Are We Solving the Right Problems?

“Are we solving the right problems?” is a question I was asked about a month ago and I said that I didn’t think it was a fair judgement to cast. My attention has since turned to the actual question itself, which carries its own problems: what is right, what does solving the problem mean, and who the hell is we anyway?

When exploring the answer to this question, we must acknowledge first the underlying assumption: Design has made an impact on society for centuries and this is what we’ve been teaching our young practitioners for years.

The invention of the printing press developed in the years 1041 and 1048 by Chinese printer Bi Sheng (and later used by Johannes Gutenberg) was a revolution. The printing press led to the first mass production of books and was later adapted to allow printing on an industrial scale. For the first time in human history, tribal knowledge was stored.

Fast forward a few decades later and Graphic Design found itself as a tool during political campaigns. Heavily used propaganda posters during World War One were the primary means of communication from the government to the public. 1.5 million dollars was spent on advertising the war.

A number of us who were too old or too scared to fight prostituted our talents by making posters inciting a large mob of young men who had never done anything to us to hop over and get shot at... We sold the war to youth.
–James Montgomery Flagg (created the "I want YOU" poster)

In modern times, we see communication products used again for new politics. Tools like Twitter have mobilized entire groups of people who had previously no power to make change. It gave people the means to communicate quickly and (not-so) anonymously with each other to organize protests. It would have taken years to pull off these sorts of large operations just half a century ago.

It makes sense that we’ve been teaching our students that Design Matters and they leave school with an amazing vocation, and sometimes, with big giant heads.

Not many talk about how Design has been negatively influential. We sold tobacco as a weight-loss strategy. We still mobilize terrorist and fascist organizations. We market toys to kids as pawns. Our products are a wasteful use of resources (Apple’s planned obsolescence). Big head? Pop it.

So, it’s clear, we impact. But can we point it towards what’s right?

“What’s right?” is another question that begs for reframing. We can all help Elon Musk and the other billionaires get to space, sure, but do you even care about space? I mean it: do you really care about colonizing another planet? I sure as fuck don’t. His SpaceX vision: life on a new planet. My vision? Fair life on this planet.

Already in a couple of seconds we have two different ideas of what’s a valid problem. Elon Musk wants to colonize space. I want social-economic balance. Who is right?

Another dimension to consider: if you read what James Montgomery Flagg said again, it wasn’t necessarily a choice for them–they were saving themselves. They still changed the war. Was it right? At the time it seemed like it.

The underlying implication of the question is that there are problems worth solving that can be solved. Does solving a problem consist of a hard deliverable with an end date? Most of the types of problems implied by this question don’t have hard deliverables.

These problems are a long game of patience and time. Everything is designed. Every action by anyone, Designer or not, is technically a solution. How much impact does a Designer have?

This leads me to my next question: who is we?

Design Matters is often conflated with, “Only Designers Matter.” This traps a Designer in their own ego and sells a false idea that Designers are separate from the society they design for. No Designer has changed the world by themselves.

Even the smallest projects, like small portable clean-water solutions, require the community around the Designer to accept their solution as the norm and uphold it. The community has more power than the Designer.

If the subject, ‘we’, in the question refers to the citizens in the community with the Designer being a part of that community, then you might be on the right path.

Are we solving the right problems? Perhaps. You are a part of the system and your actions impact the overall trajectory as a citizen. What do you think is important? Act accordingly and you’re likely to find yourself impacting “the right problem.”

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