A moral dilemma for design

Yrjö Sotamaa: “Papanek’s Heritage – Design for a Real World”, a seminar at the Aalto University on March 6, 2012: “Designers in Finland felt that is was unethical and immoral to talk about beauty in a world full of inequality and problems.” This moral dilemma stems from the sixties of the last century. World famous Finnish designers were awarded for the beauty of their designs, not because of their social impact.
Does this dilemma still play a role today? I think so, especially the question about design as an elite activity within the social classes of the 21st century. For me, design, the role of designers and design education should be (more) about social impact within a critical attitude towards design itself.
“Considering all the areas which my list touches upon, it might be easy to assume that I feel that all the problems of the world can be solved through design. But in fact, all I am saying is that a great many problems could use the talents of designers. And this will mean a new role for designers, no longer as tools in the hands of industry but as advocates for users.” (Victor Papanek, Design for the real world, 1985)

Karin – Filterdesign & University of Applied Science Amsterdam

Intelligent Coalitions: Design & Social Impact

“In February 2012, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, the Lemelson Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts brought together designers, planners, inventors, and funders from Australia, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas working in the public, private, and social sectors for the Social Impact Design Summit—a one-day participatory event to discuss strategies and actions to advance the field of socially responsible design.” Source: Cooper Hewitt.

Introduction by Ezio Manzini founder of DESIS asking himself the next questions:
– What can design do?
– How can design do it?

Karin – Filterdesign & University of Applied Science Amsterdam

Socially engaged design

On this website called Bored Panda, you can find 40 examples of The most powerful social issue ads that’ll make you stop and think. There is also a quote from Howard Gossage stating that “advertising justifies its existence when used in the public interest—it is much too powerful a tool to use solely for commercial purposes.” I have no doubt that advertising is a powerful tool but is it possible for design, advertising being a form of design,  to make you stop and think? And what happens after that?

First of all when an individual is invited to join in the images, text, characters and narrative structure created by a designer, new perspective can arise within this encounter. In this way, social and political oriented design would reach people who don’t know that the issues addressed are an issue in society. People would become aware of a new political or social situation.  This awareness can be a powerful dynamic trigger to find words for an as yet untraceable position.

Next, these words could appeal and clarify fundamental social and political alternatives to others, whereby new knowledge emerges. So ideally socially engaged design solicits the viewer to identify with and grasp hold of a critical construction of an alternative ideal that will be shared with others. But is it possible for designed images to render visibility over new alternative ideas independent of existing structures? Or does it just overload us with images of war and violence of which we were already aware?

According to Susan Sontag when it comes to images and in particular photos of violence the problem is a passive form of looking. Although looking at violence from a distance through photography will probably generate a sense of compassion and horror in most people, it lacks the possibility of any kind of intervention. By contrast viewers will become paralyzed by the overwhelming array of images through the various media and are therefore unable to undertake any action. The misery is simply too big Sontag tells us.

Moreover, most people prefer not to dwell on the idea that the suffering of others may have a direct relationship with our (Western) security and wealth, Sontag continues in her book Regarding the Pain of Others. What is achieved by looking at such images of ‘the other’, is a continuous awareness of inequality in the world, a world where violence and security coexist. The idea that photographic images have the ability to create a connection between (distant) victims and the privileged viewers is a mystification of what we are capable of.

Concluding, for me creating political and social awareness will stay fruitless if talking or criticizing a social situation does not actually intervene in a larger public debate. Social or political activism should become a part of the  network of social relations in the public sphere. It is not enough for design to ‘be’, but it ought to create long-term, committed work of thought to come up with alternative ideas for badly functioning social structures. Whether this is possible or not, remains an open question.

public-interest-public-awareness-ads-36-2By advertising agency: Publicis, Singapore

Karin – Filterdesign

Making a difference through design?

Looking for examples of social design I came across several designs for emergency shelters. Ease of use, fast to deliver, locally made, recyclable material, lightweight, these are all requirements for the design of emergency shelters. But the fact that nobody wants to live in an emergency camp is for social design the most important issue to address. Finding your family, feeling secure, safety, being able take care of health issues,  protection against cold, heat, floods, finding food, clean water, communicating with family and friends all over the world, is what comes to my mind as most important issues when on the run for war or natural disasters. However I was never in such a situation. Nevertheless I found examples of emergency shelters which address these social and emotional issues better than current tents used around the world. Problem is that these designs aren’t used. And watching images and films concerning  war situations or natural disasters can make these designs look superficial. Okay you are in a war, you lost your family and you are on the run but you do live in designer tents. Designed in countries where there is a form of peace. Immediately creating a difference between the active helper and the passive victim. But all in all, I believe that taking action for those who (temporarily) are not able to lead their lives as they want to, will bring change. And these small actions don’t exclude the big questions about war and nature.

So what about an activist getting information out using a creative approach, is that a social designer?

Emergency-shelter--Felix-St Emergency shelter by Felix Stark

zipping_1UHHs_1333 topviews_uPccx_1333 LIFElink Emergency Shelter

bedu2 bedu“Bedu” temporary disaster relief by designer Toby McInnes

x2shelter_2_NPa1x_69 x2shelter_1_IzeG6_69 By GEOTECTURA Architectural Studio

Karin van den Driesche- Filterdesign