Esther Lee
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Musings of a designer & would-be writer

As much as I love to design, sketch and doodle, I really enjoy writing. I have Nuclear Briefcase on the Ghost blogging platform plus articles on LinkedIn Publishing — but least all this writing keeping me from making mischief & mayhem.

Now more than ever, we need empathetic design

I know [North Dakota has] a little bit of a drought. [Texas and Louisiana] had the opposite, believe me, you’re better off. You are better off, they had the absolute opposite." — Donald J. Trump, POTUS

Wow. Just when you think the 45th President of the United States can't possibly top himself in the realm of insensitive tweets, he lets this one fly. That's especially rich coming from — well, I was going to say "man" but at this point no one's sure what this imposter is — "45" (I suppose a number will have to suffice), who declared that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by China:

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What does climate change have to do with design?

Humans have known about global warming and climate change for decades. We even have a pact. It's called the Paris Agreement, or Paris Climate Accord, and is essentially a pledge by industrialized nations to mitigate global warming caused by human activity. Earlier this year, Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from that agreement, effective November 2020, provoking ire and outrage from climate scientists and, well, the entire world.

The United States government is in denial. Deep deep deep denial. And in a lot of ways, design is in denial too. Design — whether it's industrial, graphic or visual — now serves an overarching purpose: To make sh*tloads of money for people who are leeching off of capitalism. But it wasn't always that way. Once upon a time, design was more balanced.

Yes, designers have always been responsible for creating the visual cues we use everyday:

  • Signage by which to navigate our environments
  • Packaging from which to determine our retail choices
  • Products with which to manage our lives

But we were also responsible for creating the visual translation of ideals and abstract thought:

  • Paintings and murals and graffiti art to interpret our surrounding world and/or express opinions and radical ideas
  • Posters, flyers and illustrations to convey beliefs, provoke thought, encourage discussion and/or incite action

We were cognizant enough about design-meets-capitalism back in 1964 to recognize and address the growing problem of mass consumerism and the devaluation of design with the manifesto First Things First, written by Ken Garland and backed by over 400 graphic designers and artists. This call to radicalize design was renewed in 2000 with 33 signatories of the international graphic design community. Canadian designer Cole Peters further proposed an update, First Things First 2014: A Tech Manifesto, to succinctly capture the ever-expanding digital design community of web designers, developers, technologists and marketers.

It's the year 2017. Two Thousand And Seventeen. The year 1984 of George Orwell's dystopian novel by the same name has come and gone. We made it through the much-hyped and subsequently underwhelming "Y2K bug". We're way past the galactic message of peace and hope envisioned in 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: The Year We Make Contact. 2012 was going to be the end of the world or some such cataclysm, but it turned out, in the most unprophetic way, to merely mark the end of the Meso-American Long Count ("Mayan") Calendar.

In September of 2016, the planet earth hit another frightening milestone: Carbon dioxide levels failed to drop below 400 parts per million (350 ppm is considered to be the upper safety limit of atmospheric CO2 levels). The widely-accepted scientific consensus is that we're suffering the effects of man-made climate change right now. This milestone is for real, folks. Things have gone past the tipping point from warnings about critical flashpoints and their prevention to delaying the inevitable and mitigating the worst in the short term.

Let me cut to the chase: Whether you believe in climate change or you're a denier, the real questions to ask yourselves now are:

  • If this is all a big hoax invented by the Chinese and we do nothing because, well, that's just the weather of the planet, is it really such a terrible waste of time and energy and resources to nonetheless create a cleaner, healthier, more livable world for future generations?
  • If this is not a hoax but is in fact very real with imminent disastrous consequences, why did we not act sooner and why don't we want to act now?

I'd hope the rational, empathetic answer to the first point would be NO. And I propose the answer to the second point is GREED plus SELF-INTEREST.

It's the same for design. Not that design is a hoax, but that in relegating design to the trivial realm of peddling unnecessary material goods, we're willing to do as much as we can to uphold that status quo in the name of making more and more profit, while doing as little as we can to upset the apple cart out of a fear of losing our creature comforts along with a certain level of privileged security.

It's high time to be empathetic instead of apathetic

  • If the only thing that matters is pure unbridled capitalism, then is it really such a terrible waste of skill and talent and time and effort to nevertheless design things that make a lasting difference?

  • If on the other hand money has replaced our humanitarian values and has forced us to become high-functioning sociopaths, why do we not do something about it?

Sadly, the answer to the first seems to be YES, BECAUSE MY NEW COCA-COLA DESIGN WILL LAST FOREVER WHEN IT WASHES UP AS TRASH ON A REMOTE, IDYLLIC AND PRISTINE BEACH.

The answer to the second would seem to be WHO CARES, BECAUSE I'M TREMENDOUSLY AND (H)YUGELY SUCCESSFUL, AND I DON'T CARE WHAT HAPPENS AS LONG AS I CAN BURY MYSELF WITH ALL MY MONEY.

So all I have left to ask now is: Do you want fries with that?