Are Designers Useful?

May 17, 2008


Alice Rawsthorn at IHT wrote once more on One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), a year and a half after she first introduced the non-profit organization and their goal of providing “children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment and express themselves” by developing:
A $100 educational laptop.
It’s the most talked-about design project winning awards left, right and centre, setting a new standard for humanitarian design and of course, causing a great deal of controversy (amongst environmentalists, industry techies, educators, development economists, designers).      

Some question its feasibility, others wonder about its mission authenticity while even more are just… sceptical about the whole project. Check out OLPCNews – it’s an independent site giving a variety of opinions on the subject – or Wikipedia for a quick overview.

For me, I just think it’s remarkable how design contribute so greatly to humanitarian efforts. Remarkable and relieving.

I was following the news on the China earthquake last week, thinking,

“People are dying by the thousands, medics are helping, rescue teams are risking their lives, volunteer organizations are rallying, humanitarian forces are provided food aid ….” Everyone was being  useful and I couldn’t figure out where design had a place.

It felt like the old debate about the arts being a luxury – how basic necessities called out to be satisfied before one could appreciate Mozart or Les Miserables or that $XXmillion sculpture.

I’ve always disagreed, taking the stand that the arts are the part of life for enjoyment, that if you were poor, watching a play could make you forget your worries for that period, ensconced in a alternate reality.

But the China disaster casted doubts and made me wonder if all that thinking was too naïve. If you’re a doctor, you could help. If you’re a fireman, you could help. If you’re a designer…….

Where’s the part of designers in disasters?

Are designers useless?

OLPS’s initiative reassured me that it wasn’t so. Designers do help, but in a beforehand, behind-the-scenes as opposed to in the actual situation.

That rescue tool kit? A designer made sure it’s as efficient and compact as can be. The $100 computer? It’ll increase learning-interest, subsequent literacy rates and build a more progressive nation. (A bit grand of a statement, but you know what I mean.)

Instead of helping in the now, the designer helped out then to make sure the situation later would be better.

So while not all designs contribute to the good of the world, it’s enough that there are some great ones that do.







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