Good for who?

A new course in the US attempts to establish a fresh model for community design, but with no political philosophy behind it otherthan ’social entrepreneurship’, does it stand a chance of avoidingaccusations of moral bankruptcy? John Stones reports

Reconnecting with the moral purpose of design’s pioneers is an ambition that resonates in the hearts of many. Picking up on this desire to design for the common good rather than bottom line, Steven Heller, the highly influential and prolific graphic design educator and author, picked up the phone to Mark Randall of Worldstudio in the US, and asked him to help set up a novel summer course at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

The course, entitled Impact/ Design for Social Change, aims to be the first formal course specifically geared to ’developing projects that are not client-based’ and which are ’rooted in the community and directly impact people’s lives’.

As things stand there are two main ways in which designers work for the greater good (other than the general one of improving the fabric and experience of our everyday experience). The first is the design of products that can have major impact – Trevor Baylis’s wind-up radio is an obvious example. The other is the ad hoc act of charity, in which designers typically offer some of the their time for free, such as the pro bono activities of The Partners, or the current project to get designers and illustrators to donate work for the To Haiti with Love project (www.tohaitiwithlove.co.uk). This follows along the path set by organisations Médecins Sans Frontières and Architecture for Humanity, although it is obviously less comprehensive and ambitious in scope.

But the course that Randall is setting up for this summer charts a different path, away from these two models, and one that suggests a new kind of designer. ’Social entrepreneurship’ is the term Randall uses to describe it. ’It is not about pro bono or doing a little bit on the side when you have time. It’s more of a commitment,’ he says.

Nor is it product design. ’It’s about the big idea, about bringing design thinking to bear on an issue, rather than designing an artefact,’ he says. ’Plenty of people get paid for doing good work in the world, and designers should, too. It can be their life’s calling and they make a living from it – that makes it a sustainable idea.’

The course puts as much weight on fund-raising and marketing as classical design strategy, and is aimed at graduate students, professional designers and design educators (those at least who can afford the $6000 [£4000] fee). A variety of names have been willing to jump on board, including Milton Glaser and Charity Water founder Scott Harrison, who Randall holds up as an exemplar of this new breed of designer. ’He uses design thinking, marketing and promotional skills, rather than designing or building the wells,’ says Randall. ’Once the big idea is in place, you can have cleverly designed collateral or websites.’ Blake Mycoskie, who founded Toms shoes, which donates a pair of shoes to children in need for every pair you buy for yourself, is another example.

Of course, the utopian aspirations of the design pioneers of the Arts & Crafts and Modernist movements were largely underwritten by Socialism and Communism, ideologies now pushed to the verge of extinction. Does this new ’social entrepreneur’ herald a further privatisation and rolling back of the state, or a creative kind of design intervention? Certainly it speaks directly to the US context of non-state, voluntary benevolence. But this is increasingly being adopted around the world, though not without controversy.

For instance, addressing a Haiti fund-raiser Rastafarian poet Benjamin Zephaniah attacked the conflation of charity and celebrity culture, saying, ’I come from a time in the 1980s when artists were political, and they didn’t mind standing up and being counted. Now that kind of activity is being replaced by charities and Red Nose days.’ Meanwhile, Grand Designs presenter Kevin McCloud’s programme about Mumbai was recently accused of that very contemporary vice – ’poverty porn’.

The course participants will be opening themselves up to these criticisms, and it will be interesting to see if they do establish a new kind of design, as well as what its impact will be.

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