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Design is a powerful tool. Its impact and fundamental role in
politics were the focus of an exhibition at the V&A in London
last year, “Cold War Modern:
Design 1945–1970,” which explored how designers used Cold War
technologies, products and aspects of popular culture to envision
imagined utopias. The overall analysis illustrated how design may
be understood as “a species of military uniform, a powerful method
of signalling allegiances and aspirations, of rallying ones own
side, and intimidating the perceived enemy.”
NY Pocketbook (2002) by Tobias Wong.
Recently, however, design has developed another political role.
This arrives at a time where the so-called threat of terrorism has
successfully created risk societies within the major democracies;
speculations about the latest conspiracy to blow up buildings,
sabotage commercial airliners and poison water supplies still
dominate the headlines. This has also opened up a new playground
for designers. Tobias Wong, for
example, has created a range of products that reference the 9/11
attacks, including Boxcutter and NY Pocketbook. He
has resorted to this type of work because he is “frustrated that
other designers don't.
A series of projects has also emerged in response to the recent
debate about climate change. British design duo &Made adopted this theme for
their self-initiated project Climatised Objects, addressing
the dangers presented by global warming. The flagship piece
Oar is a timber dining table inspired by recent spates of
flash flooding in the United Kingdom. What appears to be simply an
elegant piece of contemporary furniture actually doubles as a raft,
with removable legs and slats that fit together to make oars in a
case of emergency.
&made's Either Oar (2006), a table that can be taken apart
to form a life-saving raft (used here on the Thames).
Life-altering events—such as 9/11 and climate change—stimulate
creatives and cause them to examine current political, social and
economic trends. As a result, designers are increasingly using
their work to comment on the world around them. That work is
indicative of current global issues and offers an uncensored
alternative to mass media, which often proves unreliable. Ideals
such as freedom of information and keeping the public informed may
be compromised to reflect corporate policies. Where the media is
untrustworthy, there is a place for design to fill that space.
Corporate and government control is intensifying, especially in
Great Britain. The country is quickly becoming known as ”Orwellian
UK,“ as the first ID cards, equipped with fingerprints and facial
scans, are currently being distributed to foreign nationals.
Combine the biometric data on these cards with the potential
tracking system available on Oyster (public transport) cards, as
well as constant CCTV monitoring, and it won't be long until our
privacy is not so private anymore.
Superman cover for Opus Magazine (1968), Roman Cieslewicz,
featured in the V&A's ”Cold War Modern.“
Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) 2005 effectively
bans freedom of speech within a one-kilometer exclusion zone around
the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London; now MPs are
seeking the means to pass laws that will allow media censorship in
the name of national security. This is our current ”democratic“
The immateriality and invisibility of risk societies (as the
United Kingdom and United States have now become), means that all
knowledge is ”mediated and… dependant on interpretation.“ The
inescapability of interpretation makes risks ”open to social
definition, putting those in a position to define risks—the mass
media, scientists, politicians and the legal profession—in key
social positions.“ Perhaps now is also the time to include
”designers“ in this list.
But instead of ”working from the top,“ designers need to engage
in a socially responsible practice that empowers the people and
defends our democratic ideals. Organizations like Design 21: Social Design Network
and Adbusters have
developed a reputation for such achievements; BlackBook Activists is
another such example. This relatively new project brings together
six interconnected mini-projects in an online resource center as a
direct challenge to SOCPA. The overarching concept illustrates how
design can be used to devise creative and alternative forms of
self-expression inspired by new technologies. It is an underground
movement built specifically for the masses, utilizing open-source
resources to promote unconditional free speech.
BlackBook Activists' Guerilla Codes transforms text-message
protestations into indecipherable graphics.
Codes, for example, is a mini-project that employs
two-dimensional barcode and mobile phone technology. Information
can be encoded into a matrix of black and white squares and decoded
using a mobile phone application when required. The resulting
system introduces a unique method of communication, as well as
highlights the contradiction of having to conceal self-expression
within a democracy.
Up manipulates light graffiti for night protest; the tools
required include a digital camera (with long exposure abilities), a
flat surface (or tripod) and a flashlight. The flashlight is used
to write in the air; what is ”written“ is only visible when
digitally captured on camera. The final images can then be gathered
for a visual petition.
BlackBook Activists' Lighten Up camera graffiti project.
Additionally, Say by Phone
Protest is a hotline for free expression and a subversion
of Westminster council's pay-by-phone parking. In this system, a
telephone service is set up for members of the public to call and
voice their dissent at a time that is convenient for them. A topic
for discussion is decided on a monthly rotation via an online poll;
the resulting voicemail messages are eventually made accessible
Socially responsible design is gaining momentum as designers are
beginning to increasingly consider the context of their work,
acting as indicators of current global affairs that necessitate
action or response. At the same time, democracies are gradually
assuming 1984-like, state-controlled existences as we are
constantly being monitored. Consequently, we need to employ more
creative means of expression in order to be heard. In the face of a
growing economic crisis, it is the responsibility of designers to
maintain and amplify socially responsible energy by also
considering a user in relation to context: the people. Now is the
time to regain control by designing for the masses and to ”make
design stand for something again.“
Truthiness may be overrated. But sometimes a bit of well-delivered satire is precisely what’s needed. Dooley revisits the hoaxes of Paul Krassner.
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