in Profiles | 01 APR 11
Featured in
Issue 138

Design Matters

A roundtable discussion between six designers and critics, led by Eugenia Bell, debating the largely unresolved relationship between design and social responsibility – one that is constrained by politics and fraught with pitfalls

in Profiles | 01 APR 11

The LifeStraw®, a portable water filter that removes bacteria and parasites responsible for causing common diarrhoeal diseases, designed by Torben Vestergaard Frandsen, 2005

Eugenia Bell has been design editor of frieze since 2007. She is also an editor of museum and gallery catalogues and writes on architecture, art, design and books. She lives and works in Brooklyn, USA.

Allison Arieff is Editor at Large for good, and is a columnist for The New York Times. From 2002–6 she was Editor-in-Chief of Dwell, and was the magazine’s founding senior editor.

Ryan Duke is an industrial designer living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area, USA with a particular interest in humanitarian and social design work. He leads the San Francisco outfit of the non-profit design group, Project H Design.

John Emerson is an activist, graphic designer, writer and programmer. His writing has been published in Communication Arts and Print, featured in Metropolis, how and The Wall Street Journal. Since 2002, he has blogged at on design and activism.

Julie Lasky is editor of Change Observer, a channel of the website Design Observer that is devoted to design and social innovation. She was previously editor-in-chief of I.D. and Interiors, and managing editor of Print and has contributed to The New York Times, Metropolis, Dwell, Eye, Slate and National Public Radio.

Damon Rich is a designer and artist, and currently serves as the Urban Designer for the City of Newark, New Jersey, USA. In 1997 he founded the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), a New York City non-profit organization that uses design and art to improve the quality of public participation in urban planning and community design.

Jan-Christoph Zoels is founding partner in charge of user experience design at Experientia in Turin, Italy. He was a co-founder and senior associate professor at Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy.

Eugenia Bell While the term ‘socially responsible design’ (srd) has been in vogue for less than a decade, it would appear it’s already outstaying its welcome. Could you elaborate on the lengths and limits of designing with a sense of cultural, ecological or economical responsibility?

Julie Lasky One drawback of the social-design movement is its tendency to drown out past achievements. Designers have always maintained a sense of responsibility, whether they were badgering clients to use recycled paper or refusing to work on tobacco accounts although some have been more vocal than others – remember Tibor Kalman? [The influential and provocative designer was creative director of Colors magazine and founder of the M&Co. office in New York. Critic Steven Heller called him ‘the design profession’s moral compass’.] Few would disagree with the need to undergird their practices with respect for clients, society and the earth but those who believe they’re the first to embark on a mission are not inclined to learn lessons from the past.

Allison Arieff There has been a lot of progress but it’s astonishing that the business case still needs to be made for sustainable design – not in all circumstances, but in far too many. I hate that design that is ecologically, culturally or socially responsible still gets dropped in its own category: big design consultancies use it for pr but can’t really commit to developing an appropriate business model for doing the work. Each year, industrial design awards are given to resource-wasting gadgets like that ridiculous coffee machine that requires individual coffee pods. Why create a market for an appliance that might save three seconds off the time it takes to make a cup of coffee yet adds additional waste to the landfill every day?

JL Further complications arise in the different, and frequently competing, demands of cultural, ecological or economical responsibility. Plastic is economical and interwoven into our culture, but it’s not particularly ecological. Recycled paper products are ecological but expensive, even without counting the hidden energy costs that may be involved in their production.

AA Everyone knows better yet they still they continue; it’s a strange and divisive time.The numbers of people who believe in climate change are dropping and that affects design, because if consumers don’t care, companies won’t either.

John Emerson It’s exciting to see the idea of socially responsible design become embedded in mainstream design discourses. It’s not some fringe, hippie idea any more, but something established institutions are grappling with. This is great progress, and it has happened in a relatively short time. The enthusiasm is also happening at a time when what is considered design is increasingly blurred. It happened with art over the last century, but now design is dematerializing in similar ways. Design is less centred on making objects, images, or spaces as on how people interact with them and how these things function within social, economic, political and environmental contexts. A socially responsible design practice may take on any number of forms for intervention, education or advocacy – even spinning off non-profits or non-governmental associations. At a certain point, a socially responsible design practice may cease to be recognized as design at all.

JL And then there are the complications implicit in the limits of responsibility — such as when well-intentioned designers take on projects that ultimately fail to serve the communities they aimed to help, and in some cases do actual harm. Often, ambitious designers who take on social causes underestimate the demands on their time and patience, especially when required to negotiate cultural differences and bureaucratic and political obstructions, which is generally not something they’re trained to do.

JE Designers can be very focused on design itself; a real challenge of socially responsible design is to look beyond the object to social and historical contexts and consequences of our work. Instead of focusing on design for social change, it makes more sense to focus on design that helps people make social change. In the history of social movements, political power and policy changes are key to bringing about sustainable social change. Design has a powerful role to play in these historical shifts, working with social movements to build alternative solutions of their own. That said, the pace of social change can be slow. This is not so much a limitation of design as of any kind of activism. Quick fixes can become attractive when struggles for justice can take generations. Historically, revolutions often fail a few times before they take root, and even passing a local city ordinance can take an enormous amount of time, resources, and energy. But changes are happening all the time, sometimes in unexpected ways, and we need to remember that these changes didn’t just happen on their own. People made these changes happen.

Damon Rich Which raises the question: who is the constituency of responsible design? Saul Alinksy, the granddaddy of American community organizing, said that people don’t participate in politics to be good citizens, but out of recognition that to do so is in their self-interest. Similarly, I wonder how we fill the somewhat vacuous good intentions of responsible design with specific objects in order to hitch it to existing political agendas and constituencies. We should recognize that the word ‘design’ is more often used in everyday conversations to describe basic questions of resource allocation than creative acts. Once we acknowledge that, we can get more specific about what we mean by responsible or representative design. After all, most design is responsible to someone: clients, investors, bosses or bureaucrats. So perhaps it’s not a question of calling for more responsible or responsive design as it is of scrupulously ascertaining to whom design is responsive.

Jan-Christoph Zoels Supporting sustainable lifestyles means rethinking our forms of socio-cultural, environmental and economic exchanges. Addressing the behavioural aspects of this triple bottom-line approach to sustainability is society’s biggest challenge as we move from areas that we can control as designers to areas we merely can influence, if at all. This means understanding and rethinking mental models, value propositions, service offerings, and engagement strategies, while at the same time avoiding social engineering and propaganda.

EB When does pragmatism outrank principle?

JLWhen you’ve reached an optimal balance of contributing the most good with the least harm.

Ryan Duke A balance, as always, is what is called for. When principle overtakes pragmatism, action suffers. However, without principle as a guide, actions become unfocused and flounder. Project H operates with strong principles but action is the primary goal, and a pragmatic approach is necessary. Too often, carrying the mantle of principle, inaction is passed as action. I don’t buy it. Principled inaction is closer kin to indifference. Sins of commission and sins of omission.

J-CZ Ethical principles guide our thinking and actions and we believe in the important human contribution of creating intuitive, feasible and pragmatic solutions for people (it’s easier to define who we won’t work for: the military or advertising companies). We look for replicability, social attraction and communicable qualities. In our work for the Low2No carbon emissions project in Helsinki harbour, an eight-storey, timber construction building for several hundred residents was proposed. Finnish building regulations do not allow such extensive inner-city wood construction. Nevertheless, the use of Finnish timber can drastically reduce the carbon impact compared to concrete. We interviewed future residents about perceived risks and qualities to understand how to address these deep-lying concerns (this also helped to convince the clients). Now, instead of building a whole block, one or two individual office buildings within the structure will be multi-story timber construction. From 2012 the Finnish regulations will be changed to reflect this evolved area of insight.

EB Can attempts at inclusivity be a barrier to a brief? And if so, why?

RD Sure, they can. Are they always? No. Often, the reasons for inclusivity determine the effects of inclusivity. Awareness of context, considered planning, and common intention can overcome difficulties. Is the intention to glean knowledge from all parties? Is the intention to understand context? Is the intention to offer a hand-out without real expectation of contribution? Is the intention to fulfill quota (legislative, PR-driven, or otherwise)? Is the intention to give value to all participants? Our own guide is to look at why we’re seeking inclusivity.

J-CZ Too often clients see inclusivity as too costly. They imagine a well-targeted website or mobile application, or a building tailored to a certain socio-economic strata. But urban life depends on diversity. Enabling explorative, risk-taking behaviour is what makes cities rich, innovative and desirable. Architects often do not recognise dialogue with people as nurturing and edifying, and sometimes even see it as a barrier to the brief. No to blame them though, it’s just a matter of best practices and culture that designers and policy makers have the power and the responsibility to address.

EB How can people be more responsible about design? Is it a matter of education or of activism? Is design education a form of activism?

JE Design education can definitely be a form of activism. I see design education, especially popular design education, as a step towards empowerment. Helping people to realize that they can change what they are given and have the power to shape things and to recognize the patterns and systems behind the images, objects, and spaces in their lives can help them to actively participate in the decisions that affect them.

JL Activism is taking one’s practices into the public realm with the goal of influencing others. People can act responsibly but they have to be educated. Otherwise, at the very best, they’ll be blindly following dictates.

JE A good first step is for designers themselves to be more active citizens.

AA I’ve spent several years reporting on amazing projects that have married design and activism: San Francisco’s terrific greening projects like Pavement to Parks (which transforms unused intersections, dead ends and the like into public space) or Greening Guerrero (where nearly three miles of a very busy street were planted by the community with the participation of designers, plant experts and the support of city government). These are inexpensive yet transformative efforts that get people excited and have changed the urban landscape for the better. But most people simply don’t have the luxury or inclination to think about design. There’s a great clip from an interview that worldwide design and ‘innovation’ company, ideo conducted to discuss sustainable materials and consumer attitudes around safety, ecology and the like. When asked if there were any materials he was concerned about, the interviewee replied ‘I really hate corduroy’. He had never given a thought to eco-friendly cleaning products or energy efficient appliances, they just weren’t part of his daily reality. His response is totally illuminating because design is so self-referencing: designers only speak among themselves and their research is often confined to their own peers.

DR Since teaching design is less about a specific set of facts than a process of observing, analyzing and making, you can’t just share your bullet-points and walk away; you have to figure out a way that you and these people can relate and talk about the world. Working with high-school students sharpens my ability to see things in a fresh way; they undermine my assumptions and remind me that it’s my job to be open to the world. Working with students requires a real dialogue. Even when they’re less immediately interested in design, it’s enormously educational to try to convince them that design might be important, that thinking about it might be an exciting and life-changing thing to do. Of course I don’t always succeed in convincing them!

AA I think design should be integrated into the school curriculum early on so that it becomes taken for granted that it’s part of knowledge. We’ve got to get the message across early that design can positively (and/or negatively) affect all aspects of our lives.

RD Certainly design education is a form of activism! However, educating the public is a task too large. Ultimately it falls on individuals to educate themselves to support the shape of their own lives. People who want to know will find a way to know – we hope to provide them with information when they do so. The resources are readily available – seek them out! Then, take the next step and get your friends together, open your eyes to needs of your community and get to work on addressing them! Activism in igniting change within our own community (design, or otherwise). Activism in demonstrating the power of design, and taking action.

J-CZ Engaging people is crucial. We need to enable participatory design processes and create tools for integrated and distributed decision-making. Our social networks, habits and beliefs are crucial tools in affecting sustainable change. Design education needs to prepare us for that, but also policy makers need to learn how to best enable this inclusivity.

EB How can policy-makers and governments help to make the process of design more responsible or representative?

RD I’d suggest that the role of policy-makers is to draft constraints as minimally as possible. Initiatives need room to breathe and develop. They’re often not perfect at the outset; failure is built into the process. Certainly issues such as safety and accessibility are critical. However, I’d hope for a more experimental approach; we’ve regulated our way into ageing models of inefficiency, inflexible structural systems, and set-in-stone monetary interests. Policy should be leave room for experimentation and allow for tailoring and for practical wisdom to be applied. Policy should be adaptable.

JE In the US, the government has the power to affect design processes and production. It can regulate, outlaw or encourage public, private and commercial activities to benefit the public interest. These don’t have to be specific constraints – the government can set benchmarks without proscribing how to get there. Or, to take another example, it can create tax incentives for socially-responsible activity or tax penalties for destructive behaviour. And there’s the enormous might of government purchasing power: the US government is the largest purchaser of products and services in the country. This means that if, for example, the law says that government agencies must purchase the greenest computers available, the big computer manufacturers have a clear incentive to green their products. Too often policy advocacy is left to big corporations and the moneyed classes. There are enormous opportunities for designers to work for progressive policy on social and design issues, and to tilt government spending and policy to benefit people before profit. I think designers vastly overlook the power of public policy and I’m always shocked when even socially conscious designers seem to ignore or dismiss it. Public policy seems to me like the one of the best tools we have to create massive change.

AA Passing environmental legislation seems close to impossible in the current political climate, but at the same time it’s clear that we have to rely on regulation to make certain things happen. Though regulation is complicated it needs to play a greater role in responsible production. I think this is true for car design (where is the commitment to electric car infrastructure?), home design (vinyl siding is incredibly toxic so why is it one of the most common homebuilding materials?), and to product design (supply chain improvements). At the more grassroots level, one thing that seems to be working well is the idea of temporary intervention. The San Francisco-based Pavement to Parks project (P to P) is a great example. If permanent park spaces had been proposed, the project would have never happened. P to P was presented as temporary, a ‘let’s see if it works and if so, we’ll keep it’ rather than let’s do environmental impact reports, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and keep our fingers crossed that the public likes it. So, prototyping is a good strategy. I do think local governments especially are extremely open to innovative ideas. They’re tired and lack the bandwith to come up with new initiatives.

JE It can be daunting, but local governments are often more responsive to grassroots pressure than state or national governments. I hear more and more about organizations and even designers taking the initiative and working with city agencies to successfully change public policy. It’s a great way to think and act locally. And cities watch what works in other cities – good ideas can spread.

DR Let’s take a look back at the struggle for democratic control over the US built environment. The formal requirement for public participation in planning appears in federal law as early as 1949 – ironically as part of the Title 1 programme (otherwise known as ‘slum clearance’) that would go on to clear hundreds of urban neighbourhoods and displace tens of thousands of people. In New York where this movement that led to this requirement for public input had its most celebrated successes, new systems of participation like community planning boards were instituted in 1963. The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of Community Development Corporations and Community Design Centers that found new ways to connect residents to the apparatus of urban design. As a result, the idea of citizen engagement in planning is almost clichéd. While few bureaucrats or capitalists would publicly dismiss the right to participate, the quality and impact of this participation remains in dispute. The regulatory capture of urban planning by the so-called Growth Coalition remains problematic, as does its continued need for the proven abilities of architects and planners to euphemize issues of power and the race and class disparities it feeds on. On the other side, advocates continue to produce and propagate counter-tools like inclusionary zoning, participatory budgeting, and community-benefit agreements.

J-CZ Behavioural change at individual and community levels must start at the cultural level. We need to create an open conversation between local communities, public authorities and stakeholders. Because our perception of what is possible dictates our standards of what is acceptable, huge barriers to social innovation and green experimentation are institutional, legal and regulatory. Regulatory changes are generally the slowest, but they are a key driver in fostering innovation and replicable solutions.

EB How does policy – both design and economic policy (leaving aside financial crises) – limit the improvement of environments? And how can we embolden citizens (and designers) to take more into their own hands to change things?

RD I’m not sure policy will ever really be the answer. With the astounding rate of change today, and with the inverse often being true in policy-making, policy inevitably finds itself behind the times. At root, people drive policy – the accountability lies on us as individuals to accept ownership of our actions and make choices accordingly. Those choices should align with our values, which should inform our personal policy, which (multiplied) should become public policy. The question is how do we cultivate a positive personal policy?

JE For every policy, there’s someone looking for a loophole, an advantage or to circumvent it. This means that policy measures without mechanisms for oversight and enforcement aren’t going to go very far in genuinely evening the playing field or creating social improvement. So, how to embolden citizens and designers? Designers can help make dissent public and create channels for citizens to communicate their opinions. This could be in any media: publication design, street art, digital information sharing or public actions (there’s plenty of room for inspirational design in a strike, protest, parade or potluck). Designers can also help visualize systems of power, economics and policy. By making abstract issues tangible, they can reveal relationships and opportunities to take action and put pressure on corporations and policy makers. Both grassroots organizations and policy makers can use design to make their work more accessible and accountable to their constituencies. For instance, there’s a lot of excitement about service design right now – designers working in multidisciplinary, collaborative teams to deliver services or create programs that empower citizens. Designers are bringing the toolsets of design methodology, usability and user experience research to hospitals, schools and other public institutions and community organizations.

EB Has the economic downturn affected any projects you’ve been working on? And if so, were the ramifications permanent, or was a viable alternative found?

RD Fortunately or unfortunately, we’ve only been in operation during the current economic downtown. Given our experience so far, perhaps we should be more than optimistic about our future during periods of economic growth. It takes an industrious attitude – identify what needs to be done and find a way to do it. No excuses needed.

J-CZ We are lucky. An economic downturn is the right time to explore new opportunities, innovate and challenge the goliaths of our time. It helps us to focus.

DR In 2006, before the crisis, I was invited to develop an exhibition at the (now sadly defunct) Center for Advanced Visual Studies at mit on the relationship between architecture and finance: my goal was to create a space that demonstrated how buildings become an abstract value transmitted across global financial networks. In 2009, at the Queens Museum in New York, the project was re-realized as an exhibition titled ‘Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center’. It was allowed to creep into the famous Panorama of New York City, a miniaturized Big Apple with about a million tiny buildings in the space of a former skating rink. For the duration of the show, markers were added to each city block that had recorded three or more foreclosures in the previous year. Although the sheer extent of damage was upsetting – nearly 5,000 buildings were seized – more surprising was the unevenness of its distribution. This was one of the exhibition’s formal effects that made it a useful tool for organizing around how our society finances its living environments.

One of my favourite experiences of ‘Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center’ was the exhibition’s appearance on the PBS NewsHour as the backdrop to a story featuring the fantastic journalist Alyssa Katz and some of the financial victims-turned-activists. The exhibition was no longer framed as an exhibition, or the work of a designer or artist. Instead, it was simply a convenient visual aid for explaining to Americans how their system had crashed. Maybe that’s an answer to the question about the constituency of responsible design: when it succeeds, it goes by a different name.

EB What are some of your personal grievances with so-called socially responsible initiatives? How much of what passes as srd is merely window dressing?

J-CZ Too many companies are using srd as a branding tool – just look at the advertising from the large oil producers in the last couple of years. Branding without systemic change will always be hollow. Real change requires moving research and development into actual practice.

JE I cringe when I see design efforts that seem to ignore the economic and social context into which they’re inserting themselves. At times, design created in the interest of humanitarian aid strikes me as coming from a short-sighted and privileged place.

AA I was recently invited to a conference where some 100 or so designers were flown in from around the world to discuss serious issues related to global health and poverty. The mandate was for us to arrive at solutions over 48 hours. My biggest grievance is that designers pop in on communities they’re not familiar with, whether it’s a village without water in Africa or inner city kids with no access to fresh food. Then, they spend a few weeks observing followed by some time synthesizing and voilà! Problem solved. One can’t presume to solve the world’s most serious problems at a resort over the weekend.

JE These efforts are inspired by the will to do good, but they can have unintended consequences and can be politically fraught. There’s a great quote from Brazilian Bishop Hélder Câmara: ‘When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor were hungry, they called me a communist.’ Everyone loves you for donating something beautiful to a community in need. It’s a good way to win design awards and can sometimes have a meaningful short-term benefit for a community in crisis. But charity work often does not address to the deeper roots and causes of conflict and inequity, and at its worse may even exacerbate a situation, providing the veneer of a solution where deep problems still exist, and creating complacency where there is the need for outrage, tough choices and hard work.