Mirrors and glass: the role of design in a time of change

Mirrors and glass: the role of design in a time of change

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W.H. Auden’s epic poem “The Age of Anxiety”, written during the dark fragmentation of the Second World War II, was widely acclaimed as defining the spirit of our time. Few claim to have read it, but everyone knows the title: as Daniel Smith put it in an op-ed in the New York Times, “as a sticker on the bumper of the Western world, “the age of anxiety” has been ubiquitous for more than six decades now.” Anxiety – and its cousins introspection and depression – is widespread, disrupting relationships, destroying connection and replacing happiness with fear.

Or is it? Smith goes on to point out that people in earlier ages in many ways had more reason for anxiety than we, and that “anxiety” as a condition was not even recognised before Freud. He argues that our anxiety stems from growing self-awareness. Indeed, this is consistent with Auden, whose poem opens with one of the principal characters gazing at his reflection in a mirror: just as the Queen in Snow White calls upon the mirror to reassure her of her outstanding beauty – betraying her underlying anxiety about being supplanted – so Auden’s character’s question to the image in his mirror betrays his sense of unreality and falsehood:

Does your self like mine
Taste of untruth? Tell me, what are you
Hiding in your heart?

The editor of the critical edition of Auden’s poem notes that in 1942, Auden wrote an essay for the Catholic journal “Commonweal” which starts thus:

Every child, as he wakes into life, finds a mirror underneath his pillow. Look in it he will and must, else he cannot know who he is, a creature fallen from grace, and this knowledge is a necessary preliminary to salvation. Yet at the moment he looks into his mirror, he falls into mortal danger, tempted by guilt into a despair which tells him that his isolation and abandonment is [sic] irrevocable. It is impossible to face such abandonment and live, but as long as he gazes into the mirror he need not face it; he has at least his mirror as an illusory companion. . . .

The mirror is the symbol of the “Age of Anxiety”, which is characterised by introspection, obsession with self-image, and distortion. At its extreme, it encompasses thinkers such as Ayn Rand, who rejected all forms of collectivism and regarded selfishness as a virtue, and politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, denying the existence of “society” and trumpeting the primacy of the individual.

It was not always so. In the immediate aftermath of World War II there was a sense of shared purpose. Social design was the hallmark of the time: housing projects, transport systems, the NHS…linking together the patchwork of existing social provision, rebuilding places and communities damaged by war and depression. But as Western countries rejected the Marxist-Leninist “collectivism” of the Eastern bloc and embraced Hayekian “individualism”, designers abandoned social enhancement and became drawn into shallow consumerism, building ever better mousetraps to meet consumer demand. Even today, “designer” is associated with expensive consumer products.

Frans de Waal’s 2009 book “The Age of Empathy” dismissed the notion that selfishness is natural for human beings. De Waal demonstrated that humanity’s closest relatives the Great Apes, together with other high-order social mammals such as dolphins and elephants, are predisposed to take care of one another, come to one another’s aid and in some cases, take life-saving action. De Waal argues that humans too are innately empathic and compassionate. If de Waal is right, then perhaps the “Age of Anxiety” has been an anomalous period. Perhaps the terrible cataclysms of the 20th Century, especially the “Cold War” that divided the world for three decades, traumatised humans to such an extent that they no longer trusted each other and instead turned inwards, relying on their own, albeit distorted, mirror images for comfort and guidance.

As the memories of the Great Wars fade, the introspective mood of the last thirty or so years is beginning to change. Supported by technology that enables openness and sharing as never before, a new generation is re-imaging “society” as a collaborative enterprise formed through trust and transparency. Selfish materialism is being replaced with concern for the wellbeing of others and for the environment. The mirrors of the “Age of Anxiety” are giving way to the windows of the “Age of Empathy”. The glass buildings of today symbolise our new-found openness.   

The importance of connection

Empathy generates connection. And we now know from research by psychologists and neuroscientists that connection also generates empathy. The “Age of Empathy” could perhaps be called the “Age of Connection”. Re-connecting with others, with nature, with reality….this is the process of recovery from trauma.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, connecting with others is becoming crucially important for designers. Mariana Amatullo of Designmatters at Art Center says that the age of the “genius inventor” working alone is over: today’s designers work collaboratively as part of multi-disciplinary teams. Co-creation, co-design, unlocking the creativity of others, connecting diverse inputs into a coherent architecture: these are the roles of today’s designers.

To be sure, designers have always been empathic. Understanding “user needs” is the starting point for any design. But today’s young designers are more interested in inclusivity, public service design and social innovation than in developing the latest consumer gadget. Of 14 recent graduates from the Helen Hamlyn School of Design at the Royal College of Art, only one wanted to work in business. As Mat Hunter of the Design Council puts it, “public service design is what the cool kids are doing”.

Whether the new focus on inclusive social design is driven by the students themselves or by their teachers is hard to say. Rama Gheerawo, Deputy Director of the Helen Hamlyn School of Design, emphasises wellbeing as the principal goal of design. He sees people as “living – moving – connecting”. Living space, the ability to move around, connecting with others: these are the features that together make up wellbeing.

Focusing design on improving wellbeing can have surprising results. For example, a recent project run by the Design Council jointly with NHS England explored the causes of aggressive behaviour in A&E departments, a seemingly intractable problem. Mapping the processes that defined how the department worked showed that aggression was often associated with high anxiety levels in patients who could not find their way around in an unfamiliar environment designed to suit staff rather than patients. A simple solution was to provide improved signage so that patients knew where they were in the system. Prototyping with real A&E departments showed that signage was needed on ceilings, since patients on stretchers could not see conventionally-located signs, and in the car park, since even finding the entrance to the A&E department caused anxiety for many people. The design focused on improving the wellbeing of patients rather than reducing risks to staff – but because it addressed the causes of aggression, it was far more cost-effective than security measures to protect staff from aggressive patients.

Making life easier for people has been a principal goal of design since time immemorial. Even the consumerism of the 1970s and 80s was linked to lifestyle: Terence Conran’s Habitat famously promoted the “continental quilt” or duvet as a labour-saving device to make life easier for the “Superwoman” epitomised by Conran’s wife Shirley. Design enables people to spend less time doing boring and mundane things and more time doing things they enjoy.

Design can also make unpleasant but unavoidable things more bearable, such as the dreaded security checks at airports. After the 9/11 disaster, airports imposed intrusive and indiscriminate security checks. This raised anxiety and aggression levels among passengers, which perversely made it harder for staff identify genuine security threats. In conjunction with America’s Transport Security Agency, IDEO created a calmer environment at the checkpoints, redesigning physical spaces and retraining staff. Once the general stress level among passengers was reduced, people with “hostile intent” became easier to spot.

Despite the move towards co-design and co-creation, traditional attributes of designers are still important: creativity, which Amatullo defines as “the ability to create novel and useful designs”, and concern for aesthetics. Beauty in design is important not just as an end in itself, though this is important: people engage more with designs they find aesthetically pleasing. But beauty is also important as a means of understanding functionality. Elegant designs tend to work better.

But although empathy is important, design cannot be wholly democratic. Designers need to direct as well as facilitate, imagine as well as listen. And they must “own” their ideas. Empathic they may be, but they are not simply passive compilers of the ideas of others. Design is not limited to meeting wants and needs. It can involve challenging them.

Bold designs – even disruptive ones - may have their origin in a throwaway remark in an informal conversation, or in a seemingly minor incident. Gheerawo cites Mahatma Gandhi, whose lifelong commitment to social justice stemmed from being thrown off a train in South Africa. “Base your boldness on empathy and understanding”, says Gheerawo, “otherwise where are your business decisions coming from?”

The dark side of technology

The intrusive nature of big data collection and analytics raises concerns about privacy and the rights of the individual. Internet applications collect data without the knowledge of their users, parsing that data to determine people’s browsing habits in order to sell them more stuff. We may now value interconnection more than introspection, but that doesn’t mean we have entirely given up on consumerism. If you buy a mousetrap online, you will be helpfully presented with lots of adverts for better mousetraps. Your activities have been observed, interpreted and used to influence your future actions. But should advertisers - or anyone else, for that matter - be able to collect and use data in this way without people's knowledge or consent?

Similar ethical questions are raised when design is used to “nudge” people into “desirable” behaviours. For example, the Design Council’s Active by Design project aims to encourage active lifestyles through design or redesign of indoor and outdoor spaces, thus reducing the health problems caused by inactivity among the general population. Although the cost savings for the NHS could be considerable, some question whether behavioural change of this kind is a legitimate goal of public service design. Surely people have the right to be couch potatoes if they choose?

The idea that services should be “designed” is new, radical and potentially hugely beneficial for society. But it carries dangers. Public service designers risk being hijacked by political interests, whether those who see design as a way of minimising the cost of state services – or eliminating them completely – or those who see design as a way of preserving and entrenching traditional fiefdoms.

Mat Hunter spells out the dangers of technology-led design:

 “We can do amazing things with all this powerful new technology. But we haven’t lost what we learned about its darker side. We’re aware that it won’t automatically lead to good outcomes so we have to be more intentional about what we do. The questions are now: “we’ve created all this [technology], now what do we want to do with it?”

The growing power and intrusiveness of technology raises important questions about the ordering of society that we have not yet adequately addressed. Just because we CAN monitor every part of human life and nudge people into behaving in certain ways, doesn’t mean we should.

When every action is subject to scrutiny, the risks of failure become very large. Mistakes are costly, not in financial terms but in reputation. And yet designers need the freedom to fail. Gheerawo describes the genesis of innovation as a “lightbulb moment” which removes fear of failure: once the problem is obvious, so is the solution. But informal discussion may result in the wrong lightbulb being turned on, especially if it involves the wrong people. Indeed, failure is inevitable: after all, how do you empathise with millions of people?  The freedom to get things wrong is essential to creativity. Thomas Edison (inventor of lightbulbs) famously said that he did not fail, he just found 10,000 ways that wouldn’t work. Nassim Taleb describes his trading approach as making many, many small losses which are outweighed by occasional very big gains. Throwing away something that doesn’t work is not failure, it is learning. The best designs may be found through trial and error.

So as empathy comes to dominate the design process, and technology pervades the most fundamental structures of society, we need to ask ourselves “what are the limits of connection?” Should every wrong decision, every silly idea, every inadequate design be subject to public scrutiny? Or do we need the glass windows of the Age of Empathy to be, at times, opaque? 

What do we really value?

Measuring success or failure of design projects is a challenge in itself. Success is traditionally measured by the value added in financial or social terms: but today’s emphasis on wellbeing disrupts traditional measures of value. GDP, for example, is widely seen as an inadequate measure of human satisfaction: increasingly, governments are seeking to measure such nebulous concepts as “happiness”.

The effect of technology on work also demands that “value” be redefined. Time, for example, is becoming increasingly scarce - and hence valuable - for many.  Activities we have valued in the past – especially those concerned with production of goods – are becoming worthless due to automation, while activities we have undervalued – especially those concerned with creativity and caring – become more important.

Narrow financial measures of “value” are becoming increasingly inadequate. But we have yet to identify what we really value, let alone devise a coherent way of measuring it.  

Attempts by those who hold power and wealth in the current paradigm to hang on to the old and resist the new result in what President Obama calls the “empathy deficit”. The Age of Empathy is being countered by a mass outbreak of callousness. But this is itself an opportunity for disruptive and radical redesign of public services and social enterprises.  

Redefining value, redesigning work, reinventing the social infrastructure that supports enterprise, and above all rediscovering the importance of social connection, collaboration and sharing in a post-technological world – these are the new design challenges. The Age of Empathy is also the Age of Change. 

Image from Sinoy Mirror Inc. 


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