Can Design Change the World?

Tanneeru, M. (2009). “Can Design Change the World?” CNN online. Retrieved June 23, 2010.

Summary: CNN talks to Warren Berger, who wrote the book “Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life and Maybe Even the World” about how greater communication through design can change the world. He shies away from speaking of this change in grandiose terms, seeking to differentiate his idea as one that stems from design’s problem-solving capabilities on a case-by-case basis.

Berger asserts that design, at its core, is more than making products or spaces look good, but rather, it seeks to identify a problem or an unaddressed need and solve it through a trial-and-error process.  It involves studying people and the way that they live to pinpoint ways in which their lives could be made better.  This is done through much brainstorming, prototyping, and audience testing.

The Internet has drastically changed the ways in which designers work, collaborate, and even identify themselves as designers.  Widespread access to information has meant that knowledge can be passed on from one person to another at a quicker rate—meaning that one person’s mistakes can be learned from and not repeated.  Social networking groups allow designers to connect to share information, give critiques and advice, and generally create supportive communities.  This has also given rise to “citizen designers,” people who may or may not be involved in the design world but nonetheless have the tools, curiosity, and knowledge from the Internet to make their own mark on the design world.  Essentially, the Internet has led to a democratization of design in which citizens and designers, engineers and scientists are able to come together through improved communication and opportunities for collaboration.

The trend now in design is to apply design concepts to more utilitarian goals.  The designer’s job is to focus the audience’s eye on exactly what is important and then give them the information needed to use the design to implement change in the situation/problem/behavior.  Berger says that saying design can change the world is intimidating to some niche designers and that to audiences, “it gets associated with being a Pollyanna and that the solutions are so easy.”  Instead, Berger says that design is fundamentally about taking little steps to improve life and address problems for everyone.  If people can identify how to harness solar energy for a village or how to improve water collection for irrigation of arid fields, then a small amount of the population will benefit.  Yet, by adding all of these little localized solutions together, we may in fact see widespread change.

USER GROUPS: In reading this article, it became clear to me how much collaboration on the Internet between designers and non-designers is essential to enact the “design as change” model Berger illustrates.  What seems interesting to me that while designers were differentiated, the “citizen designer” was not.  I wonder what affect cultural specific knowledge, p-prims, and other individualized aspects of personality will have on the feasibility of this widespread communicator, or if the anonymity of the Internet does in fact act as a true democratizing platform.

CONCEPTUAL DESIGN: Of course, it is important to address user needs when developing a product in order for it to be successful.  The interesting aspect of Berger’s argument is in that the “need” is highlighted as being more important than the aesthetic “want,” yet user-generated information is central to the trial and error process. Berger’s designer, whether amateur or professional, is told to address customer needs while at the same time directing their gaze to what is deemed important by the designer.  The takeaway for product designers is that the aspect of the product that needs to solve a problem becomes the most important issue—one that must be dealt with throughout all other aspects of the design as well as in regards to client/user relations.  The design is merely a means to a very specifically outlined end.

INTERACTION DESIGN: In the development of products the Internet is the tool identified as best suited for the “trial-and-error” aspect of design, as well as the most important tool to transfer information among designers and users.  This allows errors to be identified faster while at the same time letting support structures in the form of social networking sites, blogs, and forums aid in user support and design improvement.  At the same time, time and money constraints do not always allow for trial-and-error.

INTERFACE DESIGN: Berger asserts that user comprehension is at the heart of any designer’s goal for a product, yet he doesn’t address issues of cultural or personal incomprehension between user and designer.  When speaking about changing the world through technology and design that may help the world’s poor and afflicted populations, cultural differences and trans-cultural communication is key.  Since one of the most difficult aspects of design is getting the customer to understand the end product through interaction with the designer, it is imperative to understand the user’s background knowledge, cultural specificities, and roots of failure in order to anticipate communication issues and correct them.