Sunday, March 25, 2007

Friday, March 23, 2007

Design Like You Give A Damn

Introduction: Design Like You Give A Damn
©Jan Baum 2007

Everything in the world, except that which has been created by nature, has been designed by human beings. This is a fairly ubiquitous idea and therefore not really earth shaking but I like it because it refocuses our perspective at a 30,000’ view. A godfather of designed objects, Victor Papanek, suggests that to be creative is human nature (Design for the Real World). Indeed people design things everyday by taking a series of elements and arranging them into some kind of desired order whether our daily schedule, our garage, or our studio work. And indeed, many people not trained in any kind of design process or discipline end up designing- systems, organizations and even objects that affect our world, that affect people. It is also a fair common belief (well documented by a number of sources) that the US educational system by-and-large beats creativity and creative thinking out of us by first or second grade and then simply reinforces its system. American students are by-and-large trained to spit back the right answer. And perhaps we can acknowledge that until recently being a creative person making a living in a creative way in the U.S. is to have been seen to be on the margins of society, albeit very special margins; and viewed with a level of suspect: “What do you do exactly?” (it’s all in the tone).

The world is a mess. And perhaps design and creativity can help find some ways out. What creative people do is imagine. Imagine ways to do things. Imagine better ways to do things. Studio artists traditionally imagine ways of representing in physical form what they think or feel about somewhat abstract ideas; it is a method of communication. Designers imagine ways to make the products we use better and how to help us communicate with each other better (wayfinding, for example). Regardless of the place (discipline) creative people come from, the process is pretty much the same. (Don’t worry Contrarian, you are in my head as I write all of this.) Define a problem. Brainstorm possible solutions. Do some research about best possible solutions. Make a model of the best solutions. Get feedback. Improve the models. And prototype it. The design process can be applied to any problem.

Inspired by many people who are applying the design process to real world problems (International Design Summit, October 2006, although there are many, many groups and cutting edge conferences happening around this) and the directness and initiative in Architecture for Humanity’s Architecture for Humanity: Design Like You Give A Damn book, I created a university level course at Towson University, which in my mind is still called Design Like You Give A Damn. [After being run through the bureaucratic watering down machine, I was forced to accept 3D Design and Social Issues if I wanted the course to run at all. (The US educational system still reinforcing its system.) My apologies for the mediocrity of title. Despite my continual Houdini-like feats, from time to time I find those damn mediocrity handcuffs around my wrists.]

Students are asked to stop and look around their world, our world- it is all the same world- and find social issues they think need addressing. Issues they feel strongly about, personally invested in, personally attached to. And apply design thinking and the design process. Students in the class function as a design team. Cross-disciplinary work is encouraged as is collaborative work. I ask students to suspend temporarily the formats they are most familiar with and consider all formats especially new formats and technologies. Where are we in 2007 in terms of what is possible? “Do the best you can with what you have”, a wise person once said.

Cross-disciplinary/multi-disciplinary work is key in designing successful ideas/solutions. The first iteration of this course is confined to students in the arts but there is mutual interest from Cultural Studies. The more diverse the people around the table are, the better, more effective the solution. Lots of people are creative, lots of people have or can come up with good ideas, if fostered and nurtured, an given the opportunity. Creativity and the design process has a significant role in entrepreneurship. I would love to teach a design/creativity course in entrepreneurship programs.

I am interested in capital D design. And small d design. And in DIY design. And the kind of design that Anthony Hopkins’ character in The Fastest Indian (highly recommended) is involved in. With few exceptions, I am interested in what people make. (Sometimes I am “interested” in what someone has made because it functions so poorly.) Less interesting to me are the divisions between specific disciplines while I can agree that categories can be helpful in understanding distinctions between specific practices. I just don’t think they are helpful and I believe that cross-disciplinary/multi-disciplinary work is key in designing successful ideas/solutions. A good idea is a good idea regardless of who came up with it or who, more likely, spit it out first. And a good design is a good design regardless of which practice it came out of and whether the designer belongs to the right design discipline to be making X thing. Or whether they came out of a design discipline at all. People are creative. This a good thing. Let’s clear the way as much as possible for people to be creative and get good ideas out there into the world. Example: Deborah Adler came up with the idea of the newly designed prescription bottle, Clear Rx. She taped new graphics to an old prescription bottle then worked with an industrial designer to create a new container form. Working together across disciplines, fantastic. If someone has a good idea, they ought to find a way to execute it rather than worrying or, worse, self-censoring and not coming up with new ideas at all, that they “can’t” because they aren’t trained in a specific discipline. Find someone who is! This territorial conversation happens within the arts. I have news for you business people are employing the design process and speaking as authorities about the design process they don’t care whose province it is. They see that the design discipline works and they need something that will work. I don’t have all the great answers, you don’t have all the great answers but if we work together we may arrive at some good answers. Then someone will come along and improve it. If we are lucky. What is important to me is not the ego (people ought to get credit for what they do) but the solutions that affect people’s lives in a positive way. More heads are better than one.

What creative people have in common is design thinking.
The ability to take an intangible idea and give it form.
The ability to encounter a problem and imagine solutions; new solutions; creative solutions.
The interest and ability to evaluate current systems and imagine better ways of doing things.
To be fueled by change rather than fearing change.
The talent to determine and assemble the necessary elements to execute a solution.
The talent and ability to arrange elements in order to define form in an aesthetically pleasing or effective way.

Creative people contribute immensely to this world. Creative people solve problems whether an art problem, a design problem or a social problem. Creative people bring light and life to our lives. Imagine living in a world without any creativity or with government mandated/controlled creativity.
As a westerner this is very difficult. I met a wonderfully creative painter in China this past year who lived through the Mao era and talked with me about what it was like to be a creative person during a regime such as this.

In order to create anything that is relevant designers/artists must have an understanding of the world as it is today; the whole of the world not just a specific discipline. And our world is growing more complex and continually evolving. For Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial to be as effective and affective as it is, she had to have an understanding of how people were feeling about the war and why; an understanding of how the war went down. In order for The Biggest Loser to be such a hit, the designers had to understand not only the problem but also the current American culture and design accordingly. Stuydents are asked to examine what has made successful ventures such as theses successful. At the Mayo Clinic they have built a design studio with glass walls within the Clinic in order to observe and make design improvements on the user’s experience. Design is as the center of our lives. Everything in the world, except that which has been created by nature, has been designed by human beings. Design is what helps to give meaning to our lives, to make sense of our lives.

Design Like You Give A Damn is a course that creates an opportunity for people to address issues they see in our world. Big or small. Outside of prescribed boundary lines. As designer or artist or ?. Setting discipline specific boundaries aside, being aware of new technologies and methodologies, and working collaboratively as a cross-disciplinary design team to address specific issues. At home in regional communities with great need like Baltimore or internationally. It is true: people design things everyday from our relationships to our studio work. We put things in some kind of order for a desired outcome. My intention with this blog is augment the course with a wide range of design examples.

Now, let’s design like we give a damn.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

RED Campaign

Welcome to Design Like You Give A Damn!
On this site you can find examples of design that gives a damn.