Design Locally, Think Globally

It is easy for design to be provocative, and it is easy for it to challenge our perception of ordinary objects. But can design do more than that? Can it go outside the safety of the studio, of the comfort of the home, and address the world and its 21st century challenges, like bio-terrorism, the AIDS epidemic, and refugee crises?

At Art Center’s first biannual Design Conference, held March 18-21 in Pasadena, California, several speakers argued that not only does design have the capacity to solve global problems, but it also has a distinct moral obligation to do so. “Design is a way of understanding very large problems,” said Dean Kamen, inventor of personal transportation device the Segway. “Problems that it takes courage even to think that we can solve, and passion to believe that we’re supposed to solve them.”

Kamen showed slides of one of his newest inventions, an unnamed $1500 portable water purification system that he said would “be the utilities, the public waterworks, of the emerging world.” Rather than waiting for governments or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to provide utilities for underdeveloped areas, Kamen believes residents could use his system to supply themselves with potable, disease-free water. However, in a post-presentation Q&A with moderator John Hockenberry, Kamen refused to be coaxed out of his sound bites to explain exactly how his device differed from others on the market, as well as how it could be distributed if not through “official” channels.

For all of Kamen’s grandiose pronouncements, he was at least trying to tackle large problems via localized means, rather than drafting some sort of useless, beautiful utopia, which seems to be the modus operandi of most 21st century architects and designers.

Like Kamen, Cameron Sinclair might come across as an urbane tent-revival preacher. Yet Sinclair’s non-profit, Architecture for Humanity, has organized two contests to solve global problems: one in which participants designed low-cost housing for Kosovar refugees, and a second in which they designed mobile AIDS clinics that can be used in sub-Saharan Africa. Sinclair made excellent use of his heart-tugging material, flipping through slides of woeful orphans and telling the audience about a pair of impoverished Serbian architects who organized protest rallies by day and designed by night. Faced with that, how could an audience of well-fed Americans deny Sinclair’s moral charge: “I ask all of you to design like you give a damn.”?

Brenda Laurel, an Art Center professor and early virtual-reality designer, offered a more personal view of design and global engagement. Speaking of the college’s new South Campus, designed by Daly, Gelik, she mentioned how the new space would help push the institution and its students out of their former ivory-tower isolation. She also described several student projects that work on a small scale, utilizing basic design to elucidate larger social problems. Examples included a commercial encouraging the adoption of hybrid vehicles that focused on the pleasure of driving in a world without noise and exhaust, as well as a project that quantified the plight of sweatshop workers by creating labels that showed work put in to a garment versus wages paid to make it.

Richard Saul Wurman, an informational graphics guru who created the Access travel guide series, ascended the stage like an ornery Buddha, announcing “We all serve gods,” whether they be gods of aesthetics, fame, or power, “but my god is better than yours. My god is the god of understanding.”

Understanding of design’s capacity, power, and promise is essential to action. Massive Change, designer Bruce Mau’s attempt to define the future of the global design culture, lent its name to the conference’s socially conscious panel, “Massive Change: Why we need designers now more than ever.” Massive Change attempts to answer the “why”’ by examining how everything can be seen through the lens of design. Explained Mau: “We abandoned the classical discussion and instead looked at areas where design is a driver, such as in the unraveling of DNA, in which life itself is rendered as a system of information.”

It is these practical applications of design that excite Mau and that, he argued, should excite all of us. Our age will be remembered as one in which “human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective,” he said, quoting British historian and philosopher Arnold Toynbee.

As design’s scale of influence increases, decisions made on the micro level can create huge alterations on the macro. As speaker after speaker at the Design Conference proved, we are at a watershed moment in which the clients of design are not just the individual, but—whether we choose it or not—the entire world..

To read further accounts of the Art Center Design Conference, click here.

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