Over recent years I’ve reflected a lot on the purpose of design, beyond the obvious stuff. We all talk a lot about its emotional and functional levers and it is self-evident that these levers transform the state we are in, sometimes in a small but meaningful way, other times creating profound sea changes in how we live and experience life. As I peruse my way through the effect design is having on our lives and landscapes, I am increasingly struck by how potent a metaphor design is for putting a brighter face on the ugly time we are living in.
We are living through chronic global ailments that sweep through our macro-existence and we’re finding ways to prevent the bleakness that surrounds them from taking over completely.
We are all designing strategies to cope better and transform the face of a very difficult, interesting time. Designers, delivering messages from brands to consumers, play a very profound, perhaps under-acknowledged role in this temporal facelift.
Beyond its obvious aesthetic role, design is also doing something much more complex and profound in our cultural context: it is making life feel better, not just appear better. Simple objects that claim space in our everyday lives are reframing problems we’d rather not think about into positives that fit comfortably into our routines and rituals.
Remember a time when you could throw a full-sized bottle of shampoo into your travel bag with the biggest worry being that it may leak into the pages of your paperback? Unfortunately, the miniaturisation in the personal care aisle that we now see is not about being cute with purpose. It’s about global terrorism. It’s about being able to fly without the fear of blowing up in the sky. It’s a control mechanism that keeps us safe while permitting us shiny hair and smooth skin.
Bankers wear headphones, teenagers wear headphones, Olympic athletes and presidential candidates wear headphones. Not little hidden ones, big ones that block out the world and hang around our necks like furniture, for easy access. Entertainment used to be a social affair, but in the ‘busyness’ of our lives where a moment alone is a precious treasure, finding ways to temporarily shut the buzz of the world out is increasingly attractive.
When I came to this country 15 years ago, Seattle Coffee Company was just making its mark on the high street. Now I can’t walk a block from my flat without passing three coffee shops. We enjoy a quick shot of pick-me-up and we love to keep up with the pace of our hyperactive times so we can take it all in wide-eyed and eager.
While we are encouraged to curb our consumerism and think responsibly about what we buy and how we dispose of it, we’re not all that good at heeding this advice. So to assuage our guilt, our homes and high streets are adorned with little recycling units, formerly known as ‘bins’, with failsafe instructions for what goes in where – so that we can carry on buying things we don’t need and feel guilt-free about the way we get rid of the bits we don’t consume.
Ryanair gives us access to escape, on the cheap, but smacks our wrist for doing it lest we get too haughty. FitFlops give us a firm behind, coaxing us to get up from our screens for a few hours a day and feel good about walking. You can buy your cornflakes in a little throwaway pot just in case you can’t take 10 minutes to down a bowl at your kitchen table. The cosmetics brand Benefit packages handbag friendly make-over kits in boxes styled like self-help books, irreverently paying homage to our appearance neuroses.
To write this piece, I’ve looked close to home, seeing through my London eyes – elsewhere the picture may look different, or worse. Coming from someone who loves to turn the handle of the design mill, this chapter may feel like a peculiar rant. I’ve framed it this way to make my point clear: design plays an increasingly important role in transforming the face of our world, so that we can live in it more comfortably and peak with good feelings when the under-sway of negativity is so frighteningly strong.
Dealing with the bigger problem
We as a design community are very skilled at creating a seductive aesthetic that makes life look good. With every brief we receive, I encourage us all to ask: what is the bigger problem we’re designing for here? Is there anything, no matter how small, that we can do to start shifting this problem? Often we can introduce a sustainable angle to a brief we receive or write. A change in substrate or footprint of a pack is a small incremental change that can have a big impact. When approached with an innovative brief, a broad-sweeping reappraisal of the business model could create sea change, as we witnessed with Zipcar and Lovefilm. We can look for ways to reward and give back, to create community, to be generous with our talent so the world is supported more responsibly by the things we populate it with.
At Dragon Rouge we ‘Create Generously’ on the premise that small gestures have the power to make big differences and we apply this to everything we do. For instance, we could have given important client feedback recently with the usual death-by-PowerPoint presentation, but instead we created a multimedia art installation to bring that feedback to life and ignite our client’s creativity and insight.
In the design community, beyond being slaves to our expertise in communicating visually and verbally, we should all start thinking about the small things we can do that will make a big difference on human, social, ethical, economic and ecological scales. Scientists haven’t yet designed a cure for AIDS, but they’ve gone a long way to prolonging life expectancy for those living with HIV. For the afflicted this is a gift horse never to be frowned at.
We’re not saving lives here. But we could be saving life.
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