"Designers can contribute to a better world, but not if we dictate how"

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"Designers can contribute to a better world, but not if we dictate how they do it"

Ahead of the launch of our Good Design for a Bad World, Dezeen editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs asked: "Can design save the world?" In this response, Louise Schouwenberg argues that global issues can't be placed on the shoulders of guilt-ridden designers alone.


Mankind is not only a creative race but also a destructive one. It threatens to destroy even itself! That an accusatory finger is pointed at designers and that designers themselves are given to frequent pleas of "mea culpa" is easy to understand.

In every sphere in which mankind has created a giant mountain of useless nonsense, and an even greater heap of rubbish for the landfill, designers have played crucial roles. So who would object to the critical analysis Marcus Fairs has made of the field, which aims at starting a range of debates during Dutch Design Week 2017?

The imaginative title Good Design for a Bad World speaks volumes, while the first questions set the tone: "Can design tackle the really big problems facing the world? Or is design helping to cause these problems?"

More and more theorists use the term Anthropocene to spread a similar message of doom. The term denotes the geological era we have reached, which is characterised by the disastrous impact that mankind has on the planet. It seems abundantly evident which human activities have landed us in the current mess, such as far-reaching industrialisation and the inability to clean up all the waste created; globalisation and a rampant capitalist system with its unquestioning belief in the free market; unbridled consumption that has transformed "people" into "consumers"; and the unstoppable race for technological innovation.

The age of mankind is not a beautiful one

We have left too many fingerprints behind and seem to have no control over the process. The age of mankind is not a beautiful one. Naturally, Anthropocene is not a neutral term. Man is guilty and some men are more guilty than others.

The devastating awareness that designers have played a part in the creation of the Antrhopocene, and the awareness that they might employ their problem-solving capacities in much better ways than they currently do, has led to a rather schizophrenic situation.

The profession permanently oscillates between extremes. On one hand, we have the still thriving commercial design fairs that spew a fresh profusion of useless products and mere stylistic variations into the world each year.

On the other hand, there are the design biennales and critical side events of design fairs, which mainly present installations with alarming messages about the world. Instead of reaching those who must still be convinced, the messages mostly reach a cultural elite that already had these convictions before entering the event. Alas, preaching to the converted is a phenomenon that many socially motivated art and design projects suffer from.

The same schizophrenia of the field is apparent in design theory. Apart from notable insights and scholarly publications that rarely or never reach beyond the bounds of academia, the design discourse is mostly split between two camps. In monographs, glossy magazines, the lifestyle pages of newspapers, and, who could deny it, websites such as Dezeen, we mostly encounter upbeat articles on design, written in hyperbolic wordings, if not plain marketing rhetoric.

Design cannot consist of merely finding solutions to sustain our world and our natural resources

At the other end of the spectrum, at symposiums and in publications that accompany side events of the fairs, we mainly hear a story of hellfire and damnation, whereas the counter forces are described with strong terms like "the world's first…", "underground" and "revolutionary".

I know of no other field in which both sides of the spectrum have a tendency of using inflated words. As a result, most publications on design are either unbearably light or unbearably heavy.

To offer a fairly recent example: the alarming title of the Istanbul Design Biennale 2016, Are We Human?, suggested that by now we've lost our pure, authentic, untainted humanity. What a romantic notion of a pre-technological and authentic mankind! Our actions and interventions may at times be disastrous for the environment and new technologies may seem alienating when they see the light of day, but aren't they par excellence humane? We may have lost many things, but certainly not our humanity.

On Saturday October 20th, Dutch Design Week starts, attracting again thousands of design lovers to the city of Eindhoven. In a vast array of design events, debates and exhibitions, including the famous graduation show at Design Academy Eindhoven, the visitors will be confronted with the great variety of designs, ranging from socially engaged projects with large pretensions to tiny answers to small questions.

How can the visitors estimate a design's meaning and value? How can they distinguish between mere stylistic variation for the sake of variation and true cultural innovation, how can they grasp the full impact of a design versus the mere good intentions, or worse, "greenwashing", the cynical illusion of greener and more socially responsible production, whereas making profit – business as usual – is upheld? Which criteria does a visitor have?

Why strive for a sustainable world if that world bans playfulness and appealing surprise?

Marcus Fairs calls upon designers to deal with real humanitarian problems such as environmental pollution, terrorism and the refugee crisis, as designers are used to solving problems. But isn't this paradigm of "problem solving" itself one of the problems that have caused an abundance of nonsensical answers to non-existing problems, and to inflated pretensions at both sides of the spectrum (such as sucking up China's, or even the world's smog, while so far the technique has merely led to ugly rings)?

Can designers contribute to a better world? Absolutely. But not if we dictate how they do it. Let's lift the heavy weight of all world disasters from the fragile shoulders of designers on a guilt trip. Design's future cannot merely consist of continuing to produce for an inflated market, nor can it consist of merely finding solutions to sustain our world and our natural resources. After all, why strive for a sustainable world if that world bans playfulness and appealing surprise?

Let's expect from designers their undictated creativity foremost. The criteria for estimating a design project might for instance consist of these questions: Which values, beauty, pleasure, and which utopian dream does a design represent? Which actions will it enable and enhance? Which relationships to other people? Which larger view on the world can I distill from a product? And, the most important question, do I want to live in the world that is implicated by this particular design?

Parts of this text will reappear in the publication Beyond the New – On the Agency of Things, which will accompany the exhibition Beyond the New, curated by Hella Jongerius and Louise Schouwenberg at Die Neue Sammlung in Munich, from 9 November 2017 to September 2018.