Design is Action


Observations on refining the meaning of contemporary craft and design

If actions speak louder than words (and sometimes they do) and if definitions are nearly always imperfect, I think the best approach, to refining the meaning of new approaches to craft and design practice, is to write about what inspires me as a designer and, in the process, describe a small, practical example of action.

Design and craft practice is being changed by new technologies, global marketing and the internationalization of products and production. Designers and craftspeople need to be able to think about the identity of products and their cultural backgrounds, issues underpinned by the need for innovation, economic, sustainable and ethical thinking.

What drives me? It’s a bit out of fashion but the modernist and utopian ideals of democratic design drive me. When I was younger, I defined this as designing products that were accessible, affordable and pared down. But as my practice has evolved it has taken on a broader meaning and has come to include the idea that collaborative initiatives can sometimes rebalance the often lopsided free flows of globalization. Many of the design programs I’ve worked on in the developing world, like North South Project, New Caribbean Design and Vodunuvo, suggest that designers look beyond the individualism of Western consumer philosophies that currently drive design practice to include and elevate craft production and indigenous artifact in places that are usually seen as sites for ‘branch plants’ and sources of cheap labor.

I’m inspired by the idea that the best products of the next decades will be the result of a reconciliation of what have previously been understood to be opposition: specialization and generalization: the individual and the collective; globality and locality; the avant-garde and the popular. Everything relates to everything. Accepting this without losing ourselves or sacrificing the skills of others will be the great challenge.

More urgently, I’m driven by the impact of a changing global design culture on micro-manufacturers like the Wai Wai in Guyana and Vodu artists in Haiti and I believe that these issues demarcate a contemporary frontier of design practice. Cross-cultural collaborations can provide a challenge to our common exclusion of things on the edge and help to protect marginalized communities from destabilizing political and global market forces. Above all, I love that these collisions of culture can strike a new balance between redundancy and relevance and explore the friction between the “preservationist” view of the handmade as intangible heritage and its real status as living tradition, and therefore, inherently and constantly innovating and adapting.

And so, if sometimes, designers have assumed that the nature of “first world” design practice and problem solving is appropriate for application in all situations with little regard for the local context, these makers are there to remind us that good product frequently does not just begin and end with market research, and, that a collaborative approach can re-invigorate the design process. On all sides.

I am inspired by mobility and technology. I like the idea that we can work anywhere and combine the strengths of complimentary groups to build new linkages, new cultures and new ideas. It is the smallness and the under dogged-ness of the manufacturers and communities I work with in places like Haiti, the Caribbean, Africa and India that creates for me a new energy in design, and, a fresh shot, a subversive frisson when the work from projects shows up in New York, London or Milan.

I think three of the most important issues which face the global community as we enter the new century are unemployment, the exploitation of labour and the environment. If the great thinkers and motivators of the Arts and Crafts movement were still with us, these are the issues they would focus on. And I think we should too.

My experience designing for these manufacturers and creative communities is one of the most enriching of my life and profoundly changed the way I think about design. I learned that people-centred design has a middle component, living between ethnography and interface. Hand manufacturing is the reality in much of the world, and designers, sitting at their desks sending off PDFs to unknown destinations, may be a modern paradigm, but ultimately a hollow one. I would encourage designers to go and visit where their products are made, and, especially, with the people who make them.

Patty Johnson is a Canadian designer who is interested in the interchange between research and design, and, commerce and culture. She operates worldwide with partners, enterprises, manufacturers, communities, governments, and designers creating new kinds of design programs and product collections. Her mobile studio network looks to combine the strengths of complimentary groups to build new linkages, new cultures and new ideas.

Patty will be presenting Vodunuvo at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair May 18 to 21, 2013. She will be discussing the project in conversation with Cynthia Smith Curator Cooper-Hewitt Museum as part of the ICFF Talks on Tuesday, May 21.