Can design save the world? Spend enough time around the likes of Alejandro Aravena and you might be swayed to believe so. The Elemental project he so eloquently walked us through at this year's Design Indaba demonstrates how clear thinking and application of design principles can transform social welfare from a budgetary black hole into an investment that ultimately pays itself off.
Make the house half full, not half empty
Charged with housing 100 poor families on a plot of land big enough for half that number, with a similarly small government subsidy, Aravena conceived of building, rather than a half-sized house, simply half the house, in a way that the residents could later complete the second half themselves. The trick was to build the half that was, in his words, the most difficult for the residents to achieve on their own. That focused his efforts on the main supporting structure of the buildings and a configuration that allowed future expansion into the negative spaces between neighbouring homes.
Not only were these homes able to be built within budget, but on urban inner-city land worth three times as much as the unwanted outer-limits plots typically allocated for low-cost housing. This kept the homes close to transport, services and jobs, which, together with the residents' own additions, had the homes valued at $20 000 a year after they were built at a cost of $8 500.
This project demonstrates how powerful and important design can be in tackling the issues facing us in the 21st century.
I'll dwell on two more fascinating examples presented at the Design Indaba.
The first came from J. Craig Venter, a surprise presenter, and not the first name on most creatives' list of must-hear speakers. The man behind the decoding of the human genome would appear better suited to a medical conference, but his satellite-linked talk raised the tantalising prospect of designing life itself.
Today’s sketch is tomorrow’s microbe
Having cracked the code of human DNA, his research institute is now focusing its energy on encoding custom-designed DNA to create new organisms that could hold the key to sustainable, renewable sources of food, fresh water and energy. While Venter believes a major breakthrough is imminent, I’m not holding my breath in anticipation. But if and when his team succeeds in delivering the power to create new forms of life, design will take a central role in determining what to do with that power. For now this remains in the realm of fantasy, but it does hint at design's importance in the future.
Doing business in the Design economy
From Welcome-to-the-World-of-Tomorrow!-design, Bruce Nussbaum outlined design's importance now, in the nuts-and-bolts world of business. According to him, major changes in the world's social and economic make-up, from the rise of China, India and other nations in relation to the incumbent Western powers' decline, to the maturing of a generation immersed in a digital lifestyle, have made design 'the most important business competence you can have'.
The homogeneity of cultures brought about by globalisation and over-exposure to Western influences is dying, and diversity is flourishing. This makes it harder to do business on a global platform, forcing companies to work much harder at communicating with a diverse audience. This is where design comes into its own, helping businesses structure their activities to be more open and more responsive.
'Design has moved from focusing on artifacts, on stuff, to designing social systems,' says Nussbaum, and as such he dubs it the most appropriate tool to stimulate economic growth. There is no better example of this potential than Aravena's Elemental project.
Nussbaum's area of focus is more in the business world than in social responsibility, but it's worth noting that running a 'good' business is good for business today, thanks to the same factors Nussbaum attributes to design's rise to prominence. And it's through design thinking that businesses can find a way not only to pull themselves out of the red, but to contribute positively to their environment.
But what about the beauty?
The likes of Aravena, Venter and Nussbaum present a grand vision for design as a tool for good, for change, for 'a better world through creativity', which happens to be Design Indaba's motto. I came out of their presentations hopeful and inspired by the gloriously designed future they present. But what to make of the designers whose work isn't so blatantly altruistic? How do the Handspring Puppet Company's magical horses and giraffes, or Harry Pearce's witty typographic conundrums, or Troika's mesmerising Cloud installation make for a better world?
The art of design
Stefan Bucher answered this question in his own quirky manner. The designer behind the Daily Monster explained how he embraces commercial work to let his keep his brain occupied: 'I take on tasks given to me by others to get out of my head'. For Bucher, kerning type and laying out Modernist grids are the easy work: 'Flush left is like a warm bath… Retouching calms the brain'.
But the hard work, the rewarding work, Bucher's labour of love, is his illustration work. He practices 'greed control' to allow himself the financial freedom to focus on his monsters. Why? Any creative person can relate to the urge to create beautiful things, but its role extends beyond that personal drive.
Museums are for art, not Sumerian accounting spreadsheets
Designers love to talk about being at the table with the decision-makers in business and in society. But before that stage, we have to recognise that we are artists, says Bucher, 'because we see things that others don't see. Things come to us and we must give them shape, and translate them for the rest of the world… What we have to contribute to society is far from trivial.' For all the talk of design thinking and innovative business practices and creative processes, it's the art that will endure, that will capture the hearts and minds of generations to come. For that reason, 'sometimes you have to do what's most dear to you, and most fun'.
The Design Indaba sends a clear message that creativity plays different, equally valid, and equally necessary, roles. I have the deepest admiration for those designers that are actively contributing to solving the world's social, ethical and economic ills. They really give hope that design can save the world. But I'm not ready to step up to that challenge. I take my cues from the wit, charm and beauty of the Pearces, Buchers and Troikas of the world — if I can create work that captures someone's imagination, steals a moment's breath, elicits a smile just for a minute, I will have contributed to a better world through creativity.