Designers in Singapore today seem to show signs of pushing the profession beyond just a commercial tool. Over the last few months, we have seen the launch of several initiatives like “We Design Change”, “Ethics for the Starving Designer” and even a television programme, “Invest In Me”, where designers and design play a pivotal role in making the world a better place.
While I am still undecided on where I stand on this (at this point, still skeptical), I was fortunate to have been able ask Kevin Finn of Open Manifesto this question when he spoke at The Conqueror Awards ceremony in Singapore in early March. So can design change the world? No, he said, it all depends on context. Kevin raised the example of the AK-47, which is a well-designed machine, but when used as a weapon it becomes something bad for the world. This is an issue GOOD Magazine wrote about some years back as well.
If context is key, that is the world around design is what matters, then these two design books I’ve recently read help to push our thinking and discussion towards this direction. One is Akiko Busch’s The Uncommon Life of Common Objects (2004), and the other is Graphic Design Worlds / Words (2011), a publication based on an exhibition organised last year by Milan’s Triennale Design Museum.
Busch’s book is a collection of essays on design and the everyday life. The casual and accessible read takes you through 13 objects most of us are familiar with, such as a camera, a refrigerator, a bagpack. Each uses the object as a starting point to understand the people who use them, the world it exists in, its history, the culture and even politics behind the designs. More than once, Busch brings you so far away from talking about the actual design of the object to core of what it means, but when she concludes, you find yourself even closer to the design than ever. Perhaps, she describes her approach in her writing about design best, “You could say I write about design because I am fascinated by the relationships people forge with things and by the inevitability of how we engage in play with our material possessions.”
Coming at design with the same idea, but from the designers’ perspective is Graphic Design Worlds / Words, which is a collection of questions-and-answers with over 30 of Europe and America’s leading design studios and critics, including Max Bruinsma, Steven Heller, Experimental Jetset, and Erik Kessels. The theme of “Worlds” is open enough to allow expansive conversations, and the collection is not loose. Graphic design is examined as both “inner” — the worlds designers create — and “outer”, the world that design exists in. Some of the quotable quotes you’ll find in this book include:
“The designer is never the subject, but always the filter” — Metahaven
“Graphic design is turning language into objects” — Experimental Jetset
“Design is like channeling” — Radim Pesko
It was a fortunate stroke of serendipity that I ended up reading the two books not too far after another, giving me insights into the design world and world design is in. While I am still skeptical as to how much design can expand into the world, I am convinced that the world of design had to expand its thinking to have any chance of doing so.