Social Design – Where did all the fun go*

I was invited by Sanserif Creatius to write about social design, which is what my studio has been directing itself as since we started a few years ago, but I´m going to write more about my own evolving discoveries and disappointments in this emerging field and what it might really be within the currently collapsing and rapidly changing paradigms and misunderstandings of what the design discipline is and might be. Talking frankly, I had a bit of a shit time this year, what with all my good intentions invested in failed projects, and I asked myself “where did all the fun go?”

First of all, i will give an answer to the question “what is social design?” I have no idea what it might mean to you, but for me the only way is to compare it to which may be the more traditional furniture design. It may start like an obsession to new and innovative materials or manufacturing/production techniques, and the only way i know how to work is to start with people. I perceive the world through the way we interact with ourselves, with each other and with our surroundings, so by taking into account the material culture i work with to explore and to create are both always a reflection on that, that’s why I might be understood as a social designer.

But like furniture design, to transform a project into a viable and affordable product, is more or less the same. That is to say, the designer’s role is actually minimal if we take into account the entire work: we need the infrastructure’s investment, logistics, excel sheets, production, distribution, and marketing more than any other industry.

So my journey started when I graduated from University with a project called AquaIris. AquaIris is a conceptual portable water purifier designed for countries that live within the tropics. it works independently of infrastructure, by filtering the dirty water and then it passes under  some crystals that convert UV-B rays to UV-C effectively killing off any germs. And voila, wait a few minutes, and you will have a glass of clean and clear drinking water ready to be served.

It did the rounds on the internet, I was invited to exhibit the project from California to the Biennale of industrial Design, and IT was one of the 5 poster projects that wallpapered the city of Vienna for the magnificent exhibition made4you, which took place in the MAK. It was also nominated for the Viktor Papanek Social Design Award.

During the particular awards ceremony I was chatting with one of the Jury members who congratulated me on my project BY saying “oh it’s fantastic” and i answered quite cheekily “thanks. Why it didn´t win?”, and she answered “Well, the jury had a problem with your project”, and I said “So, what’s the problem with it?” and she answered “Some felt that it was too beautiful for it intended users”.

For me this was the moment when I stopped thinking naively about our role in the world and started asking questions and seeking answers to what can exactly a designer do for social good.

The  problem with AquaIris is not that it is a beautiful object – in fact its real problem is that it does not fulfil Its function as a useful device. Quite apart from the fact that the “converter crystals” does not exist yet and it would be way to expensive to implement, the truth is that a family, that lives in a very rural and self-substantial part of the world, is usually made up of the parents, one or two grandparents, 2 to 3 kids, hopefully some farm animals, and a plot of land. So in order to drink, feed, cook, water or hygiene, a family needs approximately 500 litres of water per day. Does anybody have the time to pour 500 litres of water per day, glass by glass?

But let Us go back to the controversial notion of beauty as an apparently invalid human experience. If we looked at big and small cultures or civilizations around the world, we would see that beauty as an expression of humanity is abundant. So that makes me ask: How is it possible that something can be “too beautiful” when it obviously belongs to our human celebration, and how can that be criteria for negative judgement? We, as designers, have the possibility to create beautiful things with tangible benefits in the same base and poetry as our trade.

And so I got thinking about what other notions of humanity, are the real ones that we as designers can evoke and create products and experiences for, and celebrate.

Maybe as a designer we can’t change the world for the better, save the world as it may be, but certainly the way we can create material/experience culture in a beautiful and playful manner for pleasure´s sake, and that is the value in itself of our practice, quite apart from whether it is for tea sets or for highly efficient cow manure ovens – if we can make it into a pleasurable experience through its form, function and the curated emotions it can evoke on whatever object. Haven´t we made one more person in the world happy and therefore created a better place?

I´d like to conclude by saying that certainly we as naturally and intuitively empathetic designers can  help companies and organizations searching to scale impact create viable, enriching products that adhere to our basic needs such as drinking water, food security, clean air, and I´d like to add to The list some more honest and basic needs, that in our search to “do good” are often forgotten or underrated: joy, beauty, pain, loss, honesty, fun, play, love, sex and the need for intoxication.

*Talia Radford: Designer



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