I was really interested in reading the post on Design Observer, ‘The Kindness of Strangers’ which is a discussion between Valerie Casey and David Stairs (http://observatory.designobserver.com/entry.html?entry=11177). Those who have travelled the long, hard, windy road of design and social responsibility have developed a healthy cynicism towards recent interest in social design as a ‘fad’. Though, looking underneath the surface, much of the social design interest is generated from a genuine concern to help others and the environment.
This genuine concern and interest isn’t a bad thing – much of it is coming from a good place in the heart, and I think its something that humans instinctively do. But, this is the age-old problem with the notion of ‘aid’ and ‘helping’ – the philosophical issue of what it really means to ‘help’ others? I agree with Stairs when he says that a lot of it can be driven by a mis-guided understanding of power-dynamics that one can ‘fix’ problems because of one’s privileged position.
I think its ok to admit that you are helping others for selfish reasons, and in fact, perhaps that is the only way to move way from being trapped in a moral dilemma. We can’t all be buddhists striving for enlightenment – that will take a whole lifetime. Getting to the stage of selfless-ness aint that easy… just ask those Japanese monks who gets a sharp whack on their back for simply ‘clouding their thoughts’ in meditation.
So, where should we start?
I think the point raised by Casey and Stairs on being alert to the use of language is important. Language is a powerful force and can shape how we think, how we behave, what we believe and who we are. Being mindful of it is a good idea.
I also think having a good balance of ideology and reality is needed. Designers by their nature think outside of reality to propose alternative future-worlds. Some of the ‘activists’ I come across are pumped up with this ideology of ‘changing the world’. That energy and ‘the blindness of youth’ is a powerful force if it can be channelled with more wisdom and a ‘reality check’. The problem is that there isn’t just one reality, there’s millions of it. A reality to one person is different to another person. We designers should try and understand the complexity of the realities – and how they collide in a design project with a brief and a budget that only really highlights (and therefore privileges) one or two realities.
I think this is the lesson I am hoping to learn from, in my lifetime.
The project on bushfires is a classic example of different realities colliding with one another. Our team had to face tough obstacles and as a designer and project leader caught up in it, I often wanted to crawl back into my comfy little hole and just play with my toys… I understood that it was my ideology that was the driving force behind my involvement. But my ideology demanded that I moved mountains and continents. Surely that was possible! – it said. But after months of trying and being completely exhausted, I realised that it wasn’t going to work. In the end, the only way to get around the obstacle was to make it simpler and reduce the project to a smaller scale. In other words, cut out the number of ‘realities’ that were complicating the project and re-focus our efforts on assisting the communities in another way.
Bushfire and resilience
Our team, ‘Birds of a feather’ is partnering with Southern Otways Landcare Network in facilitating effective communication and planning strategies around bushfires. The Otway communities are particularly vulnerable to the kind of catastrophic fires that threatens the region next summer. The area is poor in communication infrastructure including radio, TV, internet and mobile coverage, making communities even more vulnerable and dependent upon their own resources and networks in the face of a bushfire event. The issue is not only related to infrastructure and communication technology, though these impact heavily on managing bushfires. The team have conducted an initial field visit to the Otways, met local residents and CFA volunteers. These discussion have identified several other issues, for example, influx of tourists and temporary residents in the local area which complicates the risks; false sense of security led by the belief that the CFA will come to the rescue; lack of multiple risk management plans in place (Plan A, B, C and so on). Some of these issues we have found echo a lot of the work that you have done already with the bushfire CRC.
Our aim is firstly to develop a heightened sense of bushfire risk among a ‘community of place’ (ie those who are located in the same geographical area) through a series of workshops. Our main methodology is the use of ’scenarios’ that are constructed by participants from the ground-up. Each individual’s situation and household context is different and the community themselves have the expert knowledge of the people, land, topography, vegetation, likely direction of the fire, access routes etc. We are going to pool this knowledge and develop a variety of scenarios that capture and illustrate potential risks that are specific to individual households and their local area. The collective pooling and sharing of knowledge is a way to ‘educate’ the residents who have little knowledge of the area. We also feel the ‘first-person’ account is a key aspect to how the scenarios are described and engaged with.
These risk-focused scenarios will then be the driver to discuss and brainstorm ideas on planning effective strategies to mitigate and manage the risks identified. Again, the emphasis here is active participation in generating the plans among neighbours, thereby strengthening networks and bonds within the community of place. We are also working on tapping into the networks of the temporary residents (holiday makers, weekenders from Melbourne etc) who have little knowledge of the landscape and awareness of the risks and bring this group together using the scenarios. We intend on having input from the fire authorities and individuals who have experienced bushfire as a way of bringing the stories and scenarios ‘to life’. We are hoping to commence the workshops in January 2010 and we are looking to expertise in the field who can assist and help us with this approach.
Our design project, which is currently underway with a community, utilises the ‘tools of the trade’ in communication design such as designing artefacts, mapping and visualisations, to firstly, bring a fractured community together around a common concern, highlight the risks that communities face, and then plan strategies to mitigate those risks. The photos show how the use of Playful Triggers was effective in pooling knowledge specific to a particular location. It shows how a group of people from a community of place, identified where houses are located, which households were permanent and temporary residents, those who had children and the likely direction of the fire. Undertaking this exercise was valuable to our research team who had no knowledge of the local area, but also for the participants as well. The Playful Triggers facilitated the revelation of knowledge that they each had, and it helped them make it explicit to us and to one another, to the point where one participants was amazed by how much local knowledge they actually had between them. Natural conversations flowed where certain geographical sites suddenly ’stood out’ as being conducive to build a bush bunker. This design approach empowered the community to plan and generate effective strategies themselves.
Australian graphic design: making the diversity visible
Recent indicators such as the wide criticism of the cost of designing the City of Melbourne visual identity suggest there is a significant gap between the public’s understanding of the nature and value of graphic design and that of the graphic design community. To add fuel to the fire, Rick Poynor recently warned at an AGDA event that graphic design is on the verge of complete surrender to business imperatives unless designers can make the public more aware of the value of graphic design beyond its commercial application. As design educators and practitioners we have had a long-standing interest in what happens in contemporary Australian graphic design. However, we see that graphic design lacks public recognition by comparison to a field like visual art; graphic design works having short life spans and mostly appearing without recognition of their creators. This has prompted us to consider how the diversity of Australian graphic designers and their work might become more visible to the public and to researchers.
What can be done?
This issue sparked debate, concern and excitement at a workshop in Melbourne, late September 2009, which was attended by several graphic design practitioners, educators, post-graduate students and design researchers. The discussion highlighted the paradox of graphic design practice – that its ubiquity was very public and visible, yet its practices was poorly represented and understood by the broader public. Many designers were excited about the benefit of making the practice more visible to others and to the design community. They believed that such initiative would spark curiosity, interest and recognition and strengthen client’s understanding of graphic design. The usual ‘traps’ of reductive definitions of Australian graphic design was avoided, and instead, the discussion described a practice that was rich, broad, hybridised and varied. Questions were raised concerning what ‘design practice’ means, why designers ‘painted on Sundays but didn’t in the studio, etc…
What were some of the ideas?
Many participants emphasised that designers’ creativity, thinking processes, their unique contexts and perspectives were important aspects to capture and make visible to others. Instead of using traditional methods of interviews and questionnaires, the ideas sought lateral, creative, visual and tactile methods of capturing the diversity of practices. Creating a cultural probe as a method of capture and collection therefore seemed ideal in fulfilling this task. A cultural probe is a commonly used ethnographic method in design research. It is usually a package, sent to the participant, containing various items with instructions, questions and provocations to trigger responses to reveal facets of the participant’s life.
Brainstorming what a cultural probe can provoke and trigger to reveal aspects of a designer’s individual and professional design practices generated an abundance of ideas. Examples, like collecting ‘design blunders’; continue a story-board by narrating or filling in the speech-bubbles; providing a ‘chart’ to record one’s mood over the course of the day; responding to ‘what does your mum say you do?’; disposable cameras to record inspirations by the letter ‘G’ in Bodoni; flash-mob SMS to document one’s activity at 10:53:44… and much more. Common to many of the probe ideas were the use of constraints, finishing something that had already been started, capturing a ‘snap-shop’ of the every-day, opening up creative dialogue in a variety of mediums, and provoke lateral responses to avoid any ‘promotion’ or standard company-line of what designers do. We also felt that it was important that the probe be sensitive to design aesthetics and fun to use, prompting designers to reflect on aspects of their identity and experience as designers.
The next steps?
We hope to continue with the discussions and generate ideas of cultural probes, inviting more designers to become collaborators of this project. Our intention is to design various prototypes of the probes and trialing them in 2010 by sending them out to graphic designers around Australia. This allows us to evaluate what kind of probe would best suit the purpose. After this trial period, we will launch this initiative by asking designers to nominate other designers in their network. We will send the probes to them, and ask them to nominate more designers, allowing this process to continue until it exhausts itself. We hope to capitalise on social networks among designers, which is a valuable human engagement and resource.
Eventually, our idea is to capture the diversity of individuals, practices and contexts that comprise Australian graphic design in urban and rural environments. Its intention is to make the invisible, visible by inviting contributions from all Australian graphic designers, here and overseas, with the aim of discovering the richness of graphic design practices as a complement to the image portrayed by more visible, client-focused work. After the process of sorting, categorising and analyzing is conducted, the collective outcome will hopefully surprise and delight, revealing the vibrancy, distinctiveness and breadth of the Australian graphic design community. This project will create a ‘snap-shot’ of the graphic designers today. The collection will become a significant archive of the practice and profession of graphic design – a community who is daily, contributing to our visual culture and landscape. The body of knowledge will also be an important resource for graphic design educators and researchers to help them generate more information on the nature of contemporary Australian graphic design. The vast collection from this project will be presented publicly, whether through a website or a physical exhibition, the possibilities will be endless.
This project is in partnership with AGDA and is supported by the Design Research Institute, RMIT University, and Swinburne. We would like to thank and acknowledge the participants of the September workshop, including, Stephen Banhan, Greg Blakey, Miek Dunbar, Marius Foley, Elise Hassett, Tania Ivanka, Bec Nally, Dion Tuckwell, Peter West, and Jeremy Yuille.