By Jennifer Leonard
I recently spoke about “sustaining change” at a multidisciplinary two-weekend event called The Creators Series, curated by the former RES Fest crew (now under the moniker Tomorrow Unlimited). It took place first in New York, and second in Los Angeles. In both cities I had the opportunity to experience first-hand and get inspired by a number of scintillating projects the world over – related to laser tagging, clean tagging, social networking, and participatory filmmaking.
When it was my turn at the mic, I was asked among other things about the nuances of social design and how it figured into a vision for our sustainable future. One question, in particular, stuck with me long after the panel ended. It went a little something like this: If the sort of design you speak of represents people and projects who are instigating (and helping to sustain) positive change in the world, then why don’t you just call this strand of design “activism”?
The question came from a performance artist who regularly dreams up projects as a way to bestow gifts upon unsuspecting others. He had clearly given careful thought to his own art practice in relation to activism, and took this opportunity to tease it out into the space of design.
The question’s a good one. I liked where it pushed me. Why indeed is this form of “design” still called, simply, design? Why aren’t we calling it design activism… or activist design?
Let’s start with what I suppose to be true: design is both optimistic and pragmatic; design is about devising and executing a planned outcome; design means a lot of things to a lot of people; design could be regarded as activism if the sensibilities one brings to it are activist in nature; design is undergoing a redesign; design is a hot topic right now because it’s increasingly becoming the shared language multi-disciplinarians speak when the goal is to discuss innovation and positive impact – socially, economically and ecologically.
Pulling these colorful, semi-orderly threads together helps me see more clearly the subtle distinctions between activism and design. Although design projects I celebrate could begin with rebel-rousing of some kind, they refuse to end there. They uniquely go about causing a stir that’s continuous and iterative. They are open to new ingredients. Their structure is flexible. They’re collaborative. They’re cooperative. They consider the whole. Design with a social bent is activism-like, but it carries responsibility for the long run. It’s practical in nature, not pie-in-the-sky. It sets out to operationalize change, not just talk about it – or stage riots to spur it.
One huge caveat: I do not mean to imply that activism is always riotous or that activism via rioting isn’t right. Equally, I’m not saying that “design” is in any way righteous. Not always is design the most expedient or sensible way to go about change-making, especially in times of crisis, or for those without access to resources, tools, information, or support. In these cases, riots have been (and continue to be) part of the human drama. In many instances, they’ve effectively brought about global awareness and significant positive change.
So what’s important here is recognizing context and ensuring that activism and design are not set up to be mutually exclusive practices. Denigrating activism keeps it from being as effective as it might otherwise be. Serving design up on a silver platter gives the impression it’s exclusive at a time when we can’t afford it to be. Activism and design aren’t one in the same but they need not discount the other!
In fact, design projects that inspire me most are more like activism than not. They’re beautiful and functional because they’re intended for the greater good. They bulldoze barriers and build bridges. They’re without a doubt less passive, more active.