The dark side of design [and the light at the end of the tunnel]

Those who practice design, hire designers or deal with design issues, know that designers can be described as problem-solvers. Very often, the problems to be solved exceed the boundaries of the usual practice of design. Just to mention a couple of examples: meeting unrealistic deadlines imposed by the client’s agenda, or taking responsibility over our design “selling” or not, among others are very common challenges.

This maladjustment in business as usual between designers, clients, organizations and industry is a source for new problems, and it has its roots not only in our contemporary way to do business but also in our current way of educating future designers for this context.

While designers are trained to be problem-solvers, to be specialists and to act quickly and efficiently, an important part of the design role is missing in this approach. Designers can also be problem-identifiers –or just problem-oriented– preventing problems rather than just trying to solve them, or even worse, creating new problems as a side effect of poor solutions.

This do not only affect disciplines like industrial design or graphic design but also “the big D” of design, such as engineering or architecture. The “rush” for solving problems is not only produced by bureaucratic deadlines or miscalculated budgets. It is also a consequence of a modern way to approach and understand problems, a unidirectional and linear way of thinking that leads very often to terrible results. It is not uncommon to see in one degree or another designers assuming too much too soon, jumping to conclusions, approaching ill formulated problems, and applying short term vision where the only bottom-line is profit. Most of the goals are measured in terms of money and instrumented by a collective blurring of perception and very often systematic denial of the nature of the problems.

I posted once: “Not long ago, designers were eclectic generalists. They studied art, science and religion in order to understand the basic working of nature, and then applied what they learned to solve the problems of the day. Over time, the quantity and complexity of accumulated knowledge led to increase specialization among designers, and breadth of knowledge was increasingly traded for depth of knowledge. This trend continues today.1 The risk of this path is that designers often miss the holistic approach that traditional design practitioners use to have, and become tools for commercial interests rather than professionals advocated for the end users of design. As designers have become more specialized and market-oriented, awareness of advances and discoveries in different areas like social or environmental issues has diminished.”

Identifying the problems from the root

In Tarantino’s movie “Reservoir dogs”, Harvey Keitel plays the role of a guy that clean the mess of inconvenient murders in robberies, he’s a professional problem solver who does not ask too much about the nature of the problems. Designers, as in the movie, are very often hired –and very often too late– to clean up communication messes or make the mess look pretty, to create products  with the goal to make a company “greener” after being polluters for a century, or build new highways in order to avoid traffic problems created by previous highways. If we don’t ask “why this is happening” in the first place, we will fall in the trap and miss a huge part of the basic thinking needed to solve the problem.

Presenting a real case  helps to understand better the role designers can play as problem-identifiers. Let me mention one from my own experience. Last year I was informed about a new technology arriving to Edmonton, which would process waste in a way that does not pollute or create GHG emissions, transforming it in cheap and clean energy, with apparently no side-effects. My first reaction was euphoric. No emissions + cheap energy = perfect deal !. Then I realized, “wait a minute: more cheap energy from waste = more waste = more profit” Wouldn’t this solution lead to consume more or at least consume with no limits or regrets?Are Edmontonians enough responsible consumers in order to absorb such a change without this affecting their consuming behavior?  Is this what Edmonton needs to be a sustainable city? Would it be this new business equal profitable if we consume less?

Unfortunately, designers with more questions than answers are not part of executive meetings or marketing summits. We can be seen as dark lords bringing the bad news. Still, with a big quote of optimism, designers can be seen as leaders to better decisions. It is imperative for designers to insist in playing a pro-active role and help to distinguish what’s wrong from what’s right as much as we can. Surrounded by pessimistic darkness, is vital for new generation of designers to identify whether the light at the end of the tunnel is a sunny day or a train approaching.

1. Lidwell, Holden & Butler. (2003). Universal Principles of Design Beverly, Mass.: Rockport Publishers
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