Two Opposite Spectrums of Design

It’s the London Design Festival right now. I used to get very excited about what was new, what were designers doing, what were the new trends, etc. But this year I really don’t feel like that anymore. And it’s not the first year either. Every time I do the rounds around London looking at all the galleries, exhibitions and openings, I can’t help but wonder if we really need another chair that’s just a little bit different, a little bit better and a little bit cooler. I find it uninspiring.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of interesting things out there that are pushing culture through design. Design is also a way to embody ideas about the world about our society and about our values, but I find that a lot of the design that is being pushed forward is just another commission by a brand that wants to sell more luxury products and to fit into their new marketing campaign.

I went to a talk at the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of the Global Design Forum. This talk was called Design and Practices of Social Innovation. The panelists were, refreshingly, offering different perspectives on the role of design in creating social change. Some of the ideas that stood out were the need to engage with people directly in the process of design. Design in itself is not an end but a process and through the process of prototyping and making, insights arise that ultimately can become more solid concepts for mass production. The talk revolved around open sourcing, hacker spaces and fixing, and how demystifying the whole process of designing and making will make it easier to reach the 99% of the world.

Hacker Spaces in Shenzhen

What is fascinating about this moment in time is that the idea of prototyping, hacking, making is becoming more widespread and accessible. This means more people can produce products and innovations. This will inevitably lead to social empowerment and more innovation coming from the ground up. Furthermore, the democratisation of these tools and processes is making the culture creation process more democratic too, giving everyone the opportunity to create new values and social codes through design.

Any tool that makes it easier for larger groups of people to code, prototype and eventually manufacture will become a huge success because what stops most people from entering this ‘brave new world of makers’ is precisely the technology and know-how required to make.

And that’s why technologies like 3D printing, desktop laser cutters, modular coding, low cost computers like the raspberry pi and Arduino, and many others, are proving so disruptive in shifting the power balance of the means of production.  Now we can, literally, all manufacture a product.

Another interesting thing about that discussion came from David Li, Director of Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, who explained how many of the Chinese products we often refer as fakes, actually end up in the African market where most customers can’t afford an expensive new iPhone, which funnily enough is actually designed to last only 18 months, when the new iPhones gets released. These Chinese-built ‘fakes’ have almost exactly the same features, are designed to last 3 or more years and are a fraction of the cost of an original. Are they then, better quality? Or do we just perceive them as low quality because they are not branded accordingly? It’s interesting to think, in this scenario, the role of Intellectual Property and how it’s not only disregarded but also subverted, in many cases, to create chimera products. The question, in terms of creating social value, is why not just create products that are brand-less, that are reliable, last long and cost very little? Why still, piggy-back the big international brands in order to grab the market’s attention?

I’m all for an open collaboration to increase innovation, but if we are to respect the intellectual property of innovators, they have to let go of the culture of the counterfeit (Shanzhai) that has been so prevalent in the Chinese black market, and focus instead in fostering and producing original Chinese design.

So, the question prevails, how can design be used to give real social value?


Diana Simpson Hernandez

Designers For Humanity Founder

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