Let’s find a new role

For too long, we’ve been designing the stuff of
consumption – it’s high time that we put our creative
energies to better use, says Adrian Shaughnessy

Trying to write about the current financial crisis in a weekly publication is bonkers. The situation changes constantly. What seems to be true one day is swept away overnight by events on the other side of the planet. Rescue plans are followed by rescue plans to rescue the original rescue plans. The simple truth is that events move too fast for anyone to know what’s really going on.

But one thing seems clear/ the world has changed. I heard someone on the radio say that we are witnessing capitalism’s equivalent of the fall of Soviet-style communism. This struck me as plausible. It certainly feels like the end of something. And even capitalism’s most fervent supporters must know that in the future democratically elected governments are not going to stand for unregulated financial conjuring tricks that threaten the stability of nations. Tighter control of financial institutions – and therefore less cheap money – seems inevitable.

If it is the end of unlimited debt-fuelled consumption, what does it mean for designers? At the start of the year, when people started to use the irritating euphemism ‘credit crunch’, I hoped that any ‘crunching’ could be confined to bankers, property developers and estate agents. But the idea that design in all its forms – branding, product, fashion, interior, architecture – can escape the effects of global economic turmoil seems forlorn. We designers have yoked our futures to the capitalist wagon train. For most of us this has meant an era of plenty, but if the wagons sink into the mud, we go down with them.

What happens if corporations are no longer able to instigate global branding campaigns? What happens if falling house prices mean that people stop moving house every few years and therefore stop buying the designer products that modern living demands? What happens if the thousands of design-savvy niche businesses that have grown up in recent years, selling design-conscious products and services to an affluent population, start to fail?

Yet I can’t help thinking that if this crisis makes us reassess our role in modern culture there may be long-term benefits for design. We can blame greedy bankers and sinister speculators for the situation, but designers are culpable too. As the agents of desire-creation we are in this up to our necks. It’s the great paradox of design: we want the world to be beautifully designed and we want everything to glow with designerly perfection, but this has resulted in an entire generation borrowing on a scale never seen before to be able to afford the fruits of this ‘designer revolution’. Nothing illustrates this better than the way we constantly upgrade our mobile phones and buy new cars when the ones we have are perfectly serviceable.

The idea of a social role for designers had been around since William Morris and the early Modernists preached the benefits of good design for all. But is it just meaningless holier-than-thou optimism to advocate a role for design that is not solely about creating consumer desire? Well, something’s got to change. For a start, unlimited consumption is no longer environmentally sustainable, and increasingly it looks as if it isn’t financially sustainable either. And if the US government can do the unthinkable and ‘nationalise’ Goldman Sachs, then just maybe it’s no longer fantasy to think that the furious creative energy that goes into designing the artefacts of consumption could be put to better use.

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