Jessica Helfand | DesignIndaba

Making Change 02: Why Warning Matters

A story on the front page of today’s New York Times suggests that the fall of the Kenyan economy may be closely tied to the collapse of the coastal tourism industry. Increased joblessness, idleness, and poverty led to grim prospects for Kenya’s nearly 45 million inhabitants, and travel advisories—which have been issued repeatedly over the past three years, in the wake of a series of highly publicized terrorist attacks in Kenya—serve, among other things, to alienate prospective travelers, significantly weakening the once-vibrant coastal economy there.

Travel advisories are nothing more than warnings, and warnings are critical to communication: as such, they are the currency in which designers must trade. In the Northeastern United States this winter, travel advisories have been used to minimize danger in weather conditions where visibility is key. And perhaps it is precisely this—visibility—that makes the act of warning a design conceit. 

If an advisory is a warning, how toxic are words, simple tools of persuasion for good—or evil? To what degree do design choices impact safety precautions, wayfinding systems, prescription intake? Can warnings about terror become acts of terror themselves, gestures of communication in which the perpetuation of fear itself becomes, in fact, a lethal weapon?

The realities of the Kenyan economy reveal themselves in lost jobs and despondent workers, empty beaches and stalled tourism: unemployment spurs nefarious activity, and the terrorism cycle reignites once more. This is a system where change must happen.  “T
errorism,” Christopher Hitchens wrote, “is the tactic of demanding the impossible.” Designers, gathering thoughtfully on the other coast of Africa, take note: shouldn't what we do be the opposite of that?

Jobs | June 22