An excerpt from Hello World by Alice Rawsthorn


26 March 2013

Last night the design critic Alice Rawsthorn launched her new book Hello World: Where Design Meets Life at London's Serpentine Gallery. To celebrate this launch, here we publish a chapter from the book.

Designed by Irma Boom and published by Hamish Hamilton, Hello World explores the impact of design on our lives. Taking in examples ranging from warlords and pirates, to farmers, activists and scientists, the book examines the different social ends for which design has been used throughout history.

Below, we publish the book's epilogue, Redesigning Design. In this chapter, Rawsthorn explores some of the issues that designers will face in the coming years as well as suggesting ways in which design might adapt to face them.

Forgetting to take your pills; mistakenly taking too many, or too few; taking them at the wrong time of day; forgetting to check the expiry date; fumbling with a new inhaler because you have forgotten how you were told to operate it: for one reason or another, and mostly because of forgetfulness, one in two prescription medicines are taken incorrectly, with potentially devastating consequences for our health.

Mathieu Lehanneur was so struck by that statistic as a design student in Paris that he decided to address the underlying problems in his graduation project. But when he told the director of his design school what he was planning, the response was discouraging. The director advised him to pick another theme. Why would the pharmaceutical industry be interested in a designer’s thoughts on encouraging patients to take their medicines correctly? Or the medical profession, come to that?
If Lehanneur wanted to apply design to health care, he should stick to packaging and brand identities.

Doubtless, the advice was well intentioned, but Lehanneur ignored it and developed a series of devices to help people to take the correct doses at the right time. Some were as simple as printing the prescription on the bag in which the drugs were carried, and dividing a course of medicine into a string of plastic “beads” with the relevant date printed on each daily dose. Another solution was to infuse a “therapeutic” paper handkerchief with hay-fever medicine so that sufferers could alleviate their symptoms each time they used it. Far from being ignored by the pharmaceutical industry, a decade later the project was being adapted for production, and Lehanneur was advising a Paris hospital on ways of improving its care of terminally ill patients. The hospital has since introduced LED screens to a palliative care unit showing what the sky will look like the following day. Even patients who may not live that long feel as though they have a stake in the future by dint of knowing something about it, and the friends and relatives who come to visit them always have something to say in what might otherwise be a distressing encounter.

By demonstrating design’s agility at developing unexpected yet effective solutions to complex problems, Mathieu Lehanneur makes a compelling case for designers to be given greater responsibility in new areas of our lives. So do Hilary Cottam and the Participle team by reinventing critical areas of social services; Ben Fry and Casey Reas by helping to tackle the data deluge crisis; Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller by empowering the disadvantaged; Poonam Bir Kasturi and Sanga Moses by devising ingenious solutions to environmental problems; and all the other enterprising designers who have written their own job descriptions as auteurs, activists, conceptualists, adventurers, theorists, strategists, social reformers, ecologists, mavericks and entrepreneurs.

The curator Paola Antonelli has predicted that in years to come designers, like physicists, will fall into one of two categories: theoretical and applied. Both camps will act as what she calls “pragmatic intellectuals” by analysing important social, political and technological issues that could affect our quality of life, such as food crises and dwindling natural resources, but the former will do so abstractly, and the latter by planning and executing practical solutions to the problems. Such a scenario seems closer thanks to the achievements of Lehanneur, Cottam and their peers.

There will be no shortage of challenges for designers to wrestle with. Dwindling natural resources. Freak weather. Abuses of digital privacy. Data deluge. Crumbling social services. Bloated landfill sites. Paralysed roads. Congested airports. Computer viruses. Technophobia. Economic imbalances. Fissile communities. Food shortages. Imperilled species. So much space junk hurtling around outer space that the International Space Station has had to change its axis to avoid collisions. Designers will be tussling with these and other problems for decades to come.

They will have powerful tools to help them in the scientific discoveries, which will flow from the underwater drones now scouring the deep seas, the Blue Brain Project in Lausanne, the Large Hadron Collider, the International Space Station and research laboratories all over the world. In its “Hello World” role, design can help to translate those leaps in scientific knowledge into things that could make our lives more efficient, enjoyable and responsible. It can do the same by ensuring that future developments in robotics, nanotechnology, supramolecular chemistry, biomimicry and digital production technologies are put to constructive use, as past generations of designers did for the transistor and computer.

In essence, design will remain the same: still an agent of change, as it was in Qin Shihuangdi’s day; and still, as a 1593 reference in the Oxford English Dictionary put it: “a plan or scheme conceived in the mind of something to be done”. But if it is to realize its true potential, it needs to evolve. The old-fashioned virtues of integrity, efficacy, ingenuity and appropriateness will be as important as ever, if not more so, but other qualities must be nurtured too.

Among them is openness. In the open source era, secrecy no longer looks like an alluring exercise of power, but a symptom of insecurity and cause for suspicion. Designers need to be less defensive, and more amenable to collaboration with other disciplines, not as tactical ploys to move into new terrain, but as learning opportunities. The same generosity should be extended to the “accidental” designers, who have practised design by chance, and, critically, to the people who use design and, thanks to the new wave of manufacturing technologies, will exercise greater influence over its outcome as they experiment with customization.

Design must also become more compassionate. Old-school design was defined by certainties, as you would expect of a culture that was fired by modernist fervour and intent on improving the lives of millions of people by dint of standardization. At its best, this culture was plucky and optimistic, but it also erred towards arrogance, obduracy and boosterism. Those qualities will prove even more damaging in future. Design needs to become more empathetic, and better attuned to the frailties that defy rational analysis yet determine so many elements of our lives, such as making half of us prone to muddling up something as simple and important as taking prescription medicine correctly.

And design needs to be both bolder and humbler. Designers should never be censured for ambition or courage, both of which will be required in abundance if they are to aim higher in terms of the scale and intensity of their work. Yet they must also exercise restraint in accepting design’s limitations. If not, its credibility in its new spheres of influence will disintegrate. Nor should designers shirk the mundane aspects of noble endeavours, such as helping to build a sustainable society.

Design must also become more diplomatic. Designers can be excellent communicators, as they have proved over the centuries in the symbolic coup of the skull and crossbones, and all the maps, signage systems and visual languages that have guided, enlightened and protected us. Yet they have been conspicuously less successful at championing their own cause; hence the muddles and misleading clichés that have dogged design over the years. Taking on bigger, more onerous challenges will raise the stakes, because the consequences of failure will be so much graver. Designers need not only to exercise greater rigour in their work, but to be more adroit when disseminating it.

Daunting though these obstacles are, none of them is insurmountable. And it is in all of our interests that design succeeds in overcoming them, and in fulfilling its potential to become a wiser, more constructive force in our lives.