Recessionary design: A boom time for creative energy
By Alice Rawsthorn
Published: November 14, 2008
International Herald Tribune
The Global Edition of the New York Times
LONDON: Recession. Depression. Slump. Crash. Whatever it's called, and however severe it turns out to be, the economic crisis is bound to affect design. The question is how? Judging by design's fate in past recessions, it will suffer in this one. Some designers' clients will go out of business, and others will cut costs. Research and development budgets will be slashed. Designers' jobs will be lost, and projects scrapped. But there may be positive consequences too. Design has always coped well with austerity, and is especially well-equipped to do so now.
1. Learning from history.
If you rewind through design history, many of the most exhilarating periods have been during economic downturns. Take the 1930s, when the modern movement flourished despite the depression. Or the late 1940s, when Italy emerged as one of the world's most dynamic design centers during its postwar reconstruction. In the United States, Richard Buckminster Fuller invented the geodesic dome to provide emergency housing for demobilized troops and their families. Those domes have since provided shelter for hundreds of thousands of people, many in desperate circumstances.
Designers responded to the last recession at the turn of the 1990s by working with cheap materials and found objects. Typical was the Chest of Drawers, the old wooden drawers bundled together by the Dutch designer Tejo Remy, to make a new piece. Similar themes are resurfacing in the survivalist design style of recycled materials and staccato shapes favored by young designers like Nacho Carbonell of Spain and Maarten Baas of the Netherlands.
2. Responding to change.
But the main reason why design could benefit from this recession is because it always thrives on change, and every area of our lives is currently in flux. The economic crisis will not only transform finance and business, but the way we think and behave. Then there's the environmental crisis, and the realization that most of the institutions and systems that regulated our lives in the 20th century need to be reconfigured for the 21st century.
At the World Economic Forum summit meeting last weekend in Dubai on the global agenda the dominant words were "change," "reboot" and "transformative." There was clear consensus on the need for fundamental change and for experimenting with new approaches to achieving it. I attended the summit meeting as a member of the forum's Global Agenda Council on Design, and we all agreed that design had an important role to play. Designers are adept at analyzing problems from fresh perspectives, and applying lateral thinking to develop ingenious solutions. They also excel at simplifying complex issues (and there are lots of those around right now), and collaborating with other disciplines.
The recent changes within design itself make those skills even more useful. The 20th-century model of design was devoted to the creation of things - both objects and images - but designers are now also applying their expertise to systems.
3. Redesigning businesses.
This means that designers will be called upon to advise recession-struck companies on how to cut costs without impeding efficiency. They will also be asked to exploit the entrepreneurial opportunities offered by the recession by developing austerity-friendly products and services.
An example is the Virtual Wallet online banking service developed for the young, tech-savvy customers of the American bank PNC, by the IDEO design group. It enables account holders to manage their finances online more efficiently, even on tiny cellphone screens. IDEO's design also helps them to manage their cashflow by anticipating when money will be paid in and out of their accounts. Rather than showing rows of numbers, as conventional bank statements do, IDEO has deployed visualization techniques to illustrate them graphically on screen. PNC's research showed that, as the credit crunch deepened, people felt confused and even frightened at being bombarded by complex financial information from their banks.
Designers will also help to develop recession-friendly business models, including rental systems, such as the bicycle services in Paris, Montreal and other cities. These projects not only involve old-fashioned product design, but a systemic approach to planning how they'll work. As the environmental crisis deepens, sophisticated new forms of renting - or "rentalism" as it's called - may emerge as popular alternatives to owning things that we'll only use for short periods of time.
4. Redesigning social services.
A similar mix of systemic design thinking and traditional design techniques is enabling designers to address social problems, such as aging, crime and unemployment. Some of these problems may worsen during recession. The British government has already commissioned the service design consultancy Live|Work to expand its Hot Products program of designing ways to help teenagers prevent the theft of their cellphones and other portable devices.
Equally relevant at a time when joblessness is rising is the Make it Work initiative developed by Live|Work to help the long-term unemployed in the British city of Sunderland to find work. The project began two years ago when Live|Work analyzed the support offered and what was needed. Many people were prevented from working by problems such as drug addiction or caring responsibilities. A common difficulty was the disconnect between the specialist agencies dealing with those issues and local employment services.
Live|Work designed an "activity coalition" whereby all of the relevant support services, including charities and local government, could pool information and work together to help individuals. For example, one beneficiary is a former heroin addict and career criminal who kicked his addiction thanks to the support of a rehabilitation charity, which then collaborated with fellow coalition members to help him train as a fork lift truck driver and find a job.
5. "Design-Art" R.I.P.
Resilient though some areas of design will be, others have already been hit by recession. One is "design-art." Half of the lots at Sotheby's design auction in London last month were unsold, and dealers are nervous about the prospects for next month's Design Miami fair. But what's the most exciting role for design? Developing new business concepts and cracking social problems, or making expensive, uncomfortable furniture?