In mid-November, members of Contract’s Editorial Advisory Board (see masthead) gathered in New Orleans along with a select group of commercial and institutional real estate executives, participating sponsors, and members of the Contract staff for a weekend of thought-provoking dialog about the leadership role of designers in society, particularly as it pertains to their ability—and some would say obligation—to influence positive social change. We have all heard a lot about the concept of “design thinking” as it relates to business process improvements, and more progressive design and business educators embrace and teach a stronger connection between these two broad disciplines. The discussion in New Orleans focused on elevating design beyond corporate policy to a necessary component of public policy that addresses tough social problems and elevating designers to roles as public policy leaders.
Invited speaker Richard Farson, Ph.D., president, Western Behavioral Sciences Institute (WBSI) and author of the book The Power of Design, delivered a compelling and inspirational talk about the design industry’s abdication of its “professional” status in favor of becoming a profit-making enterprise. He encouraged designers to work toward recovering their position as trusted advisors to business and industry at the highest levels of decision-making, in much the same way that professionals like doctors, lawyers, and accountants enjoy the influence of expertise over their clients’ decisions. A good many designers, he argues, have been reduced to executing lesser design solutions in response to clients’ demands and the need to turn a profit, causing widespread social problems that affect our health, safety, and welfare. The goal, according to Farson, is to get back to a place where designers’ unique expertise is considered invaluable and proprietary, and where governments and institutions—not only businesses—embrace good design as a fundamental right, like education and healthcare.
As a complement to Farson’s idealistic belief in the broad influence of design as a potential cure for social injustice, speaker Maurice Cox, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, former director of design for the National Endowment for the Arts, and former council member and mayor of the city of Charlottesville, Va., used his own career experiences to discuss the intersection of design, education, and politics, offering several examples of how effective designers in public roles can indeed make an impact. If designers are reluctant to take on public leadership roles, then at least they should work toward becoming top advisors to government.
Many design firms and other organizations already are engaged in socially responsible design practices, but what will it take to create the catalytic shift toward design as public policy that Farson imagines? Ultimately, in a bureaucratic system, it will require the ability to “prove” the value of design. Since design is a profession that essentially lacks research, however, empirical evidence is hard to come by. Perhaps the need to better document and quantify the impact of design is the next logical discussion.
I would like to take the opportunity to publicly thank our sponsors, Beaulieu of America, Gunlocke, Haworth, HBF, Humanscale, Milliken, Shaw Contract Group, Sherwin-Williams, and Teknion, for their support of this year’s Contract: Design Forum. The conversation was more compelling being set against the backdrop of New Orleans, where we visited the Lower Ninth Ward to see the Make It Right Foundation’s rebuilding of a Katrina-devastated community one home at a time. The development is not without controversy, but thoughtful design may yet prevail.