The question I’ve started to wonder is why don’t they? At what point in forming the Foundation did they decide to not employ or utilize designers? Microsoft employs designers. In fact in the last decade designers have become increasingly important in shipping products at Microsoft. Products like Windows Phone, Xbox, Lync, and their core product Windows, employs hundreds of designers. So what happened? When did our roles get almost solely confined to software, furniture, and websites?
We got stuck
I left my role at Microsoft almost a year ago to work for frog; a Global Innovation Company as it’s defined. In our office in Amsterdam, where I’m based, we tend to do mostly software. In fact, across frog we do a lot of software. There is also the occasional impressive hardware item that showcases our roots of things like the NeXT Cube. We get strategy projects to help companies define road maps and how they might want to enter a market. That’s where things tend to get interesting, but once it’s all said and done, it’s mostly off to another piece of software. Most design agencies I know across the world end up in software, websites, and of course classic graphic design, but our role has become stuck in this niche that we need to break free from. IDEO and a few others try to do this from time to time, with projects like the Aquaduct concept vehicle to help transportation and water needs in developing countries. However most projects like this get stuck at the concept level. In fact, it seems like some of the great designs I see that help people just come from grass roots action, like the “Liter of Light” project from the Philippines, using Coke bottles for light. How many projects like this could we come up with that could help people and benefit communities, if we had the chance.
We can think beyond the grid
My thoughts and opinions of design have slowly been changing in the last few years. A few months ago I spoke at a school in Guadalajara Mexico and met a fellow designer who was starting discussions around the worlds economic issues and how designers could help that. Now I’ve long time been a fan of education reform and figuring how to produce a better education system, but the idea that designers could retool the entire worlds economy wasn’t something I had contemplated at length.
We sit in our offices, studios, or cubes designing websites, layouts, software. We stress empathy, and design thinking. We showcase the synthesis of information based on observation and ethnographic research. Yet none of this is particularly helpful to anyone. As Philippe Stark mentioned in his TED talk, it’s a shame that “Design is just a weapon for marketing”. Now being in an agency, it’s something I’m understanding all too well.
Fixing the System – https://www.facebook.com/groups/fixingthesystem/
Let’s break our shell
Why can’t we as designers break out of our current shell and figure out methods to reform education, stop the spread of disease, create sustainable agriculture, plan disaster recovery, or help governments. Nothing more than some simple design thinking helped stop a lot of the Guinea worm infections in Africa as people figured how to filter water to make it safe. Nothing specifically prevents us from doing it, with the exception of poor people don’t have a lot of money to hire great designers. It’s sort of a harsh reality to understand that any of us, much like photojournalists who spend their lives to show struggles across the world, can actually save people with our brains and with our thinking. Yet the people who can help support us, like the Gates Foundation, don’t appear to fully understand we can provide that, and most of us don’t want to give up a decent wage to provide those services free of charge. I know this is changing. IDEO is partnering with the Acumen Fund, and small agencies like Project H are coming up, but these are small pockets. In the entire world of design, this is a fraction of a percentage. We can do more.
This isn’t to say I’m leaving my job, selling all my stuff, and will now lead a new nomadic design life helping people build eco-friendly houses that solve all the worlds problems. After all, I can’t give up my perfectly designed iPhone and Bose headphones. But hey, given that there seems to be a drive to change a lot in this world, perhaps we can have an impact for the better. Perhaps a few of us have the guts to break away and blaze a trail. I wish I were brave enough to do that and I hope I’m lucky enough in my lifetime to do something amazing enough to truly help the people around me. In the meantime, I’m going to keep my quest of having foundations like the Red Cross, Acumen, or Gates to understand our value can travel beyond the two dimensional screen. In the meantime, I’m hoping I can get groups like the Right Brain Initiative or Project H to allow me to volunteer during parts of my vacation.
My ask of everyone reading is pretty simple. How do we help move our discipline out of the realm of software, websites, furniture, and aesthetic based work to the realm of the type of thought, synthesis, and observation we can provide. We’re not designers of aesthetic, we’re not designers of marketing tools, we not designers of landfill materials, we are designers; period. We are critical thinkers who can help provide less disease, better education, better housing, and better solutions. In the end, we can help. When people ask about you profession, don’t just speak of posters, websites, and iPhones. Take notice of the humanitarian design efforts happening. Find ways to integrate our jobs into other professions and career paths. Find ways to show people what we have to offer.
I hope this can be the start of an interesting discussion! Thank you for your time!