During the month of May, Icsid is covering the leaps and bounds made in the area of impact design or design for good within the industry. Joe Speicher, Executive Director at Autodesk Foundation and Bas van Lier, Editor-in-Chief at What Design Can Do, agreed to contribute to a discussion on this movement and how they interpret the future of the design profession. Below, they share their thoughts on some of the challenges the world currently faces and how these issues, when paired with the evolving world of technology, will shape our collective future.

Q: There seems to have been, over the last decade or so, a dramatic increase in the number of individuals, design firms and non-profits championing some form of ‘design for good’. Is this the natural next step for the design professions, or is this a separate field emerging? 

Joe Speicher (JS): At the Autodesk Foundation, we see this as a natural progression, from the commercial sector as well as the social sector. There’s plenty of evidence that suggests more and more designers are acknowledging the social and environmental impacts of their design decisions, and an increasing number of non-profit organisations are leveraging design to help improve their service or product offering.

When we think about the future and the epic challenges we face – as a result of climate change and an exploding urban population – good design is the only way to ensure a more sustainable world. How do we build smarter cities and better infrastructure to handle the unprecedented urbanisation we’ll see in the next three decades? That’s a design challenge. How do we drive technological innovation into renewable energy generation and storage? That’s a design challenge. The list goes on and on.

We believe that societal value and business value are correlated. We intend to get ahead of these challenges; by supporting the designers who are changing the world and providing the software tools that will help them succeed, ultimately leading to a better future for all of us.

Bas van Lier (BvL): I would say a next step. After design discovered new capabilities through a kind of self-expression in the 1990’s – think of Droog Design – the world has changed dramatically. Global television and later social media – Facebook and Twitter started only 10 years ago – have made us even more aware of all the problems we face in the world today. At the same time, blunt consumerism continues to decline. It seems to me a natural thing for designers to shift their attention from designing things to designing solutions. We will still need things to sit on or to communicate with, but we can make them in such ways that they add to the solution. Look at Fairphone, a sustainably and fairly produced phone developed by designer Bas van Abel in the Netherlands. It’s still a small company, but I’m sure Apple and Samsung and the likes will follow it attentively, because the Fairphone is not only better but also cheaper.

Q: How do you see the field of impact design evolving in the next decade? What are the obstacles and successes we might expect to see? 

JS: We see two general trends emerging that will disrupt the design field overall in the coming years, from two completely different spheres. Externally, the societal and environmental changes our planet is experiencing will require new design solutions that must be cost-effective, localised and user-centric. And within the technology sector, an industry-wide shift to cloud, social and mobile services is democratising access and lowering barriers to entry. The good news is that these two trends – seemingly intractable challenges coupled with new and innovative solutions that can come from anywhere – are converging, creating the perfect opportunity for designers to focus their considerable expertise on solutions for a better future with impact design.

BvL: We’ll certainly see many more projects in the digital and open source realms. And also 3D printing will develop further, so that we witness more direct exchanges between designers and consumers. It’s what economist Jeremy Rifkin calls the Third Industrial Revolution, a complete shift towards renewable energy, exchanges of energy and products through the Internet, and zero marginal costs which results in a spectacular slowdown of climate change. It will mean a complete shift in the economy that will be most hindered by the ‘old way thinking’ of companies and politicians. But the Internet offers all the opportunities to challenge this need to hold on to old systems.

Q: We have seen a wide variety of terms used to describe, in some cases, very similar approaches. For example, we hear about ‘impact design’, ‘humanitarian design’, ‘socially responsible design’ and so on. Is the terminology going to coalesce, or are these terms all useful in describing slightly different philosophies?

JS: When we launched the Autodesk Foundation, we looked around at the many ‘communities of practice’ related to designing for positive impact and we found all of these too constrictive. There wasn’t one term that encompassed our mandate: to support the role of design for positive environmental and social impact.

We believe ‘impact design’ encompasses all of these various initiatives and can serve as a uniting force between designers of different disciplines. We engage this audience through the Impact Design Hub.

We’re not looking to necessarily coin the term ‘impact design’ but rather we’re looking for ways to bring together the broader community of product designers, architects, engineers, makers and others who all are committed to designing a better future. We expect that by being inclusive, the community can further collaborate and learn from each other to propel this nascent field forward.

BvL: Honestly, I have no idea. And I don’t know if this is of any importance as long as designers, to quote architect Cameron Sinclair, “design like they give a damn”.

Q: There has been some criticism in the past about humanitarian design being the new imperialism. Do you feel this has affected the way designers involved in such projects approach their work? 

JS: It’s an unfair criticism and a misunderstanding of the role of design. ‘Design’ is essentially solving a problem by empathising with the user, iterating on solutions, and identifying the best way forward.

The design organisations we work with all spend exorbitant amounts of time and resources connecting with their users – there’s nothing imperialistic about that. The founders of Proximity Designs moved to Myanmar to work alongside their users. And their team is almost entirely made up of Burmese, designing local solutions. D-Rev here in the United States spends significant resources on user research and engagement. These are just two of many examples of responsible design that are sensitive to the needs of their users.

BvL: I think that designers generally do their jobs with the best intentions and bringing lighting solutions or better stoves to developing areas can hardly be seen as imperialism. Still, the most successful projects appear to be the ones that very much involve the communities that these projects are meant for. This year we have Diébédo Francis Kéré on stage at What Design Can Do. He is an architect from Burkina Faso, trained in Germany, who has done lots of projects in his native country, working with the local communities, using their skills and building traditions in entirely new architectural designs. At What Design Can Do we have had plenty of examples of designers who helped to open new perspectives for traditional craftsmen.

Q: How do we convince designers to give up making teacups and chairs and work on improving the world around us through design? 

JS: It’s really a question of markets – supply and demand. As technology becomes democratised and cost effective, there is an increasing supply of designers focused on these issues. In terms of demand, the higher cost of these epic challenges (think climate change mitigation or designing for the circular economy) is driving more interest, and hence resources to this space.

There are already designers focused on this: Elon Musk at Tesla and Yves Behar at Fuseproject are two examples of designers that are driving socially impactful designs.

BvL: As I said we will still need teacups and chairs in the future too. And I find it hard to believe that there will be designers left who will not at least propose to make these cups and chairs in a sustainable way. But they’ll have to convince their clients to actually produce them in this way. In the meantime platforms like OpenIDEO, the INDEX: Award, Icsid’s World Design Impact Prize, What Design Can Do and many more inspire designers everywhere with best practices. I’m not sure if designers need more persuasion.

Q: Can design save the world? 

JS: The world doesn’t need to be saved. It does need to be re-designed. The built environment, social services, and our global economy can all be designed in a way that provides more for humanity while demanding less from the planet. It’s our collective responsibility to design the future we want to see.

BvL: Not alone, just like politicians can’t, nor scientists nor any other profession. But designers have this ability to understand problems and see the opportunities for innovative solutions using all the information and insights available from different fields. If you look at the visions unfolded by designers who get involved in the emerging field of bio-design, you can get the impression that designers at least can do their part in saving the world. Design is a profession for optimists. That’s probably why I’m so fond of it.


About Joe Speicher
Joe Speicher is the Executive Director of the Autodesk Foundation. Prior to joining Autodesk, Speicher was on the founding team of Living Goods, where he spent six years leading operations for the global health organisation. He began his career in the banking and finance sector, working with Deutsche Bank and Cambridge Associates. He then spent three years in the Peace Corps in the Philippines and has worked as a consultant for the Economist Intelligence Unit, the World Bank and Google.org. He earned a Masters degree from Columbia University and holds a Bachelors degree from Washington and Lee University.

About Bas van Lier
Bas van Lier is editor of What Design Can Do blog and publications. What Design Can Do is an annual event on the impact of design in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, started by a group of designer led by Richard van der Laken and Pepijn Zurburg (De Designpolitie). What Design Can Do consists of a two-day conference, a film festival and several side events. This year in it’s fifth edition What Design Can Do will also start a Challenge, inviting designers from all disciplines and all parts of the world to come up with ideas for the most wicked problems the world is facing today. Being a freelance journalist and writer, Van Lier is also the author of several books, including a series of nonfiction for children.

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