MAVERICK LIFE OP-ED

What if … we design for people’s needs, not their wants?

By Bielle Bellingham 27 May 2020

Illustration by Studio Muti

Brace yourself, this is not for the faint of heart. Bielle Bellingham shines a harsh light on design, and asks us to rethink our roles and responsibilities.

The spaceship that we call Earth is hurtling towards extinction, and design has become morally and imaginatively bankrupt. All the while, you and I wax lyrical about future-proofing our careers, turmeric lattes, the “new” puffy sleeve, “optimising” and other low-hanging fruit. Have we gone bloody mad?

Before I carry on with this clarion call, I’d like to acknowledge the following; like many mischief-makers, I’m unfortunately much better at criticising and posing questions than at proposing solutions; there are obviously no absolutes; I realise that there are many contradictory forces at play; and despite how it might come across, I am truly optimistic.

What if design could be more than a cult of exclusivity?

What if it could change the lives of the people who need it most?

What if design wasn’t burdened by beauty, utility and money?

What if design stopped perpetuating divisive racial and class lines?

What if it treated us as people with needs and dreams – not as users with artificial desires and access to debt.

What if we designed new behaviours instead of new products?

What if design was accountable for its manipulation of emotions?

What if designers weren’t afraid to fail?

What if corporate accountability was more than just lip service?

And what if we tried to “think an octave higher”? (Viktor Schauberger.)

“If not you, then who?

If not now, then when?”

I should mention here, that when I refer to “design” and “designers”, I’m referring to multiple disciplines which include architecture (both exterior and interior), product (including furniture and fashion), industrial (including systems), experience (including service) and visual (graphics, animation, packaging, advertising), etc. The boundaries between these areas are porous and malleable. When you push or pull on one, you find that it’s attached to the rest in some way.

I should remind you, also, that all design has a political dimension – it reflects the economic, social and psychological conditions of our time. It embodies our ideas and values, and it is inextricably linked to mass production.

Which leads me to the reason I am writing.

“In this age of mass production (…) design has become the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environments (and by extension, society and himself.) This demands high social and moral responsibility from the designer,” said Viktor Papanek.

Design for the real world

This was first published 49 years ago, in a book that I’ve recently devoured – Design for the Real World, by Viktor Papanek (1971). He starts by declaring that “there are professions more harmful than (industrial) design, but only a very few of them”. And adds to this: “by creating a whole species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breathe, designers have become a dangerous breed.” I repeat: 49 years ago, and “designers have become a dangerous breed”.

The book is ardent. The mandate is clear. And we are 49 years behind schedule. The urgency with which Papanek wrote has clearly not been grasped. And the dangers that he forewarned have only been exacerbated by the very things which he asked us to please change (he didn’t actually say please – it’s part of my new PR strategy on his behalf.) Perhaps now we are ready to take heed?

Papanek’s requests are lofty, but with a little deep thinking and planning, they are achievable.

He wanted to use design to imagine new possibilities. He was frustrated that designers didn’t feel the weight of their responsibility. He disliked the fact that we were producing inferior, stylised work that squanders resources. And he wasn’t interested in excuses. He advocated for integrated design practices and teams, and he wanted us to design for our social contexts (telesis). He was searching for “a new and sensuous frugality”.

That was then. How would we describe the design climate now?

Today

Today’s most urgent and underlying problems are perhaps more philosophical (or metaphysical) than purely material, environmental and economic. In fact, as Pierre Swanepoel, Director at StudioMAS, points out – we need an altogether better way of understanding problems in the first place. “Designers are bad at identifying the most important problems to solve, as our love of beauty and ‘the iconic’ blinds us to what the world needs most. Many designers apply their talents and time in order to fill the fridge. While, at the same time (without the help of those self-same designers), cities the size of Johannesburg are informally built every few months (due to urbanisation and displacement).”

Design has also moved from the physical to the digital, and then into the virtual at breakneck speed. We’re faced with unprecedented possibility – a veritable “tyranny of choice”. The experience economy has eclipsed almost everything, and there’s a shift towards sensibilities, as opposed to hard skills. Our perception of time is out of joint, thanks to a culture of on-demand gratification. Intricate and consequential ideas are often negotiated by self-entitled novices on unmediated platforms.

All of which is unchartered, exciting, volatile and nerve-wracking, considering that the stakes of our planet are so high.

Basically, nobody knows what they’re doing because we don’t have the luxury of time to think, experiment or say no.  We just do, do, do. But perhaps that can change now? Who are we as designers? What serves as our ethical code? I’ll just leave that there with you (somewhat irresponsibly.)

Change

We need to understand what drives meaningful change, and in order to do so, we need to understand what drives people. Papanek was fascinated by psychology and was an early proponent of behavioural economics. He recognised how important it is to understand the various patterns and mindsets of designers, makers, and consumers, and appreciated how design cues influence decision-making.

It works the other way around, too. The wicked-smart curator of contemporary design at the Smithsonian Design Museum, Ellen Lupton, explains that “the people who see, touch, and use our work participate in its realisation”. The public must recognise that you can help designers and businesses understand what needs to change – it’s your responsibility, I’m afraid.

Our friend Viktor was also horrified by the influence of the media and advertising, which “has become so powerful as to act as a great equaliser, turning the public into passive consumers, unwilling to assert their taste or discrimination”.

Consumers cannot afford to stay obediently in the service of the market. We have definitely gotten better about this, but we have a way to go.

Designers

And what of designers? Author of Small is Beautiful (download immediately), E.F. Schumacher, stated that “any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”

Papanek had a lot to say to designers. In a nutshell: We have greater control over our work than we think we do; we need to design for people’s needs, not their wants; and we need to stop using our work as an extension of our ego. We must exercise our moral judgement every time we’re asked to design something, and ensure that we always design for social good, not just for ourselves and the market.

This is tricky. We all have bills to pay, which means that sometimes we can’t be as ethically strict as we’d like.

I asked Max Melvill and Ashleigh Killa from the MAAK about this – their architecture studio focuses on public buildings and spaces for those that need it most. They explained that “collectively we need to create and promote a more robust culture of doing well, from doing good. The task isn’t about choosing between ‘design for many’ or ‘design for money’– the real challenge is how do we bring these worlds closer together? The public, creative professionals, and patrons of the arts (public and private) all have a role to play in this. Social-impact design will never be a realistic model of creative practice until it is proven to be financially viable.”

Empathy

A significant mode of the MAAK’s practice is working in integrated teams, which include the end users and makers. In the process of co-design, they often design for people unlike themselves, so they use a variety of research activities that build empathy with the end users, which ultimately creates superior solutions. Empathy, loosely defined, is the ability to recognise and share the mental states of others. Radical empathy is the cornerstone of all user-centred design, and critical for the integrity of our civilisation.

Trend Director at Superbalist, Anja Joubert, sums this up beautifully: “We’re conditioned to address problems from our unique points of view, but in fact, our egos often get in the way of moving forward. This is exactly why cross-disciplinary thinking is so important, and why we need to spend more time developing these soft skills, and a new set of corresponding tools. In this way, the solutions we design will truly connect with people, and be far more sustainable in the long term.”

Integrated design and teams

Architect Pierre Swanepoel again adds valuable insight, he asks for “more generalists please! Generalists understand the holistic nature of the world far better. Many of the Nobel prizes awarded recently were to collaborating groups or pairs of people. In this increasingly complex world, we cannot be specialists in all fields.”

This concept of integrated design and teams was another important proposition of Papanek’s. He believed that cross-disciplinary design teams (which could include, among others, anthropologists, engineers, biologists, psychologists, political scientists, etc.) could collectively conjure up alternative worldviews, and then use design to materialise them.

Speculative design

Which brings us to my new favourite topic, speculative design (or design fiction). Like novelists, designers often have a special affinity for observing current society and technology as well as imagining compelling alternatives. Design fiction speculates as to where today’s overconsumption, imbalances, and mistakes might take us, in much the same way that science fiction novels and films do. It uses hypothetical prototypes to amplify scenarios, and suggest course correction.

The practice of designers Dunne & Raby is exceptional in this regard. Similarly to my opening quiz of “what ifs” , they use critical design to pose questions about the kind of future that people want. There is an important twist though: “If we start with the things around us, that we already know, and project them into the future, we are going to end up with an extension of the present which is not helpful when we are trying to think of more radical alternatives. Trying to think of ‘alternative nows’ is just as important. Our world, in some ways, has become quite restricted ideologically,” they admit.

Jo Noero, the esteemed architect, echoes this sentiment about creatively engaging with the now: “The problem with the design professions is that they shift the responsibility of dealing with present-day problems, by engaging with an unknown future. We need imagination and courage to take on present-day issues, and to think through new ways of remaking how we live together.”

Imagination

Herein lies the crux of everything: Imagination. It is the most important skill for designers as we move into the next chapter. Dunne & Raby offer that it is the foundation from which “a whole set of other skills, methods, approaches, and narratives can spring from”.

Business

For design to become a truly optimistic and buoyant social force, it needs to be an equally powerful economic force. Business is the most important disruptive technology that we must co-opt in order to affect revolutionary change.

In conversation with Peet Pienaar, graphic design virtuoso, he explained that: “Everyone should be learning how to create partnerships between private and public. Governments need to introduce design to the people who need it most. At the moment, design is seen and taught as a small service in big business, and designers have no voice or enough influence on decision-making. To change this, we need to become shareholders and business owners.” E.F Schumacher talks about orientating our economic systems towards “production by the masses”, rather than “mass production”.

This is where Papanek and I start to differ in opinion. He believed that design should be completely independent of commerce, which is surely counterproductive. I understand why he wanted to uncouple it from problems of feasibility and aesthetics, in order to investigate its unlimited potential as a tool for exploration, resistance and dreaming. That would, however, render design impotent, and banish it to galleries and museums.

To be relevant for everyone, design needs to confront the market and ask uncomfortable questions, but it can and should simultaneously maintain a vigorous relationship with commerce.

Go do

Big decisions need to be made. Together, we need to construct a new cross-disciplinary worldview that will propel us into the future of our choosing. Let’s be the architects of our future, not its victims, as visionary Buckminster Fuller asked of us.

Rather than competing to replicate the status quo, let’s start thinking at a higher frequency and come up with breakthrough concepts. Let’s “unsettle the present” (Stephen Clark) rather than unsuccessfully trying to predict the future. I’m terribly sorry that at this stage I offer no concrete solutions, but if you’ve read this far, I suspect you might be as passionate as I am, and will get stuck in? DM/ML

Special illustration by Studio Muti for Daily Maverick.

With a background in interior design, publishing, and event management, Bielle Bellingham’s creative vision is informed by the African cultural trajectory and the role of art and design as catalysts for change. Bielle has shared her insights regarding decor and design trends with several high profile publications over the years, in addition to serving as ELLE Decoration South Africa’s editor-in-chief. Interested in new modes of storytelling in physical and digital spaces, she create campaigns, experiences and spaces that are progressive, engaging and relevant. 

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