It has been a hectic month here in the United States: a month of unspeakable hurricane devastation, two Supreme Court nominations and just this morning, a national address by our President reinforcing the White House's steadfast support of our nation's continuing involvement in Iraq. It is difficult, perhaps even impossible to locate design issues of critical consequence at a time like this. And as someone who spends a considerable amount of time driving and listening to the radio with young children who require further clarification ("Mommy, what's a referendum?") I am hard put to understand where and if design plays a role in this larger maelstrom of political, social, judicial and economic activity.
Enter the Citizen Designer the person who sees design as more than just a problem solving activity, who acknowledges and uses design as a persuasive tool for the public good and who, to quote Milton Glaser in a recent lecture, responds by becoming more active in civic life. Simply put, this means being a human being first, a designer second. And it seems to me that if enough of us do this, we become a critical mass an entire civilization of engaged citizens.
So how many citizen designers will it take to enact Design Reform?
The notion of Design Reform like education reform, tax reform and welfare reform suggests a reconsideration of the purpose as well as the practice of something essential to our well-being: in this case, design. Design Reform is less about the nomenclature definining sub-genres within our professions and more a function of the totality, the sum of our multiple parts. Design Reform is about optimism, not terrorism; about engagement, not elitism; and about the communicative strengths the clarity and sense of purpose that lie at the core of every peace treaty ever enacted.
Clearly, designers have long engaged in acts of political activism: indeed, ours is a rich paper trail of dissent, from broadsides to posters to Tshirts to video installations to public art projects to Class Action to Gran Fury the list is a long one. But Design Reform is not only characterized by visual displays of civic expression, but by empathy and compassion, humor and ingenuity, and perhaps most of all, the ability to recognize and respond to basic need. The cumulative efforts of a number of designers helping other designers displaced by Hurricane Katrina had less to do with making cool posters and more to do with making phone calls to help these people get resettled. It was and is a compelling testament to the power of citizenship, otherwise known as strength in numbers.
There are many factors contributing to Design Reform, beginning with the economics framing the design professions. Statistically, there is every reason to expect that design will become more democratized and certainly more decentralized by mid-century, with advances in telecommunications and technology enabling citizen non-designers (read "civillians") to produce designed things without designers. It is perhaps worth remembering that we are not now, nor have we ever been, licensed to practice. (An Amazon search on the term "non-designers" resulted in 97, 208 books addressing precisely this apparently sizeable demographic.) There are questions of method and medium, of authorship, leadership, even sponsorship. These are topics of considerable importance to everyone, not only visual practitioners: but to the degree that society is changing, it seems fair to suggest that our role in society must change, too.
Issues relating to education in the context of Design Reform are perhaps deserving of their own post, and while the history, principles and discipline of design remain worthy of our vigilance as educators, what value do we place on teaching emerging designers about philosophy, psychology, or ethics? What about political science and sociology, or economics? Advocates of the role of design in business no doubt see a direct link between design thinking, strategy and implementation, but why shouldn't the citizen designer consider such notions as well? To simply make a poster arguably the designer's single most powerful and persuasive visual tool can, in the absence of true understanding and engagement, also be viewed as a rhetorical gesture, a hermetically sealed activity.
In recent years, design has proven to be critically connected to certain public behaviors voting, for example thereby raising the awareness and appreciation of the value of good design in the public realm. But this remains tricky territory, as likely to yield elitism as our political system is capable of yielding bipartisanship. Identifying good like the perfect paper stock or building material is a virtual impossibility, subject to indecision and, not surprisingly, often doomed to failure. Quality control notwithstanding, it's not so critical that we agree on the details: but when it comes to the big picture, the important and lasting things, we are finding that many of us do, infact, agree. In a profession often dominated by images, by the way things look and perform and sell, let's remember that citizenship is at its core, a function of the heart. And for that we need no referendum: we just need each other.