Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?

Despite how optimistic, idealistic, and future-oriented most designers are, design has sometimes created big problems in the world. Even where our best intentions have been engaged, our outcomes have often fallen short—sometimes making matters worse— because we didn’t see the whole picture when creating what we envisioned. Where our best intentions haven’t been engaged or where we haven’t been well-enough informed, design has been dismal. The same is often true of other business functions like marketing, sales, op­erations, engineering, and so on. We are often responsible for making people feel terrible about themselves, only redeemable by buying this product or that service. In addition, we too

often contribute to a philosophy of “more is more” when it doesn’t deliver more value and when it simply wastes resources of all kinds.

Designers are taught to make “new” when it isn’t really better or when “old” doesn’t need replac­ing. Often, designers are complacent when their engineering and marketing colleagues suggest (or insist on) low quality over longev­ity, cheap materials, or bad usability.

A sad truth is that almost every solution de­signed today, even the most “sustainable” one, has more of a negative impact on the planet than a positive one. This means that the world would be better off if most of what was de­signed was never produced. This is changing, and it doesn’t have to be the case in the fu­ture, but we have a long way to go in order to change this pattern.

Designers are taught to make “new” when it isn’t really better or when “old” doesn’t need replacing.

For example, Fritjof Capra’s definition of sus­tainability is “human activity that does not in­terfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life.” This isn’t a bad definition, but it’s hazy as to how it assesses what does and doesn’t impede the environment. Can you name one thing produced that could be said not to “im­pede the Earth’s ability to support life”? If you take a systems perspective and acknowledge that all things are connected through the sys­tem, then every product that humans have cre­ated, from the industrial revolution on, could be cast as impeding the natural environment’s ability to function properly. This is why I don’t consider this to be a helpful guideline for de­sign. That said, it punctuates the impact de­signers have on the world and why we so dras­tically need to reframe the solutions we create into a larger context.

All design disciplines have too often focused on creating meaningless, disposable, trend­laden fashion items. My own design education was in automobile design, a discipline that’s

never been a flag-bearer of function over form. The very term planned obsolescence (for which design and marketing should be forever re­morseful for inventing and promoting) came from the car industry. But graphic design is no better, nor fashion design, nor even interac­tion design. We’re all guilty of having our col­lective attention diverted too often by trends, operational difficulties, or financial challenges. This means that all designers, no matter the experience or domain, can make things better. We can all be part of the solution as the popular saying from the 60s goes.

My friend Eric once explained to me that “fashion is for ugly people to have something special about them.” He’s right on more levels than he realizes.

For starters, it’s no secret that the most beauti­ful thing you can wear is an authentic smile, and that the most beautiful people among us would be just as beautiful barefoot or in bur­lap, rather than in Manolo Blahniks. We’re a weird species that will spend fortunes to have

the latest things, only to throw them away a season later, or spend our time and money on things that cover our bodies rather than make our bodies as healthy, fit, and beautiful as they naturally could be.

There are no ugly people—only impatient or mean or intolerant ones. This is the truth of fashion and design.

Quick, what’s the most beautiful complexion, the best height, the correct size of nose, and the right waistline? There is no more an “ugly” than there is one way to be in the world. People and industries create and maintain the whole concept of ugly just so they can sell often ri­diculous, temporary products and services to insecure, frustrated, scared, and vulnerable people—and none more so than tweens and teens. This is where the most damage is done and, in the interest of more sustainable futures, where we need to start correcting the problem.

I have no problem with fashion or the part of design that focuses on appearance. Trends, in fact, can be fun, like a party or a film or a desti-

nation you visit. But let’s not mistake them for more substantial design. They aren’t a replace­ment for quality, valuable, or meaningful solu­tions. Fashion, at its best, is about responding to people’s desires, aspirations, and the real­ity of materials and the human body within a cultural context in ways that accentuate our better selves. Too often, design has been the mechanism of “cheap and dirty” or “fast and dirty,” and it has been used as a weapon to hurt people (emotionally and even physically) just as much as it has been used to enable and inspire them.

There are no ugly people—only im­patient or mean or intolerant ones.

This is the truth of fashion and de­sign.

Consider the mainstays of women’s fashions. Seasons and trends come and go but two constants sold to women as the foundation of beauty are makeup and stiletto heels. For centuries, women have been told that they are at their most beautiful when they cover their skin with a patina of pore-clogging, often toxic, substances. Ironically and sadly, these very materials often ruin their skin years before the natural effects of age occur, making for worse complexions and requiring (seemingly) even more of the stuff that caused the problem in the first place. Foundation and heavy makeup has, thankfully, fallen out of fashion in the past few decades, yielding to a desire for more “natural” beauty, but many women are still taught that the first step to looking pretty is to cover up their skin and start with a blank canvas. Yet, when we think of authentic beauty, the examples mostly offered are those of youthful and athletic people. Advertisements would have you believe that the most beautiful people in the world rely on

Makeup and Stilettos (continued)

makeup, diets, and questionable home exercise equipment when these same models themselves don’t use what they promote.

Stilettos and most other “high” heels are the same. They exist to fool women that they will be more attractive by buying products that actually ruin their feet, posture, and backs over time. While they sometimes serve functions other than fashion (such as giving women a bit more height), this could be accomplished by fashionably thick-soled shoes instead. That women regularly torture and destroy their bodies in the name of fashion, not to mention often flirting with accidents from tripping, speaks to how deeply this false view of beauty is rooted in our culture.

Sure, it can be fun to “dress up” in costumes once in a while, using makeup and clothing to temporarily play a role. I have no issue with this. However, those who habitually trade their health and natural beauty in for fashion solutions that

Makeup and Stilettos (continued)

actually harm both are playing a sad game. And those who promote this behavior are fooling themselves if they think they’re making people more beautiful.

Design at its best, however, focuses on people and seeks to understand what it can offer them to make their lives better in some way. Despite the celebrity designers foisted upon us by the design industry, successful design isn’t about some personal vision spun out and overlaid onto the world to make it seem shiny and new. Successful design is careful and considered.

It responds to customers/users/participants/ people, market, company, brand, environment, channel, culture, materials, and context. The most successful design is inseparable from these criteria. The most meaningful design is culturally and personally relevant, and we respond to it on the deepest levels. The best design also has a future. It is sustainable.

Design can be all of this. It needs to be all of this.

It should be clear by now what I mean by design is the problem. Design that is about ap­pearance, or margins, or offerings and market segments, and not about real people—their needs, abilities, desires, emotions, and so on—that’s the design that is the problem. The design that is about systems solutions, intent, appropriate and knowledgeable integration of people, planet, and profit, and the design that, above all, cares about customers as people and not merely consumers—that’s the design that can lead to healthy, sustainable solutions.

Get over the guilt or shock or outrage or em­barrassment or disagreement now, because none of it will be useful to you going forward. And we have a lot of work to do.

Design that is only about appear­ance, or margins, or offerings and market segments, and not about real people—their needs, abilities, desires, emotions, and so on.—that’s the de­sign that is the problem.


Updated: September 23, 2015 — 9:12 pm