“The Designers Who Mediate Our Experience of the World Should Probably Get Out More”
Posted: 10/09/2014 1:27pm EDT | Ellen McMahon, Professor in the School of Art at The University of Arizona, co-editor of the book, Ground|Water: The Art, Design and Science of a Dry River
View the original post at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ellen-mcmahon/the-designers-who-mediate_b_5960056.html?1412875695.
What’s the difference between staring up at a sky full of stars as you fall asleep, looking through a telescope with an informative astronomer, pointing your smart phone at the sky, and just glancing up with a wearable digital device?
The only people who can answer this question are those who have had all four experiences. And we are a dwindling population, as ubiquitous little screens and smart glasses and watches are eclipsing the first two kinds of experience.
The science is accumulating to suggest that we are suffering from what David Louv calls “nature deficit disorder,” sacrificing mental and physical health as we replace nature time with screen time. We need to get out more — outside, that is. And the folks who really need to get more are the “experience designers” who are adding layers of augmentation to our every moment. Like my university design students, mostly 20 to 30-somethings, the people who are designing our smart devices and the ways we interact with them grew up in a digitally saturated but have too little experience with the non-human living world.
Experience design is a multidisciplinary enterprise, which focuses on influencing “personal meaning, and emotional context,” in most cases with the goal of engaging us to make a purchase of some kind. I understand this is the way things are going but as a design educator I feel the need to encourage my students to think critically about their future roles as the shapers of human reality. A key component of this is to have knowledge of the basic ecological principles underlying all life. And the best way I have found to inspire their interest and respect for natural systems is through direct experience with nature’s beauty and complexity — as well as with biting insects, sharp sticks, sandy sandwiches, and soggy sleeping bags.
So ten years ago I started taking them on field trips. And I’m not referring to the Google app of the same name, with its quaint old-timey grandpa’s-vest-color and retro silhouette of a pair of binoculars. I mean real field trips, like the ones that changed my life when I was their age, to observe the natural world firsthand and learn about the complex webs of connection between plants, animals, and environments that have developed over 3.5 billion years of evolution.
In my early twenties, feeling stifled by my northeastern suburban upbringing, I headed out to the west coast and majored in biology. Before long I found myself in the vast Oregon desert catching lightning fast lizards with a tiny string lasso at the end of a stick and gently clutching live kangaroo rats in my pockets as hand warmers in the cool evenings. This is when I first fell asleep gazing at the starry sky and developed my sense of wonder for the natural world and my place within it. As I transitioned through careers in biology, scientific illustration, and graphic design, this ecological consciousness has stuck with me.
One of my field trips with students is to CEDO, an environmental field station on the Gulf of California in Mexico, a few hours drive from the University of Arizona in Tucson, where I teach. We sleep under the stars, eat in the open courtyard, learn about the ecology and local conservation issues, and help the center with their visual communication needs. In the past students have created design and illustration for murals, websites and printed materials.
One student, particularly anxious about the trip, walked slightly behind me at sunset out on a vast tidal mud flat. The mud was silky and sticky on our bare feet, the air was balmy and salty, small flocks of shore birds flew overhead silhouetted against the bright orange sky. After several minutes of silence she said under her breath, “It’s so quiet.”
It was as if she had never experienced the unadulterated sounds of nature. I recently caught an interview on NPR with the founder of Spotify saying, “I don’t know any moment in life which can’t be improved with music.” Really? Another tech enthusiast writes in Wired magazine, “Wearables will know what users want before they want it” Why do we assume this a good thing?
After our field trip to CEDO, my students were more interested in the repercussions of design on the living world, and they were more receptive to exploring questions about their work like: Where do the raw materials come from and under what conditions? How are the products and services created? How are they utilized? What are the intentional and unintentional consequences? How are the products recycled or disposed of? What kind of change does it create — in the maker, between people, within the local community and beyond?
When drug cartel violence in Mexico made a trip too risky, I began taking students out to the dry river beds surrounding Tucson to inspire projects about region water. Now I’m working with a group of students on the massive die-off of southwestern forests due to climate change.
Programs such as the National Wildlife Federation’s “Be Out There” campaign, David Suzuki’s 30×30 Nature Challenge, and Cape Farewell, which takes artists and designers out to remote places to encourage them to make work about climate change, are important to push back against the digitization of our worlds. But more design students need exposure.
Where, when, and how we use technology is one of the most important determinants of our future as a species, and designers are the people making those determinations. Our climate crisis didn’t just happen. It is by design that we have separated ourselves from the natural systems that sustain us, in large part by masking the consequences of our consumption. So it is through designers that we need to find our way back.
“Designers Can Help Save the Planet”
By Ellen McMahon | June 20, 2014
Why we need to encourage more artists and graphic designers to think about presenting our climate change problems in a visually compelling way.
Earlier this spring I took a look at the draft of the National Climate Change Assessment, which was posted online for public comment. I felt discouraged, and not for the obvious reasons—I expected the climate news to be bad. What upset me were the lackluster and confusing graphics.
I was much relieved when the final report went live last month. It is beautifully designed, with an intuitive, interactive format, gorgeous, moving images, and sophisticated graphic representations of data. This is great news, because if humanity is going to survive climate change, it will be in part, I think, because designers applied their skills to help us visualize what’s really at stake.
The U.S. public needs climate change illustrated and explained in all of the ways we know how. Though 67 percent of Americans believe global warming is happening, a January Pew poll found that we as a nation ranked it 19th on a list of 20 priorities for Congress and the president to handle (ahead of only dealing with global trade issues). A more recent Gallup poll found that less than one-third of Americans worry about the environment—the lowest level of concern since Gallup began measuring it in 2001. Clearly, the data alone isn’t making a difference. And that’s in part because it hasn’t been communicated in a way that makes us care.
Students need to learn to be proactive about finding or creating situations where they can put their knowledge, skills, and values into practice.
Scientists have a critical message, but now more than ever messages need to be packaged and branded. Consider that most information comes to us through various forms of communication design, from the postage stamp to the nutrition label—and how design has the power to make it meaningful. Modern life has meant replacing the “natural” with designed messages, objects, and experiences, which means that the people doing the designing play, now more than ever, a critical role.
In fact, if we as a culture have become more aware of our role in wasting the planet, it is thanks in some small part to a successful collaboration between a passionate environmentalist and a designer that went viral several years ago; the short video “The Story of Stuff,” has been seen by over 12 million people, and was translated into 15 languages within the first three years of its launch in 2007.
That passionate environmentalist, Annie Leonard, was recently named the new director for Greenpeace USA. That designer, Jonah Sachs, is the founder of Free Range Studios and is now a driving force for bringing environmental issues into the national debate.
But designers who can work effectively with scientists and make environmental issues engaging to a broad audience are still on the margins of a field that hasn’t fully embraced its potential impact and responsibility. There are notable exceptions, such as Stamen Design, creators of an app that predicts sea level rise, and the National Climate Data Center, which was behind the transformation of the most recent National Climate Assessment website. But in truth, most professional design is still in the service of selling us stuff—much of it we don’t really need, with ingredients that aren’t good for us, and made of materials that end up polluting our land, air, and water.
Design education is at the root of this problem. While sustainability permeates every aspect of architectural education, most communication and graphic design programs still focus on formal and technical skills without any connection to social and environmental impact.
I’m a graphic design professor at the University of Arizona, a leader in climate change research—eight UA researchers (more than any other university in the country) worked on the NCA report, and the group’s director, Katharine Jacobs, recently returned to UA to start the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions. I have worked with my design students on environmental projects like Ground Water: The Art, Design and Science of a Dry River, and I’m part of a budding art and environment initiative to bring faculty from across campus to collaborate. Still, there is surprisingly little discussion in our own School of Art about the role that art and design can play in the creation of a more environmentally conscious culture.
If we are to tackle climate change, a good place to start would be in convincing designers to be prepared to bring their strengths as creative thinkers—and makers—across the aisle to work with natural and social scientists. An immediate challenge for academic institutions is to provide opportunities for students to use their design thinking skills as members of interdisciplinary teams working on real environmental and social problems. We need to shift how we educate designers so they don’t think of themselves as artists for hire but as informed and empowered creative forces working for the greater good. And students need to learn to be proactive about finding or creating situations where they can put their knowledge, skills, and values into practice.
Design educators aren’t entirely turning a blind eye to the problem. There’s the recent collaboration between Adobe and the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), “Defining the Designer of 2015.” But the main problem remains: Most communication design jobs are not Earth sustaining, and certainly not the most lucrative ones. The Obama Administration may be supporting a strong team of climate change communicators (in addition to the NCA report there’s the Climate Action Plan website, which includes an innovative challenge calling on researchers and developers to create data-driven simulations of climate impacts). But for the most part, research scientists and policymakers don’t have the funding to attract and support the visualizers they need.
It has often been said that the image of Earth taken from Apollo 8 in 1968 launched the environmental movement. Now we have myriad technologies to visualize and communicate our planet’s vulnerability, and we’re at a critical moment to do so. What will ultimately change minds and inspire us to take action? Will it be an app that predicts sea level rise, a jaw-dropping immersive visualization of hurricanes, a stunning graph, an interactive website, or a perfectly targeted public relations campaign? It will surely be a combination, and their effectiveness will depend on the designers’ skills and intentions.