Design for good: Can creativity save the world?

Lynda Relph-Knight is The Drum's consulting design editor and the former long-serving editor of Design Week. Follow Lynda on Twitter.

Can creativity save the world? That’s a question we’ve come to expect as one year hurtles headlong into the next. Perhaps the questioners see the Christmas break as a much bigger rift than the customary few days away from the pressures of pitching and a time for us to solve global ills.

When asked though most designers naturally say ‘yes’. That was certainly the consensus this week when Cape Town’s creative fest Design Indaba quizzed a handful of its alumni on the subject.

American writer and graphic designer Stefan G Bucher was emphatic. "It does look like we’re headed for a global crisis, doesn’t it? If that’s true then creativity is the only thing that can save us," he said. "But it certainly won’t be a poster or a viral video. It’ll be an engineer somewhere who comes up with a Mr Fusion device that completely changes how we use the resources available to us."

Equally convinced, but less specific is Hellicar & Lewis partner Joel Lewis’s view that "It’s the only thing that will."

But what exactly are we being saved from? Is it world poverty and an economic downturn that has sent even Brits to the food bank? Maybe it’s the escalating degeneration of the planet that has prompted the likes of the UK’s Royal Society of Arts, Design Museum and Design Council to focus on sustainable design and ‘design for good’. Or is it merely about political regimes at odds with humanity and the real needs of the societies they purport to serve?

For burgeoning educational enterprise Technology Will Save Us, it could be that we are being ‘saved’ from a future shortage of coders. The fun devices created by Daniel Hirshmann and Bethany Koby engage kids early on in digital tech in the way Meccano, say, once inspired budding 3D designers and engineers.

But isn’t the idea of ‘saving’ a bit dramatic? Creativity might not actually prevent cataclysmic shifts, but it can provide new ways of addressing them and tangible solutions to global problems. Take the development of insulin pens to make life easier for diabetes sufferers or lightweight airline seats that reduce fuel consumption and costs.

And then there’s the ideas side of the creative process that can make a profound difference to people. It doesn’t matter much what South Africa’s new Maker Library Network looks like, for example. The real genius of the British Council initiative is in the concept created by designer Daniel Charny as a mentoring platform for British and South African makers to share.

As important though, design can help us communicate better and give access to ideas and information. A prime example is the Chineasy graphic system devised by Taiwanese scientist and entrepreneur ShaoLan Hsueh to make learning Chinese simple. Initially created by Hsueh to teach her own children, the witty system is made all the more engaging by Noma Bar’s colourful graphics and has led to a best-selling book, among other manifestations.

So can creativity save us? In light of these examples I’d give the last word on the Design Indaba question to London-based product designer Oscar Diaz. "Save is a big word," he says, "but [creativity] can definitely help to improve [life]."

Lynda Relph-Knight is The Drum's consulting design editor. You can follow her on Twitter @RelphKnight

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