Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 100, June 2011

The gift of design

After a hundred issues of XXI magazine it is time to celebrate. If we do it in a typical design magazine way, we could easily imagine a situation where every copy of the 100th issue of the magazine would include a small designed gift. It could be something fancy, a little plastic key ring by Karim Rashid or Alessi, or perhaps even something functional, like some elegant salad utensils, a solar-powered led torch or even a free ticket to the design biennale. Some would argue it is a waste, other would be happy to get a special present. All these gifts exhibit a central dilemma in design and I think we need to examine it further, as the act of giving is a central feature to our profession.

As designers we give shape to products (product design), and we also give form to services (service design). We give glamour to clothes (fashion design) and we give time to commuters as they save time our new bus system (transport design). We also give tools to the impoverished (social design) and give attention and resolve problems ignored by the official actors in society (political design). Coming to think of it, designers are really generous!

Of course most of us get paid for some of the work, but still a lot of the business of design is centred on pro-bono work, competitions or other ways to make designers donate a lot of their labour for free; hours, ideas and a lot of hard work. You can often hear designers complain about all extra and unpaid work they do, that they just give away as gifts somehow. People should be more thankful out there!

Nevertheless, it is time to rethink the driving forces of our gift giving habits. Especially in our time when it has become more and more popular to take on social and political issues, dealing with people directly rather than through intermediary objects. In some areas there seems to be a rush to help the marginalized or homeless, and even if some projects could exhibit traits of design-imperialism, most of them are honestly engaged in social issues. Yet this “social turn”, where design practice enters the realm of direct social engagement, makes it of essential importance to trace the driving forces of our commitment. What is really the context of the social practice of design?

Sometimes this gift design is described as a straightforward problem-solving activity and the result is judged accordingly. Other times design is a sort of charity, aiming to make the world a better place. We could perceive design as a gift from the generous mind of the designer to a world asking for a solution to some burning trouble.

Accordingly, one could argue that almost all design is social in some way. Ranging from the ideas of product service-systems or sustainability, function or ergonomics, inclusive or universal design, most forms of design have some form or “good” intentions towards users. If the result is not considered good it is usually blamed on various economic or ideological frameworks which have tuned the designs to various degrees of charitable success. And herein lies the dilemma; how can you make a gift that enables rather than pacifies? Even the most generous act of charity can never become justice.

Some argue design is a part of progress. Others would say design is part of the problem, having created the unsustainable, fragmented, individualistic and alienated world we live in today. The world is constantly changing and design is asking the question – why not try to influence the changing world somehow? Design is a human intervention to tune the flow of change in a more desirable direction. Design is this little act of bending or shaping of the world in becoming.

But we must better understand why we design, and what, and how it relates to the world. As designers we serve the world. People come to us for help. Sometimes the opposite happens; we see a need and we come in to help people solve it. Or we invent something totally new nobody understood they needed. Sometimes the world gets better, sometimes the planet gets worse. Sometimes suffering is reduced, sometimes the level of anxiety is increased. If we like to become better at reflecting about what we really do we should perhaps start by examining what and why we give design to the world.

It is time to think about the greed that is incarnated into almost every gift, even in the modest proposal of design. There is selfishness in every design project, in every photo throughout every design magazine, on every design fair and catwalk. What is it we crave for – and has our education just been a tool to amplify our egocentric opportunism?

It is time to think about that.

We should perhaps start re-examine three questions concerning the gift of design:

• Who am I that designs? – What are my motivations, interests and stakes in this design? What are my driving forces, and am I honest about those? Do I design this because it is a trend, because I think it is what others think I should do? Is it because others consider it “good”? Is it out of guilt? Do I do “good” to get a better reputation?

• Who is the receiver of my design? - Who is really the recipient of my design and in what context does the gift happen? Is this person really in need, and my act of giving a solution or band-aid to this problem really going to make things better? Does my gift actually reach the intended receiver or does it get stuck on the way? Does it corrupt or amplify unjust power-relations? Is my action and role here the best, or can it be reconsidered by shifting approach?

• What is the gift? – Is this new product or favour really serving us well in a larger context? Is it worth the effort? Is this incarnation of the gift the most efficient to reach the intended goal? Does it reduce suffering? Does the gift relieve pain, or does it cause it to others? Is a product the best way to deal with this issue, or would it be better to give time, energy, attention or kindness in other ways? Can we give the process of reconciliation or liberation? Or even more problematic; who has the right to give forgiveness?

We should also ask; when do we give? Is it only in the pro-bono projects? Is it the varnish we put on our unsustainable business or the social design we do to cover up the blood on our hands in our everyday practice to serve the powerful of an unjust global economy?

In his book about Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the American writer Richard Bach means that every problem has a gift awaiting us in its solution. We seek problems because we need their gifts, that is, the chase, answer or satisfying completion. Yet, not all gifts are so simple, as the gift of design involve other people and more interests than our own. If we examine our practice better and also learn to take the gift seriously we can become better designers. Perhaps our whole practice can be a gift, and perhaps we can learn to make every project a daily gift to the world, and not only to our own egos. Then it’s time to celebrate.


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