Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 102, Sept 2011

Strategic aesthetics for social design

What are the tools for social design, and what are the methods? Can we apply the classic design tools to social issues?

If we review some typical projects addressing social issues, designers primarily thinks one step ahead, or about the immediate problem and its solution. Yes, often designers are encouraged to “open” the problem and redefine the brief, thus readdressing the problem specifications – and perhaps solving more of the issue at stake than the mere problem itself or its expression. Designers learn to handle more dimensions of design.

But when approaching social issues, design needs to take even one step further away from the problem – getting fresh eyes from a distance, but still keep the hands dirty in action. But perhaps the “social” aspect of the problem lies not in design at all, at least not in products or services, but in larger social issues or strategic collaborations on regional scale, and thus a little outside the toolbox of the everyday designer.

Itten's colour wheel
Itten's colour wheel from the Bauhaus - but what colour harmonies does the social have?

A common approach when design goes social is to see how a product can solve a social issue. A common approach is to address the problem through the normal design paradigm, that is, designing and selling an object: can a marginalized group in society produce a new fresh designed object to earn money? A cynic would notice how some projects involving homeless people which try to turn them into independent entrepreneurs, selling the homeless-magazine, as a neo-liberal marketing boot camp for the marginalized. “Every man for himself.” Similarly, poor minorities get design help to make objects from recycled materials, as in the case of many development and design projects in Africa, only to receive a fraction of the retail price noted in some posh up-market charity store.

The cynic has made the point clear and often this perspective of making or selling objects from locally sourced materials and skills does not reach far enough towards its intended destination. What is often missed is a strategic overview of the social field, the market and its alternatives.

Let’s take an example of designers engaging with craft for local development. The designer makes an inventory into the local skills, patterns and craft expressions and helps design a new more contemporary and attractive product. The new products are to be exported to a trendy store, or sold directly to tourists to get more of the money circulating into the local economy. In this process the crafter will earn some money and hopefully more tourists will be attracted in the long run and more even people can survive on their craft. But most often it is still the tourist agency, transport company and hotels that makes the most money in the community, as they manage to attract and bind several purchases to their business, while the poor crafters only get a fraction of the tourist’s spending: the price of the little crafted product.

What if the social design task was more clearly about binding the tourist paycheck closer to the poor? Then social designers have to do their math. Yes, it is amazing to help the poverty-stricken crafters to make fantastic stuff, and even better to help their self-esteem rise with the appreciation shown by making their hard-earned craftsmanship attractive. But we could be better at also following the money and the self-respect of earning an income brings. Perhaps the poor don’t need so much a new product as much as a concept of making their cooking attractive, making sure people buy the full menu – and perhaps even staying overnight? Some simple math would show how the minor incomes of a small souvenir is by far outmatched by a full meal or a modest hotel stay. Otherwise that market is only left to the big fish.

So what tool could be useful for a more strategic perspective on social design? Well first we need to get our hands dirty and acknowledge that even the social aspect of design needs to intersect with money, and we must be better at getting the community livelihoods, and more, covered. But we should not surrender to economists or fall back on classic balance-sheets but must follow the money and its “ecology”; its impacts and possibilities. Microcredits is just one method of many. Money or the market economy are created by man and can thus be redesigned. In a similar vein, communities shape “social capital”, and we need to better understand how such processes are constituted. If our resources are social, we must not deplete them like what is now done to our natural resources. If we are to work with materials like “trust” and “solidarity” or “empowerment” and “community”, we need to trace and map out how these ecologies intersect with the rest of society.

life drawing class at the Royal Academy - CW Cope
Life drawing at the Royal Academy by CW Cope - we can draw a man, but how do we draw social relations?

To develop new design tools we need to make sense of the social matter of design, the aesthetics of our material, the “social plastics”. To return to its Greek root, “aesthetikos”, or perceptible things, we must make the social perceptible, and indeed learn to treat the social as an aesthetic in itself. Just like design has always worked with the form and function of beautiful things, we can learn to work with the aesthetics of the social, or the perceptible beauty of the social. As all designers learn to draw colour-circles, sketching techniques or design literacy in their first years of study, and use these skills to cultivate their artistic “intuition”, we must develop the social literacy techniques to shape social ecologies in a multitude of aesthetic ways.

As corporate designers today set out to create experiences, emotions and services, routinely embracing a genius role to articulate their artistic leadership, we must be better at rendering other designer-roles visible, yet no less aesthetic than the previous. While some social designers and entrepreneurs make good money on good causes, we must not focus on the wrong object at their hands. The object is neither the product itself, nor the hands of the marginalized maker. The real object produced is a new social circuit, an assembly of social capital, materials, skills and energies. It is a new object, made from social matter. With a new design they are connected in new ways. It is the aesthetics of this object we must study, cultivate and learn to remodel.

The social does not need more products, even if these are produced by the poor and create some better livelihoods. The social is made of another matter and the social designer must learn to dig deeper into the aesthetical matters of the social.


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