Design: tales from a transformative experience

I wrote this two years ago. As I now publish this, it with sadness, that I see not much has changed. But it is with some hope that I hear that the majority of people would not like the post-pandemic world to return to what we called “normal”. My story starts bleakly, but it is a story of hope…

As I write this, Pakistan has recently had the world’s hottest ever April day at 50.2˚. (Though Mexico argued that it had had a hotter one at 51˚). Meanwhile, within days the Sahara had snow, up to 16 inches/40cm in some places, for the second time in two years.  By the time you read this there will be another ‘natural’ event impacting people and environments on Mother Earth, whether it is forest fire, flood, heat, cold, crop failure, tick infestation or some other Biblical story-like drama. Often, those people affected by such events are the people least able to deal with it. The problems are symptoms of the Anthropocene – the first Man Made era of Earth’s natural history. They are part of climate change induced by over-use of fossil fuels and the encouragement of greed through unnecessary consumption.

The current crises impacting the planet, its inhabitants and environments are probably the most pressing issue that humanity has had to face. The ravaging of a finite planet’s resources to promote infinite growth in capital has resulted in alarming environmental degradation, climate change and, consequently, ever-worsening social justice issues, which are a tangible result of the West’s exploitation of the rest of the world. “These trends and calamitous possibilities…connected to climate catastrophes,” suggests Doug Morris, writing about how educators can address these wicked problems through critical pedagogy, “suggest strongly that the longer we wait to address and overcome the root causes of the major burdens and crises we now confront (rooted largely in the insatiable and rapacious dominant economic system) the more difficult will be the challenges, and also the less likely we will be in stopping the steamroller before it rolls off the cliff. The gravity of the peril is real.” (Morris, 2012).

You might at this point ask, ‘so what?’. We all know this. How can we do anything about it? Isn’t it too big for an individual to deal with? You might feel, that whatever you could do would be too small and pointless to bother with, in the face of carbon dioxide-belching factories, plastic filled oceans and shifting weather patterns (after all, who doesn’t like a heat-wave?).

A couple of years ago I read James Garvey’s excellent survey of the advertising industry, The Persuaders (2016). Like the sudden turning-on of a light bulb in a dark cellar, Garvey’s discussion causes all the nasty cockroaches of our current hyper-persuaded times to be instantly visible. I knew they were there; yet seeing them all at once was spectacularly horrific. The hidden, nefarious, lip-licking, hand-rubbing elements of the world of persuasion, like spectral demons, confronted me in all their narcissistic and brutal greediness. It was a transformative moment. I could not longer hold up my head and say with any dignity that I am a design educator; that I enabled these cockroaches. I balked at the fact that I show people how to persuade others through advertising and branding, by nudging; or, by some aesthetic and stylish artefact, justify and fuel someone’s unnecessary and unsatisfiable desire to consume. I had to resign. My role was morally untenable. I was literally helping people to destroy the planet.

A good night’s sleep later, I thought, “Hold on a minute!” There was hope. I could do more good by staying in the game but changing the pieces around me, such as my approach, the curriculum, its projects and the awareness. I could try to change the game itself.

It will be a Herculean task. It is nearly fifty years since, pioneer sustainable designer, Victor Papanek, made his famous quote about the “phoney” aspect of advertising design “in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care.” (Papanek, 1971). Half a century later, has anything changed for the better?

The crucial aspect on which all of this rests is the belief in ‘sustainable growth’. These two words do not fit together. George Monbiot points out that since humans took to using coal and then oil, the “metatrend, the mother narrative, is carbon-fuelled expansion” (2017). All our ideas of success lie in production and producing more, getting goods for a lower price. Even if we leave climate change out if the picture, we are still faced with human-induced loss of environment, of habitat and thus of biodiversity (scientists judge that the current rapid rate of extinctions is between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than natural extinction rates; in other words between 200 and 100,000 species lost each year).

You have probably heard that humanity is using quantities of resources more than one planet can provide. In fairness, many populations in the poorest countries are not causing very much unsustainability. It is the nations that consume the most that use up too many resources (Monbiot, 2017). According to the figures of the Global Footprint Network (MacDonald, 2015), the USA uses 3.9 planets worth of resources, but are actually only fifth worst behind such wealthy countries as Kuwait (5.1 planets), Australia (4.8 planets), UAE (4.7) and Qatar (4). The UK is 32nd on the list using 2.4 planets worth of resources. We might feel smug about this until we remember we are all on the one same planet, stuck here with each other. Averaged out, and adding carbon into the equation, the world’s population would need another half planet to naturally maintain what we all currently use. So, just to sustain, we need another half planet. Growth, then, is untenable.


But here’s graphic design, advertising as usual, encouraging us to buy, to use, to throwaway disposable bottles, nappies, packaging…There’s no away.

Design has been less than helpful in terms of sustainability, not only through advertising, political and other hidden persuasion and behavioural economics (Garvey, 2016), but also through unnecessary packaging and its resultant landfill problems, which have steered us to an unsustainable economy and lifestyle. Viveka Turnbull Hocking (2010) suggests that we have “actively designed our consumer culture of more obsolescence and addiction to the trivial”. George Monbiot (2017) describes the plague of loneliness in a disconnected society where individuals “self-medicate” with an obsessive devotion to the media, allowing more (designed) consumerist persuasion and political anaesthetic to seep over them every minute. Why, asks Monbiot, “do we tolerate a politics that offers no effective choice? That operates largely at the behest of millionaire funders, corporate power and a bullying media?”.

The answer lies partly in a recognition of design’s role in having created this scenario by upholding dominant capitalist values, encodings and practices. Design is one of the biggest and most successful industries in the UK. But has it been working for our benefit? Deyan Sudjic (2016), director of London’s Design Museum, writes that “we live in an age of anxiety and complexity. We can see that design and designs may have played a part in creating some of these anxieties”.  He however believes that design is “a means of offering solutions as well as of amplifying potential problems”.

The museum’s annual Designs of the Year exhibitions (2017 and 2018) and the content of the professional body, Design and Art Direction’s (D&AD) Festivals in the same years, also suggest that Papanek’s warnings are now fully powering (some) leaders of the design profession to look to a more sustainable and socially responsible future, in an ethos termed Design for Good; the use of design’s positive affordances to help solve or ameliorate wicked problems. This is based in a move away from designing simply to encourage untenable consumption and financial growth. Turnbull Hocking also believes that, “as an activity, design also has something to offer in terms of answering questions about what kind of future we want. The power of design is a creative way of thinking and doing – what it creates is possibilities for the future: for change, for different functions, aesthetics and lifestyles, and, ultimately for facilitating different cultures of living” (Turnbull Hocking, 2010). As Papanek said, “design sees the world as it should be” (1971).

There are calls for design to be used specifically to help with what are termed “wicked problems”; societal problems that are ill-structured, have many facets, multiple stakeholders “shift shape and are never solved” (Knight, 2007). Global examples include climate change, poverty and inequality, women’s education and terrorism, but wicked problems also arise locally in issues such as healthy-eating and the availability of food, health care, women’s opportunities, crime and homelessness. As Alistair Fuad-Luke (2009) says, “Participation in design, as a means to effect deep, transformative, socio-political change, seems essential. This suggests a significant new direction for design to seize.”

In practice, graphic design can be helpful on several fronts. Stephen R. Shepherd (2012) suggests that visualisation is one of its key strengths in helping to ameliorate problems by explaining, say, scientific facts or depicting consequences or probabilities. Sheppard’s book, Visualising Climate Change, for example, demonstrates how visualisation of building projects – literally making pictures of potential concepts and their impacts on the environment – can improve sustainable processes and results, as well as giving warnings of issues like sea-level rise. Producing images, as well as diagrams, can make concrete an idea that might be hard to grasp from other forms of data. This is particularly true of scientific information, that can be conveyed in difficult formats and mean little to the layman. Showing someone images of how far underwater their street might be in ten-year’s time is clarifying and galvanising.

The affordances of communication design in perception-change are best utilised via three principles: make it local, make it visual and make it connected to viewers’ lives (Sheppard, 2012). Sheppard’s advice also links to the key principles stated by Ezio Manzini (2015) of Politecnico di Milano [] and by design anthropologists and practitioners such as Anastassakis and Szaniecki (2016), Fuad-Luke (2009), Pilloten (2010), Kolster (2017) and Vranakis (2017), who state the importance of a range of graphic design forms of communicative intervention as awareness-raisers and conversation-starters. Manzini echoes Sheppard’s desire to make interventions that are local and that are visual or materially embodied, but he also adds the necessity to make interventions public (probably online) and therefore globally replicable and adaptable.

Manzini (2015) and Fuad-Luke (2009) believe the role of a conventional designer is changing and that design professionals will collaborate and co-design with members of the public or small organisations to system-change from the bottom up, especially where governments fail or decline to make the necessary interventions. They do not believe that the designer will necessarily be creating ideas for commercial clients, but instead will be working as a mentor or coach with others, especially local communities, to jointly facilitate their collaborative aspirations.

Moreover, Manzini and other design anthropologists also consider the notion that design itself will no longer solve problems to final solutions but will emphasise its processes as ways to engage, to experiment and to facilitate conversation, eventually leading to change-making. Manzini’s take on design is one of continual development in which designs are continually delivered in “beta” mode, waiting for user feedback for ongoing rounds of iterations (Manzini, 2015). The dialogue that these local prototypes and their global publication and discussion entail, create a dynamic network of Design for Good dialogue.

All of this is powerful and inspiring stuff. Plenty for a design educator to grasp and pass on…

Images credits:

Sale sign by Marcus Spiske on Unspash

Times Square by Austin Scherbarth on Unspalsh


Anastassakis, Z. and Szaniecki, B. (2016). ‘Conversation Dispositifs: Towards a Transdisciplinary Design Anthropological Approach’, in Smith, R. and Vangkilde, K. (2016). Design anthropological futures, London: Bloomsbury

Fuad-Luke, A. (2009). Design Activism: Beautiful Strangeness for a Sustainable World. London: Earthscan

Garvey, J. (2016). The persuaders: the hidden industry that wants to change your mind. London: Icon Books.

Halse, J. and Boffi, L. (2016). ‘Design Interventions as a Form of Inquiry’, in Smith, R. and Vangkilde, K. (2016). Design anthropological futures, London: Bloomsbury

Knight, P. (2007). Fostering and assessing ‘wicked’ competences. Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, Milton Keynes.

Kolster, T. (2017). Stop selling shit, let’s make work that matters. Presented to D&AD Festival, London, 25/4/17 (accessed live)

MacDonald, C. (2015). How many Earths do we need? BBC News,

Manzini, E. (2015). Design, when everybody designs. Cambridge (Mass.): The MIT Press.

Monbiot, G. (2017), How did we get into this mess? Politics, Equality, Nature. Verso Books, London, New York.

Morris, D. 2012. Pedagogy in catastrophic times: Giroux and the tasks of critical public intellectuals. Policy Futures in Education, Volume 10, number 6, 2012.

Papanek, V. (1971). Design for the Real World. Paladin Books.

Pilloten, E. (2010), Teaching design for change, Ted Talk accessed online at, 23/4/17

Resnick, E. (2016). Developing citizen designers. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Sheppard, S. (2012). Visualizing climate change. London: Earthscan.

Sudjic, D. (2016). Foreward, in McGuirk, J. and Delicado, G. (2016). Fear & love: reactions to a complex world. London: Phaidon Press

Turnbull Hocking, V.P. (2010). ‘Designerly Ways of Knowing: What Does Design Have to Offer’, in Brown, V., Harris, J. and Russell, J. (2010). Tackling wicked problems: through the transdisciplinary imagination. London: Earthscan.

Vranakis, S. (2017). Creative Activism. Presented to D&AD Festival, London, 25/4/17 (accessed live)


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