In tough times, when the going gets slippery, ‘steer into the skid.’
Designers are optimists by nature. They have to be, because they’re called upon to solve problems, and they’re expected to make things better. To be able to do that, they must have a firm faith that there is a better way of doing things; that the solution to current difficulties is out there somewhere, if they just search hard enough to find it. And often they absolutely relish the challenge of trying to find that elusive solution to a challenging problem. So while many of us shrink from trouble, a designer is more apt to gravitate toward it.
In Glimmer, one of the book’s featured designers, Cameron Sinclair (above), is a prime example of this: When disaster strikes a particular spot somewhere in the world, Sinclair and his design colleagues head straight to where the troubles are, even as others are doing their best to flee the area. In places ravaged by war, flood, or earthquake, Sinclair’s nonprofit Architecture for Humanity (AFH) group does its best work—using rapid-response, on-the-ground design to address urgent needs for shelter, medical care, education, and basic human comfort. AFH designs everything from replacement homes to pop-up clinics to the occasional soccer field. “Someone once called us ‘al-Qaeda for good,’” Sinclair says, “because we have all these sleeper cells of designers and when a disaster happens, they wake up and move into action.”
AFH’s volunteer designers have learned how to get the most out of whatever limited means are available in a given location; the group’s resourcefulness and creativity can be dazzling at times. My favorite AFH story: Sinclair’s designers once devised a way to make a temporary clinic in Africa by using plants growing out of the ground, with the tall plant stalks woven together to form walls. It was elegant, cheap, efficient—and best of all, when the clinic was no longer needed, it could be eaten!
If this sounds like tough work, it is, but Sinclair points out that the designers who do it tend to feel more charged-up and more creative than at any other time in their careers. The lesson I take from this is that the most difficult and trying situations can actually bring out the best in us when it comes to being creative and resourceful.
That may explain why, as documented in Glimmer, more and more people today—both professional designers and non-professionals who are just interested in solving problems—are actively embracing the many difficulties now facing us. They’re doing everything from coming up with ingenious new ways to help local homeless people to figuring out how to meet the great need for better classrooms (the competition winner’s scheme for the 2009 Open Architecture Challenge: Classroom is below). Tough times and difficult situations are inspiring widespread creativity.
This attitude can and should be carried over to business, too—recession be damned. While a lot of companies have understandably pulled back in terms of taking risks or trying to innovate, design-driven businesses from Google to Apple have demonstrated that lean times can actually be the best time for companies to be creative—because bold and distinctive offerings will tend to stand out even more in a market where others are playing it safe. Experimenting in tough times is “like steering into a skid—it’s counter-intuitive” yet very effective, observes Marty Cooke, a creative director at the marketing/design firm SS+K. And it’s important not only in terms of getting through present difficulties, but also for creating future opportunities. The iPod was initially developed during a down-market, but later rode to success in an up-market.
Bottom line, it’s a good time to be a designer—or even just to start thinking like one. Because if you adopt the designer’s perspective, problems can suddenly begin to look like opportunities to solve problems. Or, to quote the designer Bruce Mau: “When things aren’t working the way they should be, you have the makings of a great design project.”
No related posts, but check around GlimmerSite for lots of other interesting articles.