Issue 13

Design in (times of) crisis

Essay — Oliver Herwig

Words by Oliver Herwig

An examination of the role that design must play in future, with three questions: What is design? What can design do? Where will design take us?  

Gas prices are going through the roof, with electricity prices hard on their heels. Construction timber is scarce, and even kitchen appliances are in short supply. Six months’ wait for white goods—when has that ever happened before? Clearly, something extremely fundamental has changed. Our light-hearted optimism has evaporated. The euphoria of growth fuelled by coal, oil and gas over 150 years has now slapped its bill down on the global table: wars, crises, climate catastrophe, not to mention famine and migration.


At the Handelsblatt banking summit in 2022, Deutsche Bank head Christian Sewing suddenly announced, We have been under the illusion for the past 30 years that we could live forever in an ever more globalised world with no major conflicts and with steady growth […]. The truth is that 30 years of presumed calm will now be followed by a period of heightened volatility with economic uncertainty, regular crises and geopolitical conflicts that are also likely to drag on for decades. The banker recommends holistic solutions and [g]ood risk management. 


OK. So what has all that got to do with design? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Design was what made this world possible in the first place, encouraging consumption and helping to design away negative consequences—at least in the privileged world. Now designers have a chance to step up and prove that as well as being part of the problem, design is also a key part of the solution. That starts first of all when we scrutinise reference parameters and talk about standards, about tacit assumptions and our consciousness of what is, or is required to be, seen as normal. In polemical terms, for some time we have been experiencing how old white men—Donald Trump, Alexander Lukashenko, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin—are throwing their weight against change. Against democracy and otherness, against cultural differences and obligations to posterity to treat our—and, above all, their—resources with care and economy. Design signposts a different route, away from the ideas of a single, probably male designer and towards the needs of the maximum possible number of people. The perception of design, after all, has long been as much a catalyst for transformation and a social service as it has a method or a pledge of quality. Used intelligently, design can also create an impact as a means of combating narrow-mindedness, a driver of diversity. Design creates visions of others and opens up scope for possibilities. Even Excel spreadsheets need imagination—or, put in simpler terms, perspectives. Briefly, I would like to raise three questions: What is design? What can design do? Where will design take us?

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