courage can't see around corners but goes around them anyway. ~Mignon McLaughlin

Change the world?

A friend of mine just announced on his Facebook status that he needs writers and designers to change the world. They already are. Give us a break man. From climate change to social justice, there is no shortage of projects aimed at bringing relief to pain and hardship, fostering human development and sustainability on the planet. (I assume this is what he means.)

Change, especially in the post-Obama campaign world, has become a buzzword and, thus, lost its meaning.
So I’m going back to basics. What does change mean? Well, a gander at the Oxford English Dictionary and our beloved Wikipedia reminds me that there are lots of kinds of change: social change, physical metamorphosis, mathematical change, personal development. Probably what most people are talking about is a shift in situation or state of being from one that is perceived as negative to positive.

When you broaden the group of people who my friend was calling out to from designers and writers to include design thinkers, engineers, politicians, businessmen, then you have a smart multi-disciplinary group of people who can collaborate to shift one state of being into another.

This seems obvious, so why am I writing about this? Because the quest for change is a slippery slope and perception of “change for the better” is often quite subjective to individuals values. What do we, who are ranting and raving about change, really want? I’d like to think it’s change that can meet basic human needs. Will that change the world? Yes. Will a new stable government in a war-torn nation change the world? Probably. Will a new designer gadget on sale at the MoMA Design Store change the world? Probably not. Sure that’s a bit reductive, but let’s get real when we talk about designers and writers changing the world. There are big issues to address and they have lots of facets to them. Meaningful solutions often require focus, creativity and a healthy shot of risk and serendipity to get there — reaching out into the unknown. A “Eureka!” moment, if you will. Plenty of inventors, designers, writers have found their moment to enable a better quality of life for humankind and for the earth. But there are always two side to every coin.

The team at the Manhattan Project were incredibly creative and focused. Their engineering and technical prowess classified many of them as designers in their own right. These designers changed the world, too. Forever. This most memorable quote from those reports stopped me in my tracks in design school: “We were reaching into the unknown and we did not know what might come of it.” And when the first nuclear bomb exploded, Oppenheimer recalled Vishnu’s words from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Indeed.

So my point, at the end of all of this, is about language. Change means a lot of things. Changing the world could be an aspiration or an after effect. I often ask people what they mean by what they say, not because I’m especially thick, but because I respect the power words have to make things happen — to set processes in motion. So, I strive and struggle to be specific. A design product is only as good as its brief. Give a designer a brief that says “change the world” and you could get lots of things back: a rainwater harvesting solution to keep a village hydrated in a drought or a nuclear bomb. I’m just sayin’.


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