Design to Empower the People

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.

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 Either 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).

&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.”

Superman cover for Opus Magazine (1968), Roman Cieslewicz, featured in the V&A's ”Cold War Modern.“

Additionally, the 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“ system.

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 black-and-white graphics.

BlackBook Activists' Guerilla Codes transforms text-message protestations into indecipherable graphics.

Guerilla 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.

Lighten 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.

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 online.

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.“