It's another New Year. According to the Chinese calendar, which begins anew on the 7th of February, 2008 is a Year of the Rat.
Rat years are fertile for new beginnings:
A Rat Year is a time of hard work, activity, and renewal. This is a good year to begin a new job, get married, launch a product or make a fresh start. Ventures begun now may not yield fast returns, but opportunities will come for people who are well prepared and resourceful. The best way for you to succeed is to be patient, let things develop slowly, and make the most of every opening you can find. (MyCart.net)
So what new beginning should designers pursue in 2008? Try, planning realistically for a very different future.
The last few weeks I've been researching and analyzing trends for a prominent European manufacturer of home goods. I was charged with describing current trend that characterize lifestyles in the industrial world (and elsewhere) over the next five years -- but as with most true trends (and not just fads), the trends I found most significant have a trajectory lasting well into the next two or three decades. No aware person will be surprised to read that the most significant trends include:
- Climate change and global warming, leading to environmental stress
- The scarcity of petroleum as a basis for gasoline, jet fuel, heating oil, and plastic products, curbing travel and encouraging recycling
- Rising prices for health care specifically, but also for any products and services based on petroleum -- in other words, almost everything
- A credit crunch followed by a money crunch, leading to reduced consumerism, market declines, and job losses
- Greater reliance on intentional communities, physical as well as virtual, for personal well being
- Greater economic globalization accompanied by devolution of national structures
- An overarching need for parsimony, the husbanding of resources and extreme care in their deployment
(On the plus side, dwindling energy probably means an end to the war economy, late in the game.)
So are designers planning for for this rapidly approaching future of limits, constraints, stresses, and new behaviors? Not many, and not much.
Recently, Cooper-Hewitt, the US National Design Museum, hosted “Design for the Other 90%.” (The exhibition closed in September, but its website remains -- and it's a good one.) The website opens with this quote from Dr. Paul Polak of International Development Enterprises,
"The majority of the world’s designers focus all their efforts on developing products and services exclusively for the richest 10% of the world’s customers. Nothing less than a revolution in design is needed to reach the other 90%."
Most people will read this, as have many reviewers, as a cliché: "Once again, designers are neglecting the developing world." But that's not what Dr. Polak's saying. At least half, if not more, of the world's customers don't live in the developing world. They live here, in the advanced and advancing industrial nations. In other words, 90 percent of the world's designers are designing to serve only a tiny fraction of customers...everywhere.
And in the future, the situation could get worse. One of the megatrends resulting from the trends listed above and others (including falling stock markets and incipient economic recession or depression) is a noticeable bifurcation of advanced societies, particularly the United States and other “free market” economies, as the middle class is absorbed -- a small proportion into the genuinely rich class and a much larger proportion into the genuinely poor class.
(Even designers are feeling the pressure: young designers are mainly just getting by and older designers are discovering that seniority brings no security.) Given the easy foreseeability of this future, one might expect more designers to begin identifying with “the other 90%” and restructuring their design practices for future survival and prosperity, such as can be accomplished in a society under extreme pressure.
But with the exception of designers who explicitly design for the developing world -- and designers in the developing world, who are used to economical design (though not necessarily designing economically) -- there appears to be no groundswell of realism among designers. Most continue working on interfaces for electrical gizmos, expensive medical technology, furniture for mansions, fashions for consumption, food that contributes to obesity, homes and cars that queer the air, and all the many other environmental and energy sinks that promise to drag down the quality of life for “everyone else.” Caught up in their professions and determined to get ahead of the rest of the pack, designers, ethnographers, marketers, and brand managers all seem caught up in the same lemming race. Not this time, Horatios. We're all in this together. Nor will “designing green” or “living simply” suffice. The are merely affectation, luxury options for the rich. They will not buy dispensation in the real world to come.
Bill Calvin, a well known mind scientist at the University of Washington, was one of a hundred-plus very smart people asked by the Edge Foundation its World Question for 2008: how have you changed you mind? Bill replied that the evidence of rapid global warming changed his mind, and it should change others:
"...We're not even back paddling as fast as we can, just drifting toward the falls. If I were a student or young professional, seeking my future being trashed, I'd be mad as hell. And hell is a pretty good metaphor for where we are heading if we don't get our act together. Quickly."
The same goes for the design profession. Especially for designers of experience, whose creative inventions won't survive the extreme trauma of new experiences foisted on all of us, rich and poor, in a world under harsh stress: environmental, economic, and social.
Happy New Year.
(But wait! "Hope springs eternal in the human breast." Check back next week....)