Designism 4.0: Is Sustainability Sustainable?
At Art Directors Club's Designism 4.0 event last night, the word "sustainable" was heavy on the breath of all four panelists. "Sustainable" has entered common usage as a catch-all designation for eco-friendly lifestyles, but it took on extra meaning here as a sort of euphemism for "economically viable."
The subject of the discussion, according to ADC's press release, was "the responsibilities and experiences of creatives and designers to drive social, political and ecological change through their work." But moderator Helen Walters made it clear from the start that she wanted to explore an even more direct mode of design activism, one in which the "work" and the "change" become interchangeable.
By our current cultural standards, the strangeness of this notion is pretty extreme. Any designer already has to accomplish the near-paradoxical task of making art pay. Now, apparently, designers have been challenged to make altruism pay. All, I guess, through the miracles of creativity.
Sound cynical? Maybe I've taken on the tone of legendary designer and Designism 4.0 panelist Paula Scher, who objected several times to the "value judgment" Walters seemed to make between Scher's pro bono work (such as her famous Public Theater posters) and the newfangled "charity-pays-the-bills" model. "What's wrong with normal clients?" she asked Walters at one point.
Scher said that she often asks her less wealthy clients not to pay her because she has more control over the design and "spends less time in meetings" when she takes on the role of benefactor. In 2000, she designed the initial logo for New York City's High Line project without accepting a fee. During the above-ground park's recent construction, she was paid to create the signage, and didn't have much fun doing it.
William Drentell of Winterhouse Studio (and the popular blog Design Observer) had a different take on the issue. "Pro bono work is like tithing in the Catholic Church," he said. "That's not what the model should be. Designers need to get out of passive mode and start initiating the conversation."
Speaking about the Aspen Design Summit, a symposium on design activism from which he just returned, Drenttel said that there were few designers present who had not done fieldwork in Africa. "It's not enough to raise the money, you have to become sort of an expert," he explained. Later, he urged designers in the audience to ask themselves the question, "What would happen if we didn't do it the way we used to do it?"
The career of Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS Shoes (of the "one-for-one" policy that grants one pair of shoes to someone in need for every pair sold), lends legitimacy to the "change-agent-as-entrepeneur" model. The short promotional doc that kicked off his Designism talk had plenty of high-def images of Mycoskie among smiling kids in developing nations, as well as more than enough material to satisfy a Third World foot fetishist. Not a designer himself, Mycoskie revealed that his design department represents nearly 20% of his entire staff. "We are a design-led company," he said. "Design spreads the story and motivates people to act."
Design may play an important role in spreading the story of the TOMS Shoes brand, but not to be discounted, as Mycoskie admitted, is the impact of the Los Angeles Times profile that appeared very soon after the first 250 TOMS pairs were produced. More than 2,000 pairs were purchased online the day the Times piece came out. The TOMS success story would seem to underscore the importance of influential connections, a time-tested sustainable resource for any entrepeneur.
TOMS and ADC have collaborated on the "Walk the Walk" online auction, which allows bidders to compete on eBay for pairs of TOMS Shoes that have been reimagined by design superstars such as Louise Fili, Jessica Helfand, and Scott Stowell. Sample pairs were on view at Designism 4.0. Christoph Niemann's pair is adorned with painted-on bare feet, and Stowell's is almost completely covered in handwritten small talk ("I totally agree with you on that," and similar phrases). My favorite, though, is Ellen Lupton's, on which festive, curling lines provide a pleasant, accentuating contrast to the stark black letters "L" and "R," for "left" and "right."
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