Design activism takes root 

Debi Keay
Photo By Jim Walker

Photo By Jim Walker
There"s a growing movement around the world, one that seems to have sprung up at about the same time as the Internet. It"s been called design activism. The evidence: Las Vegas, Nev., summer, 1999. A billboard unveiled as participants arrive for the annual AIGA design conference features a quote by design maverick Tibor Kalman: "Designers Ö stay away from corporations that want you to lie for them."
The new Indiana State Museum: more re-hashed postmodernism?
Seattle, Wash., December 1999. Amid peaceful protests at a World Trade Organization meeting, activists propose that designers be held accountable for the corporate products and promotions they help disseminate. London, England, 2000. In his book Brand Storm, futurist Will Murray predicts the emergence of a new, human economy. "The Internet is going to change the balance of power between suppliers and consumers Ö" he says. "The day of the consumer guerrilla is not far away." Designers play a primary role in creating our future. Just how that happens can be hard to see - though it was pretty obvious a couple of years ago in Palm Beach, when a poorly designed ballot led to the most hotly disputed election in American history. Consider, as well, how the design of your workplace affects your performance, health, confidence and attitude. The impact Joe Camel had on school kids. Or the way clothing designers have turned us into human billboards, and technology is eliminating the need for actual human interaction. Design, and the issues it embodies through its role in the world of commerce, shapes our culture. This suggests that designers should indeed take some responsibility for the far-ranging impact of their work. Designers could be seen as the bridge between the corporation and the community, whose goals are fundamentally at odds. By aiming higher, and thinking deeper, designers might actually create what Bill Clinton has called "the third way" ñ- solutions that help businesses succeed, and communities flourish. Designs that reward individuality, and lead to new and more robust forms of expression from all of us. Why can"t Nordstrom carry clothing by independent and local designers? Seems like they did when they first opened. No doubt they suspended the practice because they couldn"t sell the stuff. That"s where you come in. In the future, do you want access to a variety of garments that let you experiment with fashion? Or do you want to wear a uniform dictated by Lauren, Claiborne, Hilfiger and Nike? It"s time to use your voice, and vote with your plastic, for variety in the marketplace. For true design excellence, instead of more re-hashed postmodernism, in the public spaces like White River Park. For the environment. For the small businessperson. But mostly, for your own sake. We all deserve better than we"re getting, and at a fair price. The Internet has put tremendous power in the hands of the consumer. We can now, almost instantly, form coalitions to speak out against design that erodes the human spirit, and speak up for products and services that truly have our best interests at heart. Pet design peeve Everyone has their own pet design peeve. Why not give yours a voice? Talk back to designers. You know, online. There are other ways, too. Watch where your money goes. Before you dole out for another uninspired, mass-produced thingie, just think a minute. Is there a better choice? Do it yourself. Don"t let corporate America kill your creativity. Sure you can buy one at the superstore, but it might be fun to make it yourself. Stick up for the environment. Marketers have responded to our demands for eco-friendly products. How many do you buy? Demand a keener aesthetic. What"s up with all this me-too architecture? And the condos going up off Westfield in Broad Ripple - YUCK. It"ll take a monumental effort to overwhelm the real estate crowd, but I"m ready to sign up. Reward quality and originality. Expose mediocrity. Strip it and torture it. Grind it to a slow and agonizing death. Question the designer"s motives. How many times have you bought something because it looked cool, only to discover it didn"t perform as you were led to believe? Demand authenticity. Truth is beauty, et cetera. Buy homegrown. What are the values, and where lies the commitment, of the companies you support? What role do you play in perpetuating the McDonaldsCokeNikeGapNabisco metaculture? Refuse the passive role. They want us to just lie there, watch TV and buy stuff on our computers. Resist. Give the designer a face to remember: yours. Designers and makers need to hear from us. Let them see your face and read your lips, demanding that they give us a better world. Hey, this just might work. If enough people stood up, went to their windows, and shouted, "I"m mad as hell Ö" Just one problem. The window in this dumb office won"t open.

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Debi Keay

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