Community spirited: why design is so important for our society

Emily Jenkinson
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:35

In his book, The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference, Malcolm Gladwell highlights the Broken Windows theory, developed by criminologists James Q Wilson and George Kelling, which argues that crime is an inevitable result of disorder.

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The theory was put into practice by the New York Transit Authority in the mid-1980s when a concerted graffiti cleanup took place as a way of tackling the raft of more serious offences taking place across the city at that time. The subsequent fall in crime was evidence, argued Gladwell in his book, that "the criminal is actually someone acutely sensitive to their environment."

That our surroundings have an enormous impact on our behaviour (whether we are criminals or not) comes as no surprise: 20th century modernism has taught us much about how well-designed products and a pleasing environment can affect our happiness and productivity. But design can play many other positive roles within society.

This notion is being explored at The Royal Society of Arts (RSA), where a new scheme, Design & Rehabilitation, is underway that will investigate how design can be used to teach self-reliance in vulnerable areas of the community.

In November, as part of the pilot, the RSA is running a three day residential workshop in creative design for eight spinal cord injured people, which it hopes will help improve patients' confidence and self-reliance. "If you think about it, designers are very ready and able to prototype and improvise," says Emily Campbell, RSA Director of Design, who conceived of the idea. "They are brave about complexity and uncertainty and are very good at judging the relationship between things, as well as understanding how things are put together or why things are the way they are. Designers have the kind of resourcefulness and self-reliance that needs to be more widely distributed."

That the creative, problem-solving skills used in design could help disabled people to become more independent is an original idea, which has already gained huge support in the clinical world of rehabilitation.

At a seminar led by designer Richard Seymour back in May, six consultants came from 11 of this country's spinal cord injury units to lend their backing to the scheme, a result Campbell was "very pleased" with.

Major spinal charities have also welcomed the proposal, which will see leading designers, including Michael Marriott, Pascal Anson, Ben Wilson, Nick Butler and many others, lead design presentations and workshops across the country. The idea has gone down well with spinal cord injured patients too: "This challenges the way we think. It challenges you not to necessarily accept what you’re given," said one after attending the May seminar.

The disabled community is not the only one which can gain confidence through design. Registered charity, Trinity Homeless Projects, offers training to residents to create, repair and resell furniture donated by the local residents. This not only gives good quality, affordable furniture back to the community while saving still-useable items from landfill, but provides paid employment and training for disadvantaged people, helping them to raise self-awareness and re-integrate with society via their own creativity.

There are many other “under-resourced” groups of people, such as refugees or asylum seekers, who could benefit from design, says Campbell, who hopes to apply what is learned from the workshop in November to other sections of the community. But civil servants, she points out, are another group who would also stand to gain from a better understanding of this area. "I think that what we need to do is to educate the commissioners of design - public administrators and civil servants and people in charge of public services - and get them to really understand design, what it does and what it can’t do," says Campbell.

It doesn't have to stop there, she adds: "It would be good for everybody to learn design and for more design education to happen in the informal sector." Do this and, instead of "going into the world as a consumer and accepting it," we might begin to "see the world as designed and therefore designable."

In a world where climate change and diminishing natural resources are a real and present danger, and only we can effect a change, such an attitude must be applauded and embraced by all.

Emily Jenkinson is interiors writer for furniture and interior design website

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