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The Advanced Design Institute (ADi) works to facilitate a deeper and broader understanding of design as activity and culture. Design activity is the way individuals and organizations continuously create our world. Design culture provides the societal context that supports design activity. In a time of dramatic change and of increased complexity, design culture is more timely and crucial than ever. The purpose of ADi is to advance design culture through public education.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Who has agency in design?

An article I just read <http://www.fastcodesign.com/1663220/user-led-innovation-cant-create-breakthroughs-just-ask-apple-and-ikea> reminded me of an ongoing conversation I have had with myself over the past few years concerning the relationship between designers and those who are most directly effected by the products or outcomes of design activity. Creative ideas and new innovations are the focus of attention now days. They are touted as the engines that drive the economic machine and are treated as the primary if not sole source of improvement in the human condition.

The growth of new products, technologies or entertaining experiences are being treated as the measure of our ‘way of life’— which, in reality, is primarily an increase in our ‘standard of life’. Material designers, politicians and others are typically not as focused on the development of our ‘quality of life’ as they are on the growth of our ‘standard of life’ — a measure of worth more than value. We are becoming ever more cynical it seems; using the definition of ‘cynic’ by Oscar Wilde  “The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

My ongoing conversation revolves around the question: “who has the right or the responsibility to determine what ought to become a part of some one else’s life?” Who should be concerned with, responsible for and accountable for, improving anyone’s ‘quality of life’ as well as ‘standard of life’? Should we depend on designers to imagine for others what can be successfully marketed to consumers as a part of the process of improving their ‘standard of life’ — conflated with their ‘quality of life’ — or do we depend on people to request the something — the design — that they believe will improve their ‘standard of life’ and/or ‘quality of life’?

The issue of sustainability — a ‘standard of life’ issue — relies on who is best qualified to determine what designs will contribute most to the reduction of waste and improvement in efficiency in day-to-day activity. The concern for ‘quality of life’ — issues such as human wellbeing, dignity, equity and progress — is contingent on who has the right to determine what designs will best help fulfill our human potential.

Concepts like ‘user design’ or ‘human centered design’ are becoming more common and represent a healthy shift for professionals working in material design. But my wondering is about the larger question concerning the relationship between those who invent, design or plan the artifacts that effect people’s lives and those who are most effected by these designs — positively or negatively.

In the case of some professional design fields there is a formal relationship between the design professional and the client—a contract. In design fields that are more related to mercantile interests this is not the case. Most often marketing replaces contracting. What is the best way for design to play out its role— contract or rhetoric?

Do designer who contract with people to design what they say they need, or desire, trump the designers who presuppose they can imagine things that people can be convinced, needs to become a part of their lives? Is there a distinction between designs that are primarily commodities, and designs that contribute to human well-being, in determining who ought to have the right or authority to give direction to design activity?

For example, Apple has been successful at communicating the values behind their products, which seem to be accepted as stand-ins for the values any would-be client or consumer might hold, making the individual more than happy to forgo their voice in determining what they want. Other companies rely on focus groups, end user interviews etc. to give direction to their design projects. In each instance there is a dominant authority — either the designers or the consumers, end users et. al.

I am wondering if the best locus of authority doesn’t resides in a complex interplay between these two groups and all the other stakeholders involved. Determining what is desirable, sustainable, beneficial etc. is much larger than any one group can competently deal with or take responsibility for. Everyone needs to be a part of determining what will add to their own quality of life or standard of life but there is a need for expertise as well. How is this to be best accomplished? Just asking.