Socially responsible design in an ever thorny world*

It’s complicated. The topic at hand is fraught with difficulties. I could wax poetic about our higher calling, but truth be told, how much of our work as designers doesn’t ultimately mar rather than improve the planet? In an ever-knotty world, I find it difficult to do the right thing, try as I might. I support a paperless society, but still love books. And I can’t help but wonder, with all the trees saved, how much coal is burned generating the electricity that recharges the batteries in our laptops, smart phones and tablets?

I am a book person. I love books, reading, owning and producing them. However, seemingly the entire world of picture book publishing in the US, of which I am an active member, has made the shift to print in China, where the set minimum wage is the equivalent of $1.19 per hour, with 82.6% of the factories not even paying wages in accordance with Chinese labor laws, with regards to minimum wage and/or overtime rates. And the workers have no means of engaging in collective bargaining, according to China Labor Watch, an independent not-for-profit organization.

What to do? As a corrective measure, for a book I recently edited and designed we were determined to print in the United States, despite the increased cost. While on press I discovered that the workers, sans union, worked through their lunch hour since they weren’t paid for it, nor were they paid for sick days. While there is no question these conditions are a far cry from those in China, there is still much to be desired.

I am also devout Vegan, and fear what constituents the glue that binds my books together. And wonder about the sustainability of the UV coatings that protects my endeavors.

About ten years ago I decided on a change of lifestyle, times two. I gave up my full time design practice, with adjunct teaching on the side, for full time teaching. Part of my motivation for this was to write and design my own books, for any publisher who would have me. In my new life one supported the other.

So while it was not for entirely altruistic reasons I made the change, it soon dawned on me that the effect I had on young lives increased exponentially. My very first teaching experience was directly upon graduating from California State University, Fullerton, in California. I taught design for one year, 1984 to 1985 at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. Although I was invited back the following semester I declined, realizing at that point in my career I had more to learn than to offer. It wasn’t until 1992, after returning to New York and working in publishing that I felt I was ready, and I began teaching conceptual design at the School of Visual Arts in New York. In 1995 I was hired as adjunct faculty by Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, for their MFA program, where I am now director. And from 2004 to 2010 I ran the Design Studio at Kean University, in Union, New Jersey. It was there that I began combining teaching with social responsibility. “The Design Studio” was already in place, begun decades earlier by Martin Holloway and continued by Alan Robbins. It operated as an active design studio making available communication design services to the university and to non-profit community at large. The students created, in the studio’s service learning atmosphere, professional level design other wise unavailable to its clients. From the academic perspective, students enrolled in the course were exposed to the practical constraints and opportunities of producing actual design projects for real clients. During my tenure the students provided these services to myriad non-profits, The Red Cross, The United Way, women’s shelters, day care centers, hospitals, community theaters, et al, while winning over 30 national and international design awards in both the professional and student categories.

Now at Marywood University I have continued this practice through “The Design Collective,” which also works as required fieldwork internship for the student.

My teaching philosophy is simple: encourage, support and lead by example. With critical guidance and encouragement students are enabled to reach their maximum potential. It is my desire to give back all that I have been given (while at the same time learning from the students). For the future is in their hands and the most socially responsible thing for me to do as a designer and citizen of the world is to share my knowledge and concerns and pass the baton.

*Steven Brower: Designer



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