Lynda Relph-Knight’s challenge to the design community to embrace social responsibility (see “dw200101260007”) raises the big question I find myself asking these days: what has become of the designer’s role in society?
In the early 1980s, my art school teachers told me that designers were problem solvers. That our role was to improve the quality of people’s lives, and that our design crafts were the tools to achieve this. This was straightforward en
ough, I thought, to identify the problem, be central to the process and use our design training to take care of the rest. I couldn’t have been happier with this, because design had a very clear agenda.
This worked well until the late 1980s, when a new agenda emerged: design as serious business, for serious money. Design was growing up, desktop publishing was starting to undermine our authority and it seemed anybody could design. So we invited in the marketers (now called consultants) to justify the increase in fees, communicate at board level and generally champion the role of design.
But there was a catch. ‘Branding’ heightened the problem because marketers took over design businesses and we fell in with their agenda. Branding equalled profit. The designer’s role ceased to be that of problem solver, instead we became translators. We tried to make sense of complex diagrams, and ran internal workshops and value sessions. We spent most of the next ten years translating this marketing speak into plain English.
Instead of getting to grips with design issues, we were now telling our clients design was not the main issue. So design slipped to the bottom of the agenda and I, like many others, lost the plot, as design lost its importance and was relegated to being about implementation.
But how does branding improve the quality of people’s lives, other than that of shareholders and directors? Design, like architecture, has more to offer than the bottom line. While some consultancies have held on to this belief, most of us have been exploring design’s potential to sell stuff to people that they don’t really need.
Design needs a new agenda to respond to increasing public expectations of socially responsible leadership. Companies that ignore this do so at their peril. The Body Shop, BP and Benetton have been here before. We can choose to be cynical, because we know they are still trying to sell, but you can’t deny these companies have raised issues. The question remains, will their actions speak louder than their words?
So what of the design profession? Any new agenda should not ignore the social, the environmental and the ethical, and focus only on the bottom line. Fundamental to our training is our ability to problem-solve and we all know there is no shortage of problems aside from increased product sales.
The challenge for designers is simply to return to our original role, as it was before we allowed it to be hijacked by marketers and product managers.