Oct 22, 2010

Why Design Now?

In a 2007
blog entry, I compared the last National Design Triennial, Design Life Now, with another exhibition, Design for the Other 90%, also at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum:

“While Design Life Now: The National Design Triennial takes up the former Carnegie mansion's interiors, curator Cynthia Smith's Design for the Other 90% is, fittingly perhaps, situated outside in the garden. Coming out onto the lawn from the Triennial, the first thing that struck me about Design for the Other 90% is that it isn't a particularly aesthetically-pleasing exhibition (though this may be more of a reflection on the Triennial than on this exhibition). It also seems rather small, tucked away in a corner of the garden. But it's a start. The exhibition's premise is simple but confronting: most of what we think of as design is produced for a small fraction of the world's population with large disposable incomes. Indeed, much of the work in the vast Design Life Now falls into this category of design that serves the world's wealthiest 10%, design that Cooper-Hewitt director Barbara Bloemink describes as "design for desires rather than genuine needs" (Design for the Other 90%, exhibition catalogue, p.6), hence both the great volume and the aesthetic overload of Design Life Now.”

Three years later, the most recent National Design Triennial,
Why Design Now?, confirms a significant shift in the way design is popularly perceived and publicly promoted, as projects that were formerly relegated to the garden now occupy center stage at the Cooper-Hewitt (and, not coincidently, Cynthia Smith joined the curatorial team for this Triennial). After the economic bubble finally burst, the designer decades seem to be over and “design for desire” passé. In contrast to the last Triennial, Why Design Now? “celebrates the transformative power of design” (catalogue, p. 11) and the commonsense definition of design as the production of material artefacts has given way to a definition of design as a means to facilitate social and environmental change. Phrases such as “carbon neutral”, “environmental footprint” and “system in crisis” are scattered throughout the exhibition and its associated literature, acknowledging design’s direct engagement with urgent environmental, social, economic, and cultural issues.

In a recent heated discussion with a colleague, we both agreed that Why Design Now? has a retro feel, but whereas she thought the exhibition was simply a throwback to the 1960s and 70s, I thought it was also contemporary. Theoretically, the retro turn evident in the Triennial is best encapsulated by three themes (associated with practice and research of earlier designers and theorists):

Design as interdisciplinary and visionary (Buckminster Fuller).
Design as socially and environmentally engaged (Victor Papanek).
Design as transformative action (Herbert Simon).

Of course, these themes are interconnected, and transformative design that is socially and environmentally engaged is necessarily located at the nexus of interrelated fields (particularly science, technology, ecology, culture, and economics). While on the one hand, the Triennial contained visionary projects which imagined possible sustainable futures (reminiscent of Fuller), on the other, there were also modest interventions based on an action-oriented, pragmatic approach founded on social experience (reminiscent of Papanek). However, these ideas have been adopted and adapted by new generations of designers responding to rapidly changing global conditions.

Why Design Now? was divided into eight sections – Energy, Mobility, Community, Materials, Prosperity, Health, Communication, and Simplicity – and included design projects from the local or geographically specific to large-scale urban planning and mass communication. The familiar figure of an individual designer creating material artefacts for a consumer marketplace was replaced by collaborative teams, often global in membership, co-creating with communities as a means to a more desirable future. In a commitment to environmental principles, even the exhibition design and materials used for display – the furniture and carpet tiles, informational panels and graphics, for example – utilized sustainable materials and/or processes.

The first section, Prosperity, featured design projects that enable local communities to create (and hopefully maintain) “engines of prosperity”. Working with traditional low-tech craft processes and materials in Central Java, for example, Indonesian designer Singgih Kartono’s
Magno wooden radios are produced by local farmers. Having lost their livelihoods to global economic forces, the farmers now confront such forces head on, by exporting a locally made, sustainable product. Similarly bridging the local and global, Nokia’s Open Studio project involves an interdisciplinary team of designers and researchers working with communities in informal settlements in Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, and Accra (Ghana) to co-design useful mobile devices.

Energy featured post-petroleum solutions, from reductionist approaches such as improved light bulbs and more efficient solar and wind energy generation systems, to visionary projects such as the
bioWAVE Ocean Wave Energy System, an attempt to harness energy from tidal movements. Mobility also focused on design and engineering innovations for a post-petroleum world, from the French AGV high-speed, energy-efficient train made from 98% recycled material, to innovative bicycles and the new New York City Bike Hoop Racks (see photo above). Both sections contained direct responses, either reductive or innovative, to the looming environmental crisis, with designers working closely with engineers and scientists.

Somewhat predictably, Communication featured the iPhone, Twitter, and Kindle, but less predictably,
Etsy, an online global marketplace that connects producers of hand crafted products directly with consumers, a potential connection with the previous Prosperity section. Less glamorous, Clearview Hwy Typeface, by designers Donald Meeker and James Montalbano, is a further example of collaborative research (particularly psychological and engineering research) where a team has improved upon the 1940s Highway Gothic standard highway signage system. Upstairs, Materials focused on recycled, sustainable (largely renewable, natural) materials for packaging, domestic and commercial furnishings, fashion, and textiles.

Health brought together a diverse range of projects, from a South African condom applicator, to
Healthmap, an accessible, global disease monitoring system. As well as new medical and health-related products, it also featured infrastructure projects such as the water accessibility project, Ripple Effect, by IDEO and the Acumen Fund. Beginning in India and expanding to East Africa, Ripple Effect is a network that connects local communities, NGOs and suppliers in order to provide safe drinking water in such a way that builds local capacity for infrastructure, distribution and purification. Simplicity featured design artefacts that used minimal materials and/or means, the most memorable was surely New Zealander Greg Holdsworth’s biodegradable casket, Return to Sender, a coffin made from sustainable plywood and wool, described by the designer as “an elegant, eco-iconic form that honors the deceased and allows their final footprint to be a small one.” (Why Design Now? catalogue, p.183)

Finally, Community featured mostly architectural and urban design projects, including MVRDV’s intriguing proposal for the
Vertical Village, Taipei, an unbuilt urban village comprising various building typologies drawn from improvised rooftop structures and informal community facilities common in Chinese cities. More concretely, Michael Maltzan’s recently completed New Carver Apartments in Los Angeles integrates medical, social and communal facilities into a new living space for the city’s homeless, while the city of Medellin was displayed as an exemplary site of urban transformation. The formerly violent drug capital of Columbia has been transformed over the past six years by urban projects such as public parks, community facilities, schools and childcare facilities, and a light rail system.

Why Design Now? featured numerous examples of the direct impact of design through social engagement and inter-disciplinary collaboration, and design’s transformative potential in changing behaviour patterns, activating informal economies, and opening up new possibilities. Beyond the production of material artefacts, design’s potential for social innovation and building sustainable communities is necessarily political. But, as
Cameron Tonkinwise recently suggested, “what happens if design-based social innovation is not just a way of avoiding conventional, explicit politics, but a way of undermining politics altogether?” While undermining politics altogether might be wishful thinking, I think Tonkinwise has a point, as many of the projects featured in the Triennial operate pragmatically, building alliances outside (or between) existing institutions and infrastructures in order to try and make a difference. Finally, to bring it back to the personal: I leave many design exhibitions feeling like I want to go out and buy something; I left Why Design Now? feeling like I want to go out and do something.


Ellen Lupton, Cara McCarthy, Matilda McQuaid and Cynthia Smith (eds.), Why Design Now?: National Design Triennial, New York: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, 2010.

Cynthia Smith (ed), Design for the Other 90%, New York: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, 2007.

Photo of NYC Bike Hoop on 5th Ave, Brooklyn, by D.J. Huppatz