What's the X factor that will bridge design with social change? A new website says it's journalism.
Falls Village, Connecticut, sits where the Berkshire foothills begin and radio stations end. Turning off the increasing fuzziness of Top 40, you can roll down the window and penetrate a deeper quiet. Calling this area "the country" stretches the point slightly; this area is colonized enough with vacationing New Yorkers that, when asking about sandwiches at an organic market, I got asked (with eyebrow-arching sincerity) what my "feelings" about meat were. Still, tourists aside, pockets of stillness demarcate this area as a separate, contemplative place.Turning left up a gravel driveway, Winterhouse sits whitely on a hill amid lanky, graceful trees. Three 25-foot windows spill light into its vast interior, where graphic designers (and married couple) Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel live and work. As Helfand explains, the studio takes its name from 1930s muralist Ezra Winter, who used this then-undivided space for his enormous canvases that now hang in Radio City Music Hall and the Library of Congress.Winterhouse Studio specializes in graphic design for nonprofits and educational institutions: the Poetry Foundation, the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, the New England Journal of Medicine. Fittingly, Drenttel and Helfand also publish their own design blog Design Observer (with Michael Bierut) and run the nonprofit Winterhouse Institute, both of which constitute the locus for their next initiative, fueled by a $1.5 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to promote design for social change. The two-year program will support specific projects by designers, a conference in Aspen later this year, project case studies with the Yale School of Management (where Drenttel teaches), and a brand-new editorial website, Change Observer, reporting exclusively on design for social change. Their goal is to ramp up the design-for-social-change movement with critical inquiry and journalistic rigor as the twin engines.There's room for skepticism. Gorgeous lamps and Apple-era modernism might not be able to save the planet, but it's design thinking that the CO team is counting on to solve social problems-the same systems-oriented thinking that made designers the darlings of business, spawning design-and-business programs at Harvard and fundamentally reshaping business magazines like Fast Company and Business Week. According to Julie Lasky and Drenttel, design for social change suffers from well-meaning, uncoordinated one-off projects and flabby discourse.Surprisingly, investigative journalism plays a central role in their vision of success. "Almost everything we do [at Winterhouse] is editorial design. We live in a world of journalists more than designers," Drenttel begins. Given their commitment to Design Observer and Winterhouse's extensive editorial credits-Helfand designed The New York Times' first website-this claim seems to hold water. "Change Observer came about because I believe design journalism has little critical function to it," Drenttel continues. "We need to evaluate the impacts of design projects critically and stop talking only about personalities and what's new this month."Lasky agrees: "Our lens [on design and social change] will be one of journalistic rigor. The world of social change, like anything else, needs to be scrutinized." Lasky's former position as editor-in-chief of I.D., she says, limited her scope for such investigations; she seems to relish the prospect of defrocking greenwashers and other claimants exploiting consumers' best intentions. Change Observer aims to coordinate and extend explorations begun by design-driven projects like Design21 and the 2007 Cooper-Hewitt Museum exhibit "Design for the Other 90%," as well as increasingly design-minded "green" blogs like WorldChanging.The time may well be right for the design-and-social-change movement to gain momentum. Climate change, peak oil, and the green movement are moving fast from the fringe to mainstream public debate; the global recession is giving rise to much soul-searching for a more humane capitalistic model. Not to mention all the freshly unemployed journalists and designers looking to fill their days with portfolio-building. "Recessions are a great time for starting new enterprises," says Drenttel. "The traditional design press is going to be decimated by this recession." On this cheerful note, Helfand interrupted to show us some baby birds, freshly hatched, on a ledge outside the kitchen. Moving through the rooms to go see them gave me a Winterhouse-tour-in-a-blur: smoke-scarred fireplace, solemn modernist furniture, enough books to crush an elephant brigade.
"We need to evaluate the impacts of design projects critically and stop talking only about personalities and what's new this month."
While many social-change projects by designers have been modest or difficult to scale, a few stand out as models for future, broader-scale efforts. As examples of the latter Drenttel and Lasky cite Ripple Effect, a clean-water program in India involving the Acumen Fund, the Gates Foundation, and design firm IDEO; and MIT's One Laptop Per Child, now responsible for distributing 1.5 million sturdy, low-cost laptops to children in developing countries worldwide. The MoneyMaker Pump, co-sponsored by IDEO and the anti-poverty non-profit KickStart, is a particular favorite of the CO team for its quantified success. According to the project website, 45,000 micro-irrigation pumps are now in use among poor farmers in Kenya, Tanzania, and Mali, contributing to a net 29,000 new jobs and $37 million in new profits and wages annually since 1996."We're not only talking about social movements here, but social enterprises," Drenttel adds. "Enterprises can be measured and evaluated. What's missing right now [in design and social change] are serious, in-depth case studies consistent with evaluations in science or business in a university setting." To that end, part of the Rockefeller grant money will be dedicated to creating a new case-study model with the Yale School of Management. "Rather than a 10-page written fixed narrative, sold for X dollars per student like Harvard's, ours will be interactive cases, with raw data and documents, video interviews, and other kinds of project tracking, all published under a Creative Commons license," Drenttel continues. "The cases we're developing can approach a project from many different entry points, allowing them to be taught in both business and design schools."It's curious to realize how much the Change Observer project's engine lies with journalistic inquiry. In fact, both Drenttel and Lasky mentioned the science magazine SEED as a model for the scrupulous inquiry they'd like to promote. "Scientists really have their methodology licked," says Lasky. "They pick a tiny piece of a problem, peer-review its exploration, make sure the results of any experiments are reproducible, then that knowledge replicates throughout their community. I don't know why design has been so ineffective at that methodology."Change Observer's hope is that journalism will bring scrutiny, discipline, and deeper involvement to the larger projects where design can enable social change. On the one hand, it seems madness to believe so hard in a hobbled discipline's power; on the other hand, though, the era of citizen journalism is undeniably a critical one. Arm this brigade with discipline and slightly deeper pockets, and you have investigative journalism 2.0, practitioners, and readers. The question, for both Change Observer and The New York Times on down, is how will effective journalism fund itself?"Design has gotten a free ride," Lasky remarks. "Much design journalism long ago fell into the habit of simply showing a product or an environment. The fact that it was published proved it was good. At I.D. it was never enough for us to say ‘this exists'; there had to be a story."In a proof of journalistic mettle, Drenttel eyes me squarely and adds, "A lot of journalism has a rah-rah function. GOOD is rah-rah around what they define as good works in the world. Anyone who does that with personality, style and some insight can build an audience, but that's easy love, not tough journalism." He cites Project M, an awareness initiative to underwrite water meters and city-water installations for residents of Hale County, Alabama, who often don't even realize they're drinking polluted water. GOOD profiled this project in 2007 but, Drenttel complained, failed to report how many water meters got installed. "The journalist in me wants to know that," Drenttel says.(According to Pam Dorr, executive director of Hale Empowerment & Revital.Org. (HERO), the local organization tasked with implementation, Project M has raised $50,575 and helped 119 families get clean running water. (Read Change Observer's update on this project here.))More details, more ambiguity, more nuance-Lasky and Drenttel want these to be the hallmarks of Change Observer's approach. They also believe this attention to complexity will help the project stay neutral politically. "Exposing complexity and ambiguity is very anti-ideological," Lasky remarks. "It's harder to play Hamlet and weigh the pros and cons; it's so refreshing just to be angry."An example of this is an online dialogue she plans between New York City lighting designer Leni Schwendinger and the International Dark Sky Association. At first blush, these organizations are at loggerheads: Schwendinger designed the Triple Bridge Gateway illuminating the city's dingy Port Authority bus terminal and the Coney Island Parachute Jump, both of which depend on liberal lighting at night. Yet it's tough to paint Schwendinger simply as an anti-environmental artiste. Dark Sky contends that urban light pollution clouds the stars from view and disturbs certain patterns in nature. For example, sea turtles rely on moonlight to find the sea; when newly hatched turtles wander towards illuminated hotels, they can be picked off by seagulls. Schwendinger poses the question this way: "Cities are places that are distinct from agricultural and wildlife spaces, and part of the reason people love cities, the magic of cities, has to do with light and shadow. Plus people feel, and are, safer in a lit city. What do we lose in terms of design and safety and people's relationship to an urban landscape in order to see the stars?"
"Design has gotten a free ride. Much design journalism long ago fell into the habit of simply showing a product or an environment. The fact that it was published proved it was good."
What holes can be poked in the Change Observer initiative? It's decidedly un-bipartisan politically. It's unclear how it'll sustain itself financially past its initial two-year funding period. It may under-acknowledge the fact that investigative journalism suffered its decline because less-than-demanding readers didn't support it. Some designers are allergic to effective solutions that don't photograph prettily. As a project, Change Observer is vulnerable to evaporating whenever the recession's soul-searching does. Most pointedly, the project is predicated on designers' ability to speak capitalists' language, but hasn't yet tackled how suits, designers and nonprofit types can be collectively motivated to approach problems of social change.Still, Change Observer's premise is worth watching, and the solutions it finds to these challenges could have broader implications for the disciplines it touches. Lasky's comments about design can be aptly applied to the larger project: "Design is never perfect; it's at best optimal," she says. "Not to be able to show our readership the implications, the ambiguities [of design and social change], does the world of consumers a disservice as well."