Can design save the world?

Can design save the world? This was the question posed by the organisers of the Made North conference at the inaugural Sheffield Design Festival – and somehow you expected that the answer wasn’t going to be a binary yes or no.

Instead, the response from the speakers was ‘what do you mean by design, and what sort of world do you want to save?’

In the product and service design area, this question has always seemed more clear-cut. Yes of course design (and manufacturing) can, at the very least, aspire to save the world – and designers are much lauded for doing this.

Just look at the design Black Pencil winners in this year’s D&AD Awards or the Design Museum’s Designs of the Year victors if you want to see examples of visionary designers solving problems – from the service design of to therefore’s Gravity Light, bringing safe and environmentally sound lighting to developing countries.

But there’s something a paradox at the heart of this ‘design for good’ in product design. One of the key drivers in ‘saving the world’ is designing more sustainably.

So yes, a product designer can definitely save the world, but the way that they do that is by addressing the problems inherent in their practice.

And there’s another tension at the heart of contemporary product design and manufacturing. This is the fear that the technological advances that are empowering designers are the very things that are deskilling them too – everyone can 3D print these days, but how many can hand-make a model?

Conference speaker Daniel Charny raised the spectre of ‘the requiem of humanity as makers’, noting that making is ‘one of humanity’s biggest resources’. Through initiatives such as Fixperts – which links people with making skills with those who need them – Charny aims to ensure that making and craft remains relevant and practical.

Fellow speaker Dominic Wilcox took a more direct approach to proving the value of craft skills – showing a project he undertook in Milan where he ‘raced’ a 3D printer to create a model of the Duomo (Wilcox won).

Wilcox’s conceptual work – his self-termed ‘variations on normal’ – showcases another of design’s key functions, to envisage a different existence. This is a view embraced by any company that has ever employed an artist-in-residence or a designer at senior level.

So the role of product designers in saving the world is reasonably clear – to imagine, to create, to reduce, to refine. For the graphic designers at the conference though, the argument was a little more woolly.

Spin’s Tony Brook opened by quoting CBS designer Lou Dorfsman: ‘Design cannot save the world, but it can make the world worth saving.’  ‘I know graphic design isn’t going to save the world,’ admitted Brook wryly, ‘Only architects can do that really…’

Brook focused on the emotional value of graphic design, ‘The kind of things that make my world go round are record sleeves and typefaces – can people love buildings in the same way that they love those emotions and memories?’

Ian Anderson of The Designers Republic was characteristically upfront about the commercial realities of graphic design, as well as what it can do, saying, ‘All graphic designers need to whore out their talents to pay the mortgage.’ As if to prove his point, he showcased tDR’s work for Coca-Cola, which he admits led to accusations that he’d sold out.

The power of graphic design, Anderson says, is in its ability to change people’s opinions and provoke responses.

‘Product designers and architects can save the world through designing sustainably,’ he says, ‘the key thing for graphic designers is that we are in a position to change people’s ideas’.

So can graphic design save the world? It was Anderson who came closest to answering this in his response to a question from the crowd. If design is such an inherently positive and optimistic discipline, the questioner asked, why did tDR’s work focus so heavily on ideas of dystopia?

‘The obsession that designers have with dystopia comes about,’ says Anderson, ‘because if you don’t have a problem you can’t solve anything.’

In other words, all designers want to save the world.

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