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When you hear people discussing design, you might assume that soon most of the problems of the contemporary world will be solved by designers and design. If only people applied design thinking and design management to everything they do. If only they understood that not only objects, but also services, user needs, and experiences can be designed, not to mention communication, which can be improved upon with the use of infographics. If only.... Dr. Agnieszka Jacobson-Cielecka, Artistic Director at SWPS University's School of Form  ponders whether design can save the world.

Design Space: Why do we need design?

Dr. Agnieszka Jacobson-Cielecka: There is no doubt that a touch of design could significantly improve the quality of life. Design doesn’t apply solely to objects, publications, fashion or architecture. Services, interactions, and the whole world of interactive media also require design. Moreover, designers are frequently involved in developing solutions to social or environmental problems. If you think about it, everything around us has been designed. The problem is that sometimes it has been designed badly.

It is painful to function in the badly designed world.

Recently, I have been travelling by train quite a lot, by the relatively luxurious InterCity trains. If I get up early in the morning, I buy train tickets for an intercity train with pre-booked seats, at the station. Since the railway company has recently decided to optimize costs, I now get one piece of paper, instead of two. This piece of paper contains all the important information, such as destination, departure time and the number of my seat. It is laudable, however, it is very difficult to make sense of the information, even if you are a frequent traveler. The tickets are printed on dot-matrix printers, in gray font, without any bolding or underlining. It would be very desirable to redesign the layout of the ticket, but it would probably require the company to change the printers and the software, in all ticket selling points, at all train stations, not to mention the cost of the new design. A better designed ticket would not only improve the way the travel information is communicated to passengers, but it could also expedite the ticket selling process - dot matrix printers print very slowly and they screech. Who knows, it could even eliminate long lineups to the ticket booths? However, a decision to redesign the ticket requires new equipment and a huge investment.

On the other hand, the company may be looking at a higher profit - faster customer service, fewer employees. Better customer service - more customers. More customers - better return on investment. But the more efficient process would result in employee redundancies and the rise of unemployment, which would add to the overall cost. Perhaps the company could save on the cost of paper?

When I was a child, the size of a train ticket was equal to the size of two bus tickets that we use today. The train tickets were printed by a roaring ticket machine on a thick card, made of recycled paper. The old-fashion ticket contained all the information that was needed. Nowadays, two pieces of paper have been reduced to one piece, but if you purchase your ticket online, you still print it on an A4 page and you must print it for business expense purposes, if you are going on a business trip. A smaller ticket, e.g. A6 format, could be designed and still be readable, but unless you travelled with three other people, you still would waste a whole A4 sheet to print one A6 ticket. Even if you could print it on a smaller page, ultimately the accountant at your office would still glue the small ticket to a big piece of paper and file the page in the “Travel Expenses” folder.

So Dieter Rams was right claiming that “we live in the world suffering from an overabundance of objects and a lack of logical thinking”?

Yes, Rams is a great example of rational design. The objects designed by him are timeless. In many cases, nothing more functional has been designed since. Obviously, these objects are rather obsolete from the technological point of view, but as you can see, design is important, but the economy is even more crucial, not to mention the force of habit. Although a project represents the added value, it will not do much good, even if someone designed the money that would be used to pay for the design.

Luckily, a simple “analogue” common sense prevails here and there. For example at many train stations, ticket sellers have been using markers to highlight the crucial information, such as the departure time, the carriage number and the seat number, on the confusing printed tickets. It’s great, but later in the carriage, which is very modern and impresses with blinking screens, informing you that you are travelling with a supersonic speed on a train that has been designed and manufactured by a Polish company, finding your seat is akin to solving a puzzle, because the seat numbering system turns out to be different on different types of trains and the logic behind this variety is clear only to the people who have designed the scheme. And I can’t be quite sure hat even they understand it.

How should a good design look like?

We lack standards, well-designed forms at the post office and clearly designed tickets sold by the railway companies. We need easily understood visual communication systems in our cities and institutions. We need design in everyday life. Utilitarian and useful design, which becomes invisible. Because if you notice design, it means that something is wrong.

To create invisible design, the designer must walk in the shoes of the user and must understand the user’s needs and limitations. The designer must also understand the client who commissions the design and who also has his or her needs and limitations. Moreover, the needs of the client are often contradictory to needs of the vendor. The designer must simultaneously look from the perspective of the user and be a business partner for the client and share the responsibility for the final result. The result that should be both utilitarian and economic.

We need design in everyday life. Utilitarian and useful design, which becomes invisible. Because if you notice design, it means that something is wrong.

So despite our expectations, design will not save the world.

Expectations that people have of designers and design are worrisome. The word “design” is overused. Of course, problem solving requires creativity and designers are creative, but so are scientists, researchers and innovators.

What can save the world is our humanity. In everyday life it means the ticket seller armed with a highlighter and a fellow passenger on the train, who travels the route every week and knows the seat numbering system on every type of the train by heart. On a higher level, it means collaboration. Experts representing various disciplines must work together, break out of their silos and reach to each other across the boundaries of their respective fields of expertise. Everyone has his or hers unique knowledge and experience. We must talk and listen to each other. We must collaborate. Design alone will not save the world, but we can.


About the Author

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Dr. Agnieszka Jacobson-Cielecka – Artistic Director and co-author of the teaching program at SWPS University’s School of Form. Curator of numerous exhibitions of Polish design, including Unpolished, Polished Up, Moderna (with Paweł Grobelny), Polska Folk, and Materia Prima that were presented at the renowned design festivals in Europe and in various design museums. She is also a design critic, a journalist and a commentator.