Thursday, August 13, 2009

Can Design Help Save the World? Andy Polaine

Can Graphic Design Save the Planet?


Can it help?


How Can Graphic Design Help Save the World, hosted by the Australian Graphic Design Association, featured leading design thinkers including Jacqueline Gothe, Andy Polaine, David Berman and Rick Pryor to share ideas about whether we as graphic/designers can be part of a world-saving solution.

I went along to have a listen and was inspired to hear some incredibly insightful thinking on the topic of whether graphic design actually can save the world. Here’s a bit of what was going on:

Andy Polaine
Andy Polaine is a Germany-based practitioner of service interactions design. He has worked in Australia as well as in Europe on a range of projects and now runs his own consultancy Polaine .

Andy Polaine is not convinced that graphic design can save the world, “instead, we need to reframe the question and think about what power we have to help save the world”, “this inspires a more indigenous mode of thinking, reframes the question of salvation, and calls upon designers to make a genuine connection with the world and work collaboratively within it” he said.

When he was a design teacher in Australia, Andy was surprised by the influence that European and American design had on his students, particularly given the richness of Australian colour and patterns, “It was as if the Australian landscape and culture were somehow ‘off-limits’ as a source of inspiration to students” to him this suggested a much deeper lack of connectedness or collaborative relationship between designers and the environment, culture and community.

Years later, Andy now notices a growing industry movement where lead designers are advocating a more collaborative and connected approach to their work. “The power of design is its ability to connect people and increasingly we’re seeing more work like that of David Lancashire that incorporates community, the environment and culture and having some great results” said Andy.
Saving the planet is a BIG wicked problem.

In the book, Designing Design Kenya Hara talks about how design tackles small, big and wicked problems. Climate change is a massively complex and wicked problem where by changing one part of the system there are intricate follow-on effects. Andy likens saving the world, and climate change in particular to a Vaseline-coated-octopus type of wicked problem, but says that designers are in a good position to tackle problems like these using creative right-brain thinking.

“Most wicked problems stem from many small acts of thoughtlessness ” says Andy. “At home in Germany, I did the right thing and took my old TV to the recycle depot and it was terrible and powerful to be confronted by the multiplier effect of my and others decisions – there were mountains of TVs”.

The feeling of terror and confrontation evoked having seen the multiplier effect of consumption is something that designers can use for a positive effect says Andy. Designers, and particularly graphic designers have the power to evidence the ‘mountains of TVs’ as a tangible way of communicating the consequences of small acts of thoughtlessness. Andy says that though often the last in the process of developing a product, graphic design is the first thing a consumer sees and its creators have a great deal of power to influence better buying decisions.

Service and Interactions design – designers influencing behaviour.
Service and interactions design seeks to influence decision-making processes further up the organisational chain. Essentially good service and interactions design works to build upon an understanding of how people experience the world, their interactions within it and how designers can become more powerful change agents.

Incorporating the elements of co-design, research and collaboration, services design signifies a major shift from traditional top-down processes and helps tackle wicked problems like climate change. Unlike processes common to government and business, service and interactions design and thinking is transdisciplinary and human-centred, blurring the distinction between ‘professional’ decisions and those based on personal values.

To demonstrate the benefits of good service design, Andy compared train travel in Germany to that in Australia. “In Germany train travel is a nice experience that people want to do, it is comfortable, you can enjoy a meal – and people do it in large numbers. This just isn’t the case in Australia: chairs are often slashed and uncomfortable; there is a lack of information surrounding timetables, platforms are inaccessible and information difficult to obtain. These are design flaws that put people off using low-emissions transport in Australia. Again, this is where design can be quite powerful – designers help us make small decisions that collectively benefit the planet in a strong way.
Let’s make the invisible, visible.

Minimalist design hides small, big and wicked problems.

“Where things are made, where things end-up and the whole system of global manufacturing and production is largely invisible to end-consumers. By designing in a way that makes them visible we nudge action” says Andy.

For example, the Smart Meter is a piece of design that tells you in money terms how much energy you are using and which home appliances are most energy intensive. You can set a price cap on the Smart Metre which when you’re close to exceeding sounds a warning beep so that you run around switching things off to make it stop. This design considers that people don’t have a clue what a kilowatt is or means, but certainly understands energy use as money lost and react to annoying sounds. Design has the power to catalyses processes of thoughtful action.

“The climate change debate has evolved from being about saving polar bears, to being about money. Powerful design goes beyond re-educating people and instead seeks to understand peoples’ behaviour and influences it by making the invisible visible” says Andy.

Which brought Andy’s discussion back to the need to shift our framework for thinking to one that seeks an indigenous understanding of the world and mimics its interconnectedness and collaborations.

“Design can help save the world by making sense of complexity. We’re accustomed to the consequences of our actions being pushed beyond our line of site, and it’s interesting to hear indigenous people talk about the process of interconnectivity – its network thinking, and not so utterly intangible anymore because we have the internet as a powerful metaphor for understanding how we interact and connect online” said Andy.

Design in its most simple form is about making complex problems, big problems and wicked problems easier to deal with and this is how graphic designers have the power to help change the world.


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