amount of positive publicity they’ve garnered – I’d like to suggest that such an approach still centralizes conventional practice and practitioners, with their almost exclusive focus on for-profit (could we call it The 99%?), economics, long-established power hierarchies and relationships, and all that defines the very aspects that activists want to put into question. What kind of “activism” is this?”

Which sets me to wondering about the motives of the many, the humble, the brave companies, foundations, and organizations that endow/publish/promote design charity. For instance, a link at Design Observer led me to a new online entity called Purpose.com. Aside from the fact that the site’s founders were also co-founders of the totally annoying online activist site Avaaz.com, what precisely is their purpose? “To create 21st century movements.” Meaning e-networking? Another perhaps more grounded example is the recently founded Victor J. Papanek Social Design Award. A latecomer (Papanek died in 1998, whereas the BFI was founded in 1983, the same year as Fuller’s death), as a competition it almost doesn’t make sense. Papanek criticized commercial design practice during his lifetime, and was ahead of his time in arguing for the importance of designing for human need yet, even with sponsors like the Austrian Cultural Forum and Design Indaba, the idea feels more promotional than Papanek.

Far be it from me to know the potential motives of all the world’s altruists, or even the small sampling offered in this article. But I would not live up to my skeptical pedigree if I didn’t suggest that profit, propaganda, and power seem to figure prominently into many people’s agendas where the social or humanitarian design sphere is concerned. Yet, the amounts of money actually applied to doing good are nugatory. What to do about our exploitative economic system that famously endows the gross, the violent, and the frivolous while tossing chump change to the needy? Janz wants to transform. “I think we need to foster new practices, the addition and sharing of more/new models, we need to put into question all of these conventional notions, not continue to draw upon the conventions for our sense of what needs to be done. Every paradigm needs to be questioned, broken.” I think he’s right. If we can succeed in improving our definitions, we won’t have to think about world saving or charity anymore. By then taking care of people will feel more like everyday professional practice, and less like pie-in-the-sky altruistic theory.

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project