Can Design Change the World?
Q: I’ll keep it simple: can design change the world?
I’ll answer just as simply: Yes. But…
But not for the reasons you think. And not the reasons you hear bandied about by the hopeful and the inspired and the lovingly crafted exuberant designers of today. Because I doubt very much that someone who can’t change their boss’s mind, or change a printer cartridge can change the world.
Because I love you, I need to tell you something: you’re not special. You have no unique properties. There is absolutely nothing about you that makes you different than anyone else. You are not a snowflake. And even if you are the most creative person you know, I guarantee there are ten million other people just. Like. You.
This is good news.
I don’t think design can change the world because it’s special. I think design can change the world because it’s not. Because I think anyone can change the world. And because the world isn’t usually changed by special people. It’s changed by ordinary people. Ordinary people who take it upon themselves to take a stand because they’re trying to lead ordinary lives and something stupid gets in their way.
The world is changed by seamstresses who don’t want to give up their seat when they’re trying to get home after a hard day of work. The world is changed by electricians trying to earn a fair wage. The world is changed by girls who just want to go to school. The world is changed by low-level diplomats who just want to go home. The world is changed by cocky kids who find themselves punching above their pay grade.
Let me tell you a story about a man who changed the world. At least my corner of it. His name was Bernard Harmon and he was a public high school art teacher in Philadelphia. I was a freshman in high school when I entered his classroom. And like many of the kids in his class, I was having a pretty non-great childhood. I was a fat pimpled underachieving immigrant kid, dying to belong. And too angry to adjust. And looking around at that classroom, we were all pretty messed up kids. And all he had to do was just cruise us through the next four years of the Philadelphia public school system. Except he didn’t. Instead he gave a shit. He became a de-facto dad for all of his students, especially the ones who needed him the most. He gave us goals, he made us work to achieve them, he pushed us, he gave us moral centers, and he made us grow up. And I guarantee you he was getting paid shit for all this because, like I said, he was a teacher in the Philadelphia public school system. And now the kids he taught are out there in the world doing their own thing, hopefully passing on the lessons we were taught.
Teachers can change the world. All around the world. Every day. In small ways, one kid at a time. And for little reward, other than something inside them that tells them it’s the right thing to do.
Doctors can, and have, changed the world.
Journalists can, and have, changed the world.
And yes, designers can, and have, changed the world.
But it’s not because we’re especially capable of effecting change and improving the world around us. We’re no different than anyone else. We’re not special. We’re ordinary. And we live by the same social contract. Yes, designers can change the world. But it’s because we have the same responsibility as every other ordinary person.
So the real question isn’t whether we can change the world, but how? What will you do? Can you afford not to? Greenland is melting. Children are being gunned down in schools. A great mass of stateless people are dying as they pass through Europe. And there’s a shelter in your own city that could use a volunteer to a teach homeless kid math.
So, no, you’re not special. You’re ordinary. And like everybody else, you need to opt in. We can’t afford you not trying.
I wish you all ordinary lives.
Mike Monteiro is a nice guy or a total asshole depending on your opinion. He is also the Design Director at Mule Design. And the author of Design Is a Job and You’re My Favorite Client.