How designers are exploring the subject’s elemental role as an agent of political and social change
Intrepid, generous and subversive, László Moholy-Nagy is one of my favourite characters in design history. Who could resist the Hungarian artist and intellectual that wore a factory boiler suit to signify his zest for technology while teaching at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, when he allowed women to study whatever they wished, including subjects previously reserved for men? After moving to the US in 1937, he welcomed African-Americans to his Chicago design school at a time when the city’s education system was largely segregated. Wherever he was, Moholy-Nagy flung himself into experimentation: from pioneering the then-new media of film and photography; to investigating their impact on daily life.
Moholy-Nagy also championed an unusually eclectic and enlightened vision of design that liberated it from the constraints of the commercial role it had played since the Industrial Revolution by redefining it as an improvisational medium rooted in instinct, ingenuity, resourcefulness and open to everyone. He summed this up in Vision in Motion, a book published in 1947 a year after his death, with the phrase: ‘Designing is not a profession but an attitude.’
My new book is entitled Design as an Attitude partly as a tribute to Moholy-Nagy, and because those words sum up so much of the work it describes at a thrilling, yet intensely challenging time for design, when the discipline itself and our relationship to it are changing dramatically.
As design has adopted many different meanings at different times and in different contexts, it seems sensible to begin by defining it. In all of its guises, design has always had one elemental role as an agent of change that helps us to interpret changes of any type – social, political, economic, scientific, technological, cultural, ecological, or whatever – to ensure that they will affect us positively, not negatively.
Design as an Attitude explores how designers, professional and otherwise, are responding to the changes of unprecedented speed and scale we face on so many fronts. Some of those designers are addressing the traditional challenge of identifying constructive uses for new technologies, albeit with the added urgency of protecting us from the dangers of ever more complex and powerful innovations. Others are wrestling with the environmental or refugee crises, reinventing dysfunctional areas of health care and social services, or combating inequality, intolerance and injustice.
The chief catalyst for these experiments – apart from the determination and vigour of the individuals concerned – is the availability of inexpensive digital tools that have transformed the practice and possibilities of design. Designers can raise capital from crowdfunding, and manage huge quantities of complex data on affordable computers. They can use social media to flush out collaborators, suppliers and fabricators, and to generate media coverage. Individually, each of these changes would have an influence on design, but collectively they have proved metamorphic. Today’s designers also benefit from the recognition that established methodologies are no longer fit for purpose in important fields such as social services, health care, economic development and disaster relief, making the experts in those sectors increasingly amenable to new approaches.
The boldest attitudinal design project is the Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch non-profit, which aims to tackle one of our biggest pollution problems by clearing plastic trash from the oceans. It was founded in 2013 by a design engineering student Boyan Slat, who has since raised over $30 million to design, prototype and test his concept. Despite criticism from scientists, who claim it won’t work, and ecological concerns that it could damage marine life, the dazzlingly ambitious Ocean Cleanup is scheduled to go live in the Pacific Great Garbage Patch this autumn.
Not that politically engaged designers need millions of dollars to effect change. The Talking Hands project in Treviso in northern Italy, was founded by a graphic designer Fabrizio Urettini to provide training and tools with which young male migrants and asylum seekers can learn new design and making skills, and improve their existing ones. The goal is to help them to use their time productively, to earn money by selling their products at nearby fairs and festivals, and, eventually, to find jobs. The workshops are run by designer volunteers, who have encouraged the participants to set up a repair service, thereby forging a rapport with local people while earning extra cash.
Just as Moholy-Nagy envisaged designers to engage with different disciplines by collaborating with specialists from other fields, as the Ocean Cleanup does with scientists and ecologists, and Talking Hands with local politicians, he expected the reverse to happen and for those people to experiment with design.
Among them are the Pakistani doctors, Sara Khurram and Iffat Zafar, who have used their instinctive design ingenuity to improve the quality of health care. Pakistan has a severe shortage of women doctors, because female medical students come under intense pressure to marry, have children and stop work after graduating. Khurram and Zafar have devised Sehat Kahani, a national network of teleclinics for Pakistani women who would prefer not to be treated by men. Female doctors practice from their homes by examining women patients in local clinics on live video links. The patients are accompanied by nurses, who then arrange their treatment.
Design has not traditionally been seen as an obvious solution to health care shortages, plastic pollution or refugee crises. Nor were independent designers expected to raise as much start-up capital as USD$30 million to mount epic ecological ventures on the scale of the Ocean Cleanup. Even now, more people are likely to perceive design as a styling device, or as a reason why oceans are clogged with plastic trash, rather than as a means of clearing it away. These stereotypes will only be quashed, if design proves its worth. Why else would politicians and NGOs consider it capable of helping asylum seekers to settle into new communities, or to develop more efficient global systems of managing waste? And why would doctors, like Khurram and Zafar, continue to experiment with it? Design will only be empowered to playing a more meaningful role in our lives, as Moholy-Nagy envisaged, if it proves that it deserves to do so, by being deployed wisely and sensitively.
Design as an Attitude by Alice Rawsthorn is published by JRP | Ringier today. The book is based on the ‘By Design’ columns she wrote for frieze from 2014 to 2017. You can read them all in full here.
Main image: Talking Hands design and making workshop for refugees and migrants in Treviso, Italy, 2017. Courtesy: Matteo de Mayda