Designing our way out of crisis
We are at the precipice of human history. Our decisions right now will determine how we will live in the years and centuries to come. But what should we focus on? What problem do we solve? There’s just so many of them. The chaos can be overwhelming at times. With 7.8 billion people, troubles are bound to arise. But again, we are a 7.8 billion strong civilization. The diversity of personalities, expertise and cultures creates an amazing web, that we can explore for solutions.
Each profession has a clear boundary within which it has the power to change our world for the better. Design however is a more ambiguous profession that holds great power, and hence responsibility to steer us in these dire times. It is a profession that many might not fully understand, but everyone feels the effects of. A profession that seems accessible yet enigmatic. It can become-
a noun — “This is good design.”
a verb — “Let’s design a better world”
an adjective — “It’s a designed products”
and yet there is more to it.
Today, let’s talk about how design and its critical ingredients can play a major role in guiding humanity through this crucial time, through a crisis, any crisis.
“Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters in our lives won’t have a title until much later” — Bob Goff
The world is going through difficult times. People are scared, alone and lost. 2020 saw a surge of world events and movements that further stoked these emotions. We don’t know where we are headed. In these testing times, designers need to step up and show how ambiguity is not a bad thing. The design process embraces it, and teaches that only when you see the world without any biases and rigid plans, do you discover something new.
We don’t know when the virus will end. We don’t know if and when natural disasters, human animal conflict, climate change, discrimination of minorities or anything at all will end. The solutions won’t ever be in sight. But only when ambiguity becomes part of our comfort zone, can we truly start to solve the crisis at hand. As we often encounter in the world of design, ambiguity is not the end of a dilemma, but just the fuzzy beginning. Time and again, designers have found their way through to it. We definitely will again. If there’s one thing that we can attest to, it is that tolerance to uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding.
“The highest form of knowledge is empathy” — Bill Bullard
We are all very different individuals. It’s almost impossible that two people experience something in the same way. Each of us has had different upbringings, cultures, thought processes and circumstances that dictate how we perceive our realities. Knowing this, empathy sounds almost like a superpower. A wide range of ‘-isms’ has ravaged our world, splitting us up into groups of enclosed silos.
This time demands us to try and walk a mile in the other person’s shoes. When we spend time to understand an opposing point of view, or to feel someone’s situation, we eventually realize that we all are just the same. In different countries, skins, houses or faiths, but still the same. Empathy has been a central tool of design since its inception. It is time we bring it out for the world to use. To teach our children and grown ups alike, that empathy is the key to peace. And this time, take empathy a step further by disintegrating the boundary between you and the “other”, any other.
“Go the extra mile. It’s never crowded” — Wayne Dyer
It is perfectly okay if we choose to do the same tried and tested things all our life. But true magic happens in the extra few steps that we put in. This extra effort always brings joy and has the power to transform any work into a delight. As children, we used to do things our way. Put in extra efforts for the smallest things. Somewhere along our journey, we have stopped thinking, or maybe started thinking a lot. Now, we just do the same jobs in the same old ways.
In the world of globalization, all products have reached a common set of features and quality. In this case, the extra mile has always been design. Designers have been making products that don’t just work, but are pleasant to work with. This power to “pleasantly surprise” can be carried forward to other fields of our life. At desperate times such as these, people look for signs of hope. Small efforts that go out of their way to make someone happy, not only add charm to an otherwise monotonous task, but also restore this hope. Designers can lead with example to show how the extra mile is worth it.
“Find your WHY and you’ll find your way” — John Maxwell
In a popular talk by Simon Sinek, he presented the golden circle of philosophies. It stated that, every single company in the world knew what they do. Some knew how they do it. But very few companies knew why they do it. These few companies who know their purpose, cause or belief are the ones who truly have the capability to change the world. This makes why, the most important question that we need to answer, no matter what we do.
Designers use a simple technique of ‘Root Cause Analysis’ where a problem is subjected to increasing levels of whys until a root problem emerges. This helps us address the core of an issue, rather than just providing surface level solutions. We need to make this powerful word an integral part of all our decision making. Knowing the cause of our problems, as well the purpose and intent of our solutions would prove to be critical in paving our way to peace and stability.
“Choices are the hinges of destiny” — Edwin Markham
One cannot expect good to happen all by itself. All the good intentions remain just that if there is lack of action. There may be opportunities that present themselves to us. But if you truly want to find pearls, you cannot wait at the shore. You need to dive in. Seeking out opportunities is an important exercise that all of us designers should do. Find a gap in the market. Make something that users deeply need. Find clients that want to do good in the world, and not just gain fame and fortune. Choose materials that are not just financially viable, but ecologically too. Each of these decisions define us. They show what we truly are, far more than our skills.
For positive development to occur, it is essential that like-minded and determined people come together to create something wonderful. Sometimes people meet by chance. But when we actively seek out the good, this development is accelerated. At grim times like these, designers need to seek out the good. Good clients, people, thoughts and ideas. And when we do find these, have the wisdom to choose well.
Designers cannot change everything that’s wrong in this world. But together, we can. This year has been largely a disaster. But maybe we have been assigned this mountain, to learn that it can be moved. And if 7.8 billion of us put our minds and hearts to it, it’ll stand no chance.