Steven Heller | Essays

America’s Big Design Problem

Before any of you get your dander up for an essay that injects current politics into a design discourse, remember that Paul Rand said “design is everywhere” and everything in life is touched by one or more design decisions. Where our daily lives are concerned the design bubble is easily burst. Politics is design. Law is design. The United States was designed to ensure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. The Statue of Liberty was designed to symbolize those ideas and more. Not everything is, however, good design and not all design decisions can please everybody. But to say design should be politically sanitized is to miss the point of what design is meant to do.

Since the election, I’ve opted to design a sort-of denial bubble as an alt-reality, albeit until January when the design of a new administration is ushered in. I admit that the outcome of this election did not uphold my beliefs, but I accept, as we all must, that the results are set in stone.

How that stone will be shaped is a design problem and the designers’ challenge is how to make America great (again). Designers for all kinds of industry—from media to healthcare—must determine how to design the stone so it does not crush our way of life, but serves, instead, as a new cornerstone for a positive future.

My fear is that the stone portends of a landslide of dangerous policies, exacerbated by strongly manipulated emotions. So the role of design must be two-fold: cautionary and encouraging. The new administration is faced with many design issues that will impact all of us. Forget the fact that the President-elect has eccentric tastes in art, architecture, and design. The issue for me is not that he prefers gold leaf to bare brick, but that his design challenges for our government represent design problems for us all.

Now is not the time to simply make clever posters with witty slogans. (Fun yes. Productive, no.) We must believe that since design can serve people for the better, it is our job to design alternative streams of credible information that will provide tools—tools for designing alternative social, cultural, and political bulwarks against the social, cultural, and political transformations that will soon be locked in stone if we don’t act.

I was not alive during FDR’s New Deal, but it was nonetheless the defining design ethos of my generation. It was the foundation upon which liberalism gradually grew into civil rights and free speech movements. When he took office in 1933, Roosevelt’s self-proclaimed mission was for America to align more with its founding principles. There were poor designs produced along the way, and power shifted from one ideology to another. But the good designer’s job was to help define the ultimate goal and the path to achieve it.

Since there is no design program that will change the outcome of this most recent election, our design job is to move forward: nostalgia is simply not an option. Designers must be progressive thinkers and makers. Whatever position on the political spectrum you may choose, we’re surrounded by major design opportunities. Donald Trump may not be the ideal design client but that just means we have to work that much harder. I’m sure FDR would agree.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Politics

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