The Design World Needs a New Rebellion

By Jørgen Brynhildsvoll.

Each one of the 282 outdoor candles that were lit in Storgata commemmorated a life lost to a drug related death in 2016. Photo: Alex Asensi

A December day in 2017, a line of outdoor candles were forming in Storgata in Oslo. Formerly the main street of the Norwegian capital, this troubled place hadn’t seen Christmas decorations for ages. They got it now, but this was an alternative one. Each of the 282 candles represented a life that had been lost to drugs the previous year. The commemoration was initiated by Growlab Oslo—part studio, part activism group—as one of many solutions in a project where design thinking and methodology was applied to engage the public in this challenged area.


Design is intrinsically linked to consumerism. For decades, architects and industrial designers have spoken of sustainable design – a mode to develop products, services and spaces “in ways that respect the principles of social, economic, and ecological sustainability as a means of counteracting the negative dimensions of traditional design, production, and consumption” [1]. However, these efforts seems to drown as indistinct chatter in the deafening noise of the capitalist forces running the industry. We are surrounded by poorly designed and toxically manufactured products we didn’t need in the first place. Is it possible to imagine a viable design industry that isn’t run by consumerism?


In the early 1970s, designer Victor Papanek triggered an uprising in the design world. “In an environment that is screwed up visually, physically and chemically, the best and simplest thing that architects, industrial designers, planners etc. can do for humanity is to stop working entirely. In all pollution, designers are implicated at least partially,”[2] Papanek said in his groundbreaking book Design for the Real World. He continues on a more constructive note: “It seems to me we can go beyond not working at all, and work positively. Design can and must become a way in which young people can participate in changing society”. Papanek called for a design that was more of a creative, research-based and cross-disciplinary effort to solve real world problems than it was a means for companies to lure money from consumers. His writings sparked a movement. In the Nordic region, the Scandinavian Design Students’ Organization (SDO), comprising six major design schools, wanted to tear down the ideal of beauty in design advocated by their preceding generations [3]. They wanted a design practice that responded to the challenges of society, and agreed with Papanek that “We must stop defiling the earth itself with poorly-designed objects and structures.”

To this visionary man, who published these words in 1971, the subsequent period in human history must have been a true nightmare. But even though corporate business governs the design industry, there are still forces that want to pull the trade in the opposite direction.


The design collective Growlab (Mads Pålsrud and Tabea Glahs) started out five years ago as Pålsrud’s graduate project at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. Initially, it was all about urban farming, and contributed to the development of one of Oslo’s most interesting urban spaces – Losæter. The studio also worked a lot with visual communication in the early days, especially within the organic food movement. In recent years, they have primarily worked with socially responsible and human-centered design, with some self-initiated projects, but largely in cooperation with the public sector. Pålsrud says that public sector increasingly has turned to design methodology in recent years. “The public sector has societal goals that they need to achieve. The only agent that works with social goals, is the government,” he says.


One of the events in the “Hello Storgata” project had users of the streets share their own vision of how a flag for the street would look. Photo: Growlab Oslo

Growlab’s office lies in the mentioned street Storgata. This area has always had its challenges, historically housing mental asylums and even the office of the police surgeon where prostitutes were treated, as depicted in Christian Krohgs naturalist painting “Albertine in the Police Doctor's Waiting-Room” (1887). Today, the street houses a supervised injection site, and the vibrant hub of creative entrepreneurs that Growlab is a part of shares their backyard not only with a huge outdoors bar and recreation spot, but also with a clinic for substance abusers. In Growlab’s research driven project, they have strived to gain insight into the difficulties and opportunities Storgata presents, and tried to connect with the people frequenting the area. “Human-centered design is about creating solutions. It’s not determined that it needs to be a product or something visual, or even material,” Pålsrud says. The insights have so far culminated in events like the alternative Christmas lights.


Growlab has also worked a lot with MakersHub, an Oslo-based collective of socially responsible architects. MakersHub’s projects range from inclusive refurbishings of refugee reception centers to cultural venues for the Romani people of Oslo. As with Growlab, involvement is crucial to their process: by inviting the people who will be using the finished design to help shape it, MakersHub want to “empower people through powertools”. One of the founders, interior architect Else Abrahamsen, says the initiative started with her reaction to how superficial her own field appeared to her as a design student. “It was as all about making a product for people who are well off from before. People with a home, a job, a networks and friends,” she says in an interview [4].


If there is to be a viable job market for designers who want their work to contribute to sustainability, the public sector isn’t enough. The business world will have to follow. Mads Pålsrud of Growlab thinks it will: “I think corporations need to change if they want to stay profitable over time – they need new values, and they need to act differently. Hopefully, it will be a more genuine effort, and not as much greenwashing as there is now.”


We need a Victor Papanek for the digital era, and we really need a movement of rebelling and controversial young design professionals – actors like Growab and Makershub, who design and build because they believe in people more than profit. It is essential that designers like these become more visible, so both consumers and aspiring practitioners can see that the design profession can not only refuse to be subjugated to, but actually oppose and counter, an industry that is fueled solely on the capitalistic thirst for profit. If not, we will end up designing only a slightly more comfortable extinction.


Notes


[1] Jonathan M. Woodham (2016) "Sustainable Design" in A Dictionary of Modern Design. Oxford University Press.

[2] Victor Papanek (1971) Design for the real world. Bantam Books.

[3] Ida Kamilla Lie (2016) “‘Make Us More Useful to Society!’: The Scandinavian

Design Students’ Organization (SDO) and Socially Responsible Design, 1967–1973”, Design and

Culture.

[4] Haugtrø, Beate. “Pussar opp asylmottak og bygger kulturhus for romfolk” in Framtida.no. Published March 12th 2018. Read October 2nd 2018. https://framtida.no/2018/03/02/makers-hub-hadde-eit-onske-om-a-vere-nyttig-ikkje-som-i-a-lage-fine-ting-men-som-i-a-hjelpe-menneske


OSLO FORM LAB 2018