Expanding the world of Graphic Design

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.

Uncommon Life of Common Objects

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.”

Graphic Design Worlds:Words

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

This book came out of an exhibition held last January to March that was very well-documented, including a blog A Diary of an Exhibition as well as videos too.

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.


  1. Shu says:

    I think the whole “design to make the world a better place” is not a technique, movement or even a physical manifestation. It’s simply a value or way of thinking/mindset. The prob is that many now use this way of thinking to market themselves, when all the while, design HAS always been changing/moving the world.

    “Changing the world” or “making the world a better place” are also very subjective phrases. Simply by giving your loved one a beautifully designed card is “changing the world” and “making the world a better place”, in a sense. Who’s to say who’s changing the world and who’s not? :-).

    Also, craftsmen and creators have always been changing or making the world a better place since a long, long time ago – this applies for writers, musicians, engineers, etc. The opposite can be said, like how you mentioned about the AK47.

    I think why this “design to change the world” debate is gaining momentum is because academia is shifting from teaching the mastery of craft and tools to imparting values and philosophy. And that to further or expand scholarship on design (a very new field), one needs to talk about the philosophy of design.

    Another reason for momentum is that the design teacher wants to ensure that when students graduate, they remember why they design and for whom they design. All these boil down to values. It is the same for journalism and our values/ideas on objectivity, fairness, etc. However, journalism scholarship is far more developed than design and today we challenge the values our journalism forefathers instilled in us.

    Just some notes from the conference. No expert on this!! 🙂

  2. j u s t i n . z says:

    True, about the journalism bit. I’m sure we would have thought about whether Journalism can change the world too. Can the stories we tell do anything more than bring attention? Do our responsibilities go beyond that?

    Actually, come to think of it Journalists and Graphic Designers do have similarities in that we are both mediators of the world. We interact with people, understand their agendas and produce a piece of work based on it. Our forms are different (or sometimes overlap), but the process seems very similar, the need to understand, translate and entertain…

    I think what I am most suspicious about is this unchallenged promise that design can change the world. It is just used to make design sound more important that it really is? And if we are to accept that design can change the world, then we have to accept that it can harm the world too, so where’s the discussion on that?

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