This post is part of our year-long series, Apocalypse 2012, where our favorite futurists, resiliency and disaster experts examine the role of design to help you prepare for...the end?
We live in dichotomous times, navigating between conflicting imperatives, contradictory values, and eleventh-hour urgency. For designers, these dichotomies—far from providing generative yin/yang grist or complementary dualist push and pull—represent paradoxes that lash at our profession, our practice, and our promise. Lately I've been losing some sleep over them, so best to get this down on paper as part of Core77's Apocalypse 2012 Series. Exactly 1000 words, below.
We're at the apex of our power, but the nadir of our potency. Let's start with the biggest heartbreaker of them all: We are at a moment in history when, as designers, we are at our most powerful. There is almost nothing we cannot make, enjoying the triumphs of research and development in materials science, manufacturing technology, and information systems. We can get any answer we seek through social networks, peer communities, or hired guns. We have sub-specialties at unimaginably thin slices of expertise—from ubiquitous computing to synthetic biology—and a plumbing system in the Internet that is simultaneously unprecedented in human history and entirely taken for granted.
At the same time, unbelievably, we have never been in worse shape: We are witnessing the collapse of every natural system on earth. Take your pick—on the ground we've got clear-cutting, desertification and agricultural run-off. Underneath we've got fracking and groundwater contamination. In the air, greenhouse gasses; in the oceans, ice sheet melting, acidification and Pacific trash vortices; in space we have the ghastly and ultimately impossible problem of space debris (we won't be able to leave even when we're ready to, and nobody will be able to get in to help us if they wanted to). We carry body-burdens of toxic chemicals leached and outgassed from our homes, our cars, our food packaging. The consequences of industrialization metastasize out to slave factory labor, massive river diversions, obesity, malnutrition, gender inequality, rampant poverty, minefields. We tax our economies with war machinery instead of fueling healthcare and education provision. We feel helpless on the one end and hopeless on the other.
How can we be so strong and yet so weak? How can it be that we, as a species, are at the absolute height of our power at exactly the same moment that we are on the precipice of self-annihilation?
Is this funny? Or ironic? Or tragic? Or simply unthinkable. Whatever your reaction, for the design community, it is decidedly two things: rare and privileged. Design has been complicit in moving us to this precipice, of course, and certainly it alone will not be sufficient for pulling us back, but we need to acknowledge the fact that this time, and our place in it, are truly remarkable: We are equipped with our most powerful tools, right when the world needs us most. This is an astounding proposition for design.
The design of artifacts versus the design of systems. If all of these natural collapses have demonstrated one thing, it's that we are no longer living in a world of objects and things, but rather in a world of flows and negotiations. Undoubtedly this was always the case, but the feedback we're getting from the natural world has made it unassailable. In the old design model, we had 'problems' and we had 'solutions.' A designer's job was to take a problem—a brief, a market need, a new technology looking for an embodiment—and to solve it: Here's the problem; here's a solution. Next problem please.
We are now recognizing that this worldview is unbearably naïve and not a little arrogant; that problems are not static, they're dynamic. They are moving, organic and fundamentally systemic. You might say that they aren't even "problems" at all; they are "problem spaces"—a term progressive designers have been using for years. But I'd argue that you don't "solve" problem spaces, you negotiate them. And that this negotiation requires new kinds of processes, fluencies and participants. This is the new design practice that is emerging all around us: it's inter-, trans- and multi-disciplinary; it is tactical; it concerns itself with things like resiliency and sharing ecologies, and pays as much attention to meaning as to money. And it explores entirely new kinds of currency and value—currencies like participation, and reputation, and access, and happiness.
Is it possible that we feel powerless to 'solve' problems because we're (simply) using the wrong word to address them?
Good Design versus design for good. We are lucky to be witnessing a moment when the imperatives of design enterprise have shifted from the well-crafted artifact that's commercially successful to the well-conceived initiative that's socially beneficial. Social design is a rapidly maturing discipline with limitless upside and a kind of human capital that is unstoppable. There may be challenges in creating sustainable economics around its practice, but its rationale comes pre-paid; instead of creating the thing and then creating the demand for the thing, design for good flips the order back the way it belongs.
Design as a verb versus design as a noun. I believe that the reason the Design Thinking meme was so successful is that it positioned design as a verb—as an activity or an enterprise, as opposed to a noun—something that was fundamentally static and ultimately aesthetic. (The word 'thinking' literally is a verb of course. That helped.) Design Thinking meant that design didn't have a strategic component to it; it meant that design was strategy. It didn't mean that it had a repeatable, rigorous process to it; it was process. And it didn't mean that you had to rent it out from experts; rather, you could instantiate it as a competency of your own business. Of course, the nouns of design are critical for visualizing, iterating, inspiring, mobilizing and transacting. But they result from researching, dreaming, ideating, observing and validating. All verbs, those.
Apocalypse versus a positive visible future. At the 2008 Compostmodern Conference in San Francisco, Joel Makower talked about how doomsdayers had a phalanx of eager designers conjuring the Apocalypse. (For me that meant high waterline chalk marks running around the buildings on the edges of Manhattan.) He argued that we lacked a group of people willing to imagine the inverse: "There is so much design work around what happens when it all goes wrong," he offered, "but what happens if we get things right?" he posited. "What does that look like?"
Now there's design dichotomy I think we can all get to work on.
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