How design can go beyond aesthetics

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Design agency And A Half recently hosted the webinar “Social Problems Are Design Problems,” which discussed social problems that can be solved through design. Illustration courtesy of AND A HALF

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Design is a word that is easily thrown around. Its prevailing notion relates to what appeals to the senses, especially sight and touch. Thus, design often translates to style and aesthetics.

But the world we live in sits on endless layers of design: The streets we traverse, our social media feeds, and even the natural world are all products of design. It’s a ubiquitous element that facilitates or even dictates how we experience things and make sense of these experiences, even in the context of social issues.

This was the focus of the virtual conference “Social Problems Are Design Problems,” which was hosted by design agency And A Half.

Social design

Social design is an approach to social issues that intends to instigate change through empathy and collaboration. This process is interested in understanding the root of the problem through immersion. When done right, the result is a sustainable solution tailored according to the beneficiary’s needs.

Tetel Cuevas was a doctor to the barrio in Lanuza in Surigao del Sur when the pandemic was officially declared. As a doctor to the barrio, she also served as the municipal health officer. So, when the virus reached the country, it was her duty to oversee the municipality’s response to the virus.

Cuevas, who began her deployment during the resurgence of measles and polio last year, was puzzled with how to respond to what was then — and perhaps still is — a mysterious pathogen. What can be done to protect Lanuza from the virus? After days of research and contemplation, Cuevas realized that the strength of Lanuza was in its sense of community.

Courtesy of AND A HALF

Courtesy of AND A HALF

Cuevas sought help from different individuals in the community. The town’s rescue team implemented health safety protocols in public spaces; teachers disseminated information about the current situation; various communities made face masks, which the municipal health office bought from them and distributed for free; and the local wine distillery produced liquor from nipa sap with higher alcohol content for disinfection purposes.

Social design is also what informs the work of Jaton Zulueta of AHA! Learning Center, an organization that caters to public school students in various communities.

AHA! used to provide learning assistance as well as after school facilities in their community centers. When safety protocols prevented physical gatherings, AHA! had to halt its operations. Like other academic institutions, the only way for the organization to continue its services was through the virtual space. Conventional online learning strategies would be futile though, as the communities AHA! services to have no stable access to the internet.

Instead of imposing new technologies, Zulueta utilized what is most accessible to the community: the free version of Facebook Messenger. Since the app cannot load photos and videos, Zulueta and his team of 10 converted open-source learning modules into text-based lessons that are distributed to 12 Messenger classrooms.

It is also social design that guides the work of Celina Borromeo in the social enterprise Gising Gising, and architect Arts Serrano of One/Zero Design Collective in heritage conservation and placemaking.

Although each changemaker’s portfolio can attest to the power of social design as a tool, can it really solve our problems?

“Designers are not messiahs”

Inclusivity must always be taken into account when designing for social problems, but it is also a challenge to do so.

Design is often linked to capitalism, to taking over. Consider the ways cities are being designed now. Architect Arts Serrano of One/Zero Design Collective says that placemaking, especially in urban centers, is largely “informed by an insatiable energy to consume.” Think of how vast areas of land are utilized for commercial development instead of civic spaces.

Capitalism isn’t the only culprit. There is also the question of disjointed networks on which society operates. When designers don’t detach themselves from these dilapidating systems, their output then perpetuates a culture of inequality.

This kind of change is what Bauhaus introduced to Germany in 1919. The school founded by Walter Gropious merged mass production and good design across disciplines. Not only did Bauhaus champion functional design, its practitioners were ultimately interested in transforming the existing system and, in effect, German identity after the first World War. Bauhaus exemplified the middle ground between the commercial and the political.

The success of Bauhaus illustrates how design can be an agent of change. Though it is a cautionary tale too. As the movement moved away from its roots and reached the rest of the world, it has been appropriated to exist in the sphere of capitalism.

Courtesy of AND A HALF

Courtesy of AND A HALF

At the beginning of the video conference, one of the viewers asked, “Why is design so alta?”

But design need not be alienating. Or perhaps to understand why it is, one must ask who the designers are, what their vested interests are, and the role they play in the process.

For Zulueta, the feeling of exclusivity happens when the designer is detached from the community. “So much of the interventions nagawa na kapag dinala sa [community].”

Again, this is why Cuevas’s efforts in Lanuza worked. It began with a dialogue with the community and involved them in coming up with solutions. Instead of being passive recipients, they participated as designers themselves.

“Designers should acknowledge that we are not messiahs,” Serrano says. “Our solution should come from a place that enables people to design for themselves. They already have the power to do this; you just have to guide them. Once you break that barrier — the thinking that [design] is a very exclusive thing — and once you begin collaborating with people that you would normally be betting against, I think doon mangyayari ’yung magic in providing solutions for everyone.”

“We have to stop thinking that this is a special process that we have packaged for them,” Cuevas adds. As a doctor to the barrio, she acknowledges that when we talk about the underprivileged, it is often tinged with stereotypical assumptions that they cannot fend for themselves. Again, such thinking is informed by one’s detachment from the community they want to serve. But they are equipped. There is a wealth of wisdom endemic to the communities that designers, who are often outsiders, may not be privy to.

At its core, social design thrives on the culture of collaboration and a robust understanding of human needs. It’s a promising practice that results in noticeable change from the grassroots. But the beauty of it is that it doesn’t offer a quick fix. It bends and swirls along the edges of our ever-changing social landscape, especially now that we live in a period of uncertainty.


Watch the webinar here