Thoughts on GOOD Design (and Good Design) and Social Responsibility
March 7, 2011
GOOD Design Bay Area helps connect designers with real-world problems

In the spring of 2004, I was a grad student at UC Berkeley, and about half way toward a master's degree in architecture. I'd already been having doubts about the program, and my future as an architect, when I didn't get my first pick for a class and ended up in a blobitecture studio with a visiting professor from Columbia who had made a name for herself designing, uh, plastic-looking blobs based on forms supposedly found in nature. The design studios at Berkeley were on the top floor of a Brutalist nine-story tower that hovered above the rest of campus. Looking out the window, the world seemed far away, and people looked small and insignificant. Humans are hard to draw, and even harder to Photoshop, and so we often left them out of drawings. Luckily my assignment at the time -- tracing the outlines of wood on a microscopic image of tree bark -- didn't require humans. In fact, it didn't require much more than a set of $75 pens and a steady hand. How had I entered this academic silo, I wondered -- so separate from the real world, real problems, real people -- so very far from the things that actually matter?

The reason I love the GOOD Design series, a program started in 2008 by contributing editor Alissa Walker, is because it's the antithesis of being holed up in a design studio, obsessing over aesthetic minutia. GOOD Design proves how far the design world has come -- in an astonishingly short amount of time (we're talking less than a decade since I was in grad school) -- toward being a more connected, purposeful and socially conscious profession. (And if the student exhibition hosted last year by SPUR is any evidence, I think design schools are catching up.) It feels like many designers are having their "finally!" moment where their skills and talents are being recognized as more than the ability to make pretty things, but also to help solve big, real-world problems for real people in need. Designers are becoming partners to government and business leaders, innovators, NGO's, foundations and citizens, all of whom have a stake in finding new ways to view and tackle social problems. And more than a feel-good movement, the pairing of design and social responsibility is now core to design practice, how design firms market and brand themselves, and to their profitability. It's a little weird for design firms not to be engaged with social issues in some way -- whether around environmental and climate change issues, government transparency, job growth, education, poverty or disaster relief. Actually it's more than weird. It's bad business!

GOOD Design Bay Area, a program co-produced last fall by GOOD, SPUR and AIA San Francisco, is a story of unlikely pairings and little surprises. I love that conversations between leaders and designers started before and went beyond the event night. (If you missed the program, all of the presentations are now online, thanks to SPUR intern Micah Hilt's video chops. If you prefer written over spoken words, read Alissa Walker's, right here.) Some conversations, like the problem presented by Kevin Connolly of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority to Brute Labs, even turn into real partnerships. Unobvious problem-designer pairings, like the American Red Cross's need to publicize the location of neighborhood disaster supply stations, and Brian Singer's low-tech solution, remind us of the power of a good idea. The Civil Twilight duo of Kate Lydon and Anton Willis applied their motto of "brilliant simplicity" to an outreach campaign to get the public excited about solar hot water for California Public Utilities Commission program director Molly Sterkle. Nader Shabahangi, a real estate developer moonlights as a psychotherapist for seniors, starts his presentation off with a poem, and gets an equally poetic design response from landscape architect Sarah Kuehl.

What excites me most about good design (lowercase "g" and "d") paired with social mandate, aside from its potential to improve the world, is how it will transform design education. It's simply impossible to structure a design course or curriculum around socially responsible design while leaving human beings and the factors that both improve and ruin their lives in the margins. In the same way that design is becoming integral to furthering a cause or solving a problem, these causes and problems are helping designers focus on the most meaningful aspects of their profession. It's a great time to be a designer. No $75 pens necessary.

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