The Rise of the Compassionate Designer

Jon Kolko posted two bullet points in his syllabus on Monday that struck me:

  • What is the role of the designer in shaping culture
  • Given that the designer’s impact on society is diffused

The first bullet point reminded me of a 2009 article by Holland Cotter in the NYTimes, “The Boom is Over, Long Live the Art,” in which Mr. Cotter discussed the strength, newness and weight of art made during past periods of U.S. economic downturn, and during times of U.S. economic boom, art’s existence as something more akin to retail than expressive world-altering vocalization:

“The Reagan economy was creating vast supplies of expendable wealth, and the East Village became a brand name. Suddenly galleries were filled with expensive, tasty little paintings and objects similar in variety and finesse to those in Chelsea now. They sold. Limousines lined up outside storefront galleries. Careers soared. But the originating spark was long gone.”

This idea of “expensive, tasty little paintings” extends to our current consumer design goods: polite, inoffensive commodities like iPads, iPhones, or highly-curated commuter bikes. When one applies Holland Cotter’s art opinion to these design objects, they are easily digestible goods that lack the zing of the originating spark.  That zing is the ability of an object, a piece of art, or an idea, to shake and alter its surroundings for the good. The tidy Chelsea paintings were beautiful and alluring but did little to improve the status quo. Only when the stock market crash of 1987 shattered the art market (the same way it did again in 2008) were new voices, from previously marginalized populations, able to come to the fore. In the post crash ’80s and early ’90s, new voices gained foothold: gay and lesbian artists, feminist artists, Black artists, Asian artists, and Latino/Latina artists. In the absence of the dominant retail structures of the Chelsea art world, voices that were “unsellable” were allowed to surface. And in bringing to their art their recognition of personal struggle, these voices propelled everyone forward into a new awareness of race, class, gender and sexuality.

Socially just interaction design is a similar voice emerging. As we have watched once-solid economic structures crack, we realize the need for new approaches, not just in design of consumer goods or art-making, but in the way we operate within society. This is the rise of the compassionate designer. A designer now needs to operate within society with a wise and aware presence. They must acknowledge weighty problems with clear vision and permeate those problems with possibility.

Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke on this need for societal shift in 1967 and it is deeply relevant still:

“We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

The concept of the double or triple bottom line (people, planet, profit) builds this possibility. When designers and artists (and businesses) can gauge their success based on amount of world-change in addition to cash-change created, we will have stretched much farther towards a “person-oriented” and planet-oriented society.

On to Jon Kolko’s second bullet point:

  • Given that the designer’s impact on society is diffused.

Designers are privileged to be in a position that allows them to create possibility. In this way, designers actually have a less diffuse impact on society than the average citizen. Having an impact is a compassionate designer’s job. A compassionate designer must make things that will change things. And if you remove the “things,” then the job is just to make change. Since even the smallest gestures on a day to day basis alter one’s surroundings, focused action on deliberately altering your surroundings only produces more. The more deliberate designers can be, the more intention they have towards real and productive change, the more they will accomplish. The call to action isn’t just, “work for the good,” it is “deliberately, decisively work for the good.” Any less isn’t fair to this big, messy planet we’re living on. That’s how radical, positive change is produced- through appreciation for the mess and fervent dedication to improving it. Holland Cotter had a proposition for how art students could be better equipped to do this:

“Why not make studio training an interdisciplinary experience, crossing over into sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, poetry and theology? Why not build into your graduate program a work-study semester that takes students out of the art world entirely and places them in hospitals, schools and prisons, sometimes in-extremis environments, i.e. real life? My guess is that if you did, American art would look very different than it does today.”

The program at AC4D is doing just that. We are designing in, and for, “real life” and opting to improve it. As we learn the skills to be interaction designers we are simultaneously learning how to do this work within the wonderful mess of the world. There is plenty to recognize and improve. Let’s get to work.