In my every day interactions, I receive a lot of questions from people outside the design industry, confirming my belief that design is rather misunderstood by the public at large. I believe there are numerous reasons for the prevalence of some common misconceptions, and in an attempt to explain a few of them I will likely only scratch the surface.
Though I am only formally educated in one design discipline—interior design—I believe there is much crossover between disciplines as far as design process, thinking, and theories go. Each discipline—whether it is graphics, web, industrial, interiors, architecture, fashion, etc.—has its own inherent intricacies and unique properties but conceptually speaking, design is design is design.
Recently I was asked, “What kind of design?” in response to my statement that I write about design. As I responded with, “All things design, in relation to society and culture,” I was met again with the same question: “But what kind of design?” I then found myself approaching an intense monologue, explaining that our entire world is designed: the chair I’m sitting on, this glass, this napkin, this space we’re in.
Design is everywhere and everything. This concept is lost on most, though I personally take every opportunity I have to share my thoughts on the subject.
Another recent question I received, “Why are you writing about architecture when you studied interior design?” again broaches the same subject, but I have to address this topic more specifically. Too often when I speak the words, interior design, I literally cringe at the responses I receive: “Oh fun!” or “I always wanted to do that!” or “I need your help!” Basically, it is assumed that an interior designer just makes things pretty.
Thanks to cable television and the invasive species of one version or another of Decorators-R-Us, many people think interior design is all about sewing pillows and curtains and—I don’t know—maybe choosing a new matching set of toilet paper holders and toothbrush cups for Sally’s new bathroom in her McMansion. Alas, it is not. Interior design is about making spaces where people will live, work, shop, play, and exist. It is, essentially, the architecture of a building’s interior.
[It is indeed a problem that anyone who chooses to call himself or herself an interior designer can do so. Some states have legislation regarding this issue, but my home state is still lacking.]
I must break the news: an interior design education at an accredited university doesn’t come with sewing lessons. Technically speaking, it comes with much more “fun” stuff—like structural and mechanical systems, construction documents, and nitty-gritty detail work that has a tendency to make one (read: me) want to poke her eyes out and run for the hills.
In part, it is these misconceptions that led to my frustration with the industry. Misconceptions don’t appear out of nowhere; there must be a bit of truth to them, or how would they exist?
On the other hand, it is mostly the idea that design is everywhere and everything that makes me both love and hate it at the same time. The fact that everything we touch, live with, and interact with on a daily basis is the result of some form of design leads me to the premise that design is, in part, about power. A clever designer can mold a person’s behavior, shape society, shape life. It is, at once, scary and exciting. As with any power, abuse is far more than a possibility; and is often more likely a probability. Throw ego into the mix and what do you have? Often, a disaster.
As a result of my discontent with much of the design-world status quo, I began a quest to discover the other side of design. And I did in fact come across some people and projects that turn the “design = power” scenario upside down—making it a useful, rather than abused, thing.
During a visit to Hale County, Alabama to study Rural Studio, I learned of Project M—a program inspired by Rural Studio and its co-founder, Samuel Mockbee. Project M is essentially the graphic design counterpart to architecture’s Rural Studio. It is a program designed to inspire young graphic designers and other creatives to utilize their skills in a way that positively impacts society. Project M’s simple motto is: “We just want to change the world.” They operate under the manifesto that “ability equals responsibility.”
That, I can get behind.
During the summer of 2007, Project M participants took their work to Hale County, where they searched for a project that would best utilize their services. They discovered one-quarter of Hale County’s residents did not have access to clean drinking water, and determined this was an important issue they could help resolve. They created a program called Buy A Meter, which connected residents who were drinking from contaminated shallow wells to the municipal water system, for $425 per household. Working collaboratively, charrette-style, Project M participants designed a series of newsprint advertisements to solicit donations that would give families access to clean water. In addition to Buy A Meter, Project M became a permanent resident in Hale County through its Design Lab—a studio and workspace for Project M participants and visiting designers to stay and work in Hale County.
PieLab and (blank)Lab
As direct descendents of Project M, PieLab and (blank)Lab are prime examples that demonstrate innovation of ideas, and turning ideas into actions. PieLab—in Greensboro, Alabama—is part pie shop, part community resource and design center. With such a simple, yet beautiful concept: PIE + CONVERSATION = IDEAS and IDEAS + DESIGN = POSITIVE CHANGE, I can’t help but marvel at its innovation blanketed in simplicity.
(blank)Lab, working under another simple equation: MOBILITY + DESIGN = POSSIBILITY, is a mobile studio, traveling the country to unite communities and designers. As the name would indicate, it seems to work under the guise of not specifically defining itself, leaving the process open to what may happen along the way, though the program’s intentions have been stated: “The conversations that will naturally occur when disparate groups are introduced, possibly for the first time, will be the catalyst for design projects meant to foster positive change.” It seems, in essence, to be a thinking machine.
Project H Design (not to be confused with Project M) is a non-profit product design organization aimed at creating “initiatives for Humanity, Habitats, Health, and Happiness.” Again, founded on the belief that design can change the world, Project H “connects the power of design to the people who need it most, and the places where it can make a real and lasting difference.” Project H is run entirely by volunteer designers, and has a special focus on projects that directly enhance and affect education and experiences for youth.
Project types are wide ranging; to name but a few:
- Learning Landscapes–a playground system that integrates math learning with play;
- Empowerment through Food–an urban farming and school farmer’s market program designed to teach ecology, health, and business skills within academia;
- Safe Spaces–a concept development project to create “engaging, comforting, and inspiring therapy solutions” for children in foster care.
It is projects such as these that have the ability to turn my feelings of cynicism to those of optimism. I can’t agree more with Project M’s motto of ability equaling responsibility. This is not to say that every designer in the world should work entirely in philanthropic ways, but I do believe it is important for anyone wielding the designer’s power to be cognizant of this power and what it means in a cultural and social sense. To forget that design—in all its realms—is about humanity, is to ignore the core purpose of design. To be devoted to design holistically, one must also be devoted to those for whom the designs are created.