The role I seek to fill as a designer is nebulous and therefore hard for me to steadfastly define. When one asks another 'what they do,' they are essentially asking one of the following questions: How do you make your money? In what area does your passion lie? What skill(s), learned or innate, do you possess? And what are the results of your work, (preferably the measurable/tangible results that I can see and easily understand)? To me, none of these questions are easy to answer, so when queried about that which I refer to as my work, I balk at the lie I have to piecemeal, regrettably aware that I haven't found the right words to formulate my efforts, (efforts being those that make my heart beat faster, those that positively exhaust me at day's end, those that sometimes pay the bills, but most often [currently] do not) into understandable terms. Let it be known, this isn't because the questioner is mindless or naive but rather because the vocation I seek to define does not seem to be broadly understood as "real work," in that the culturally established major bottom lines of profit and product are often blurry. It's hard to measure community engagement; hard to quantify the time and energy it takes to instill hope in a person or place from which hope has long been gone; not easy to appraise the value in newly forged human relationships; difficult to calculate the profundity transferred from teacher to student, it's results often appearing only later in the long-term, so far down the road as to be forgotten; and even harder to find funding for such activities. Quite frankly, I think this needs to change.
Yet, the question of how the practice of design will change in the future to incorporate these ideals seems, to me, the wrong question to be asking. Rather, the question should be: how will the future, (and the future is now), change the practice of design?
We are seeing this question addressed, adopted and tested around the globe in a variety of ways, from inside the studio and out. Organizations and individuals are using their creative minds and design sensibility to engage with the community around them, to better visualize a world (or country, or city, or neighborhood) they want to see exist. There have been failures and there have been successes, but in it all, one finds hope. Hope for a new, design-centric practice, rooted in openness and connectedness, people and place.
Designers are often the first to recognize the social and cultural significance found within our own profession. We fight, tooth-and-nail, to establish a broader design understanding among those who don't 'get it', constantly seeking new ways to demonstrate and validate the importance of our work. These battles are useless and no longer worthy of attention. Let it be known, designers alone will not save the world. It's time to step down from our tall towers. Should we truly want to use design to improve the human condition and reshape a better future, we must move away from the "me" towards the "all of us," and build upon this system of collective consciousness. We must recognize that creating culture is not a solo effort, and have faith that every person, no matter their occupation or socioeconomic status, has the ability to think and therefore contribute to the solution. Invite them to the table. Only when we recognize that there is power to be found in the simplicity of human relationships, that diversity breeds a trove of resources, that the collective imagination is capable of returning something no single mind could ever conjure, much less realize, will we begin to see the fruits of our labor.
It is with this in mind that I've chosen to work from Detroit. From within this context, the brave, the curious, are invited to dive in head first, grab a shard of the unknown and make it real. It is here, that attempts for solution can be deemed experiment. It is here, where not the outcomes but the process defines success. It is here, from this epicenter, where, both historically and today, citizens are occupied to figure out what works, driven not by what's culturally 'right,' any more than they're deterred by fear of failure. This is not merely an approach to design or innovation, but instead, an approach to one's entire life.
Today, I seek an alternative model of professional practice, one rooted in direct engagement with people and place. I seek a new design; an autonomous activity that aims to reshape our future by engaging in areas that the profession simply cannot afford (or in some cases, are unwilling) to address. To attain such a practice will not be easy.
It will take patience and persistence and perhaps most vitally, a team. Many times our colleagues will label us foolhardy. We will be branded naive, inexperienced and impractical. The Man will constantly try to call us back, promising safety, more money and cultural acceptance. We mustn't return to this "as usual" model, that leaves us depleted and unfulfilled, but we must also be realistic in what we set out to achieve.
We must seek out alternative models of funding, those that are both highly feasible and sustainable. We must approach our work from the standpoint that a profit mission and a social mission do not have to be mutually exclusive notions. We mustn't put forth criticism without a plan for responsive action - imagining and speculating will only take us so far. We must construct an open set of values, understanding that these guides are not for any one group to own, but rather, a useful and continually shifting part of our collective language, available for all to possess and refine. We must look to each other to share resources, empathy and energy.
There are gaps to be filled, dots to be connected and foundations to be poured. We ride the frontline knowing that the work we do, just like the work of those before us, will be invaluable to future generations. Change hearts, change minds. Let us press on together.
5 March 2011
Preface to the words above
What is Graphic Design? Where did it come from? Where is it going? How is it changing? What do we do now? If I let myself think hard enough, I can indeed recall a time, not long ago, when I believed myself to have a strong grasp on the role of a designer and how I fit (or sometimes didn't fit) into the mold. I thought I knew. Yes, I most certainly knew. But as I sit here now, on this third day in the first year of a new decade, I feel as if I've floated astray. I've lost track of my knowing somehow. I followed a path, steered away from that path, attempted to pave a new path, got buried in the sludge of the forge, hastily returned to the old path, and still feel like I've made a wrong turn.
So...? The economy is still failing, the unemployment rates are still rising and here we still are. Graphic designers. People of a like profession. With our networks and blogs and events and organizations and competitions. What is our role? Is it any different than the role of those who came before us? (Doesn't every new generation of designers think they're in some way distinct from the last?) Are we prepared to deal with the changing world around us? How do we respond? Do we even have to respond? What is "social design?" Do I have to be on Twiiter to remain relevant? Are my status updates more interesting than my work?
This is only a website. It is not a dissertation. It is merely opinion and nothing more. It is a living document that seeks to record my personal attempt to sift through the questions and establish some answers. You cannot leave comments but you can email directly with all your questions, ad-ons, advice, concerns and rebuttals. I hope you do. It exists online only because existing online is of course the current zeitgeist. My intention is not to appear scholarly, nor expert, nor pretentious, nor holier-than-thou. I am just a kid in a sticky place trying to get unstuck.
Email me your questions.