Designers have become severely compromised by consumerism – how can we become socially responsible and relevant again?
In my brief history of design I suggest that one of the first acts of design was to make a table out of a slab of rock. This prevented scarce food being trampled and wasted which increased the tribe’s chances of survival. Design was a tool for survival which enabled our physically uncompetitive ancestors to prosper. In creating shelter, clothing, and tools, the designer played a vital role in helping the community to survive. But after the industrial revolution introduced mass production the designer’s role switched from group survival to personal survival, accomplished by designing goods to sell. As prosperity increased selling for survival started to be replaced by selling for acquisition, fuelled by other clever designers persuading us that we want things we don’t need. Now that we have come up against the limits of the planet, that has become destructive. How can you justify designing a new object just because of some gimmick that makes it look different? So the designer’s role has switched completely: from being a social activity and the key to our survival, it has become, at worst, selfish and a threat to our survival.
How can we reverse this and regain some integrity for our profession? From the top down, we are up against a mighty challenge to totally redesign all our current destructive systems to make them sustainable. Our economic, political, banking, manufacturing, transport systems are all part of the problem, and as long as they persist, change will not happen. It is a daunting task but unless we take it on, the future of our descendants is severely at risk.
At the same time we can start from the bottom up. I believe that one of the causes of today’s selfish ‘me’ generation is an over-emphasis on money. Everything can be bought – buy away your civic duty and indulge in your “right to happiness”. On the one hand, money has always been used in some form to facilitate trading transactions, but on the other its presence can make a big difference to our attitude. This is illustrated by Michael Sandel in his book ‘What Money Can’t Buy’. If you are planting trees say, you would feel very differently, depending on whether you are paid or it is voluntary – for personal gain or for the community. Sandel advocates certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy, but I want to take it further to include services and products.
Design is more of a communal process than we care to acknowledge. Who owns the IP of the classic dining fork shape? It has evolved over generations from the small inputs of many anonymous craftspeople. We can think we design a new fork, but can we honestly claim IP on content that was already 95% there? There are countless objects like this which are rightfully part of the creative commons.
There are some exciting new trends of free sharing, such as open source software and free downloads of music or images. If these designers can support the community, how can the community support the designers? How can this model be extended to cover all aspects of design? The reason we protect our IP is in order to make a living, but where does basic need stop and excessive personal gain begin? (leading ultimately to the obscene US$21 trillion stashed away in offshore tax-havens by the 0.001% super-rich, mostly during the financial crisis.) If we had less ‘wants’ we would have more time to devote to the community, and if everyone was doing this the community would have more time to support for us, and so on.
How can we change our industry so that design is more focused on survival – on the good of the community and the planet? How can we support designers committed to contributing to the creative commons?