Not everything is about design, but design is about everything. This quote from Michael Bierut in Warren Berger’s Glimmer is one of the most thought provoking I’ve read in the last year. As designers, we spend our days looking at and solving problems, yet how often do we stop to look at problems beyond our own projects or interests? I’ve never really been one to go along with the whole ‘design can change the world’ mentality, but over the last year I’ve started to think about the application of design in our everyday lives, and how many of the products and systems that we use on a daily basis are poorly designed or completely broken.

There are systems that are broken and need to be redesigned

Last Christmas, my partner and I flew up to visit my parents who were sailing around Southeast Asia, and we spent two weeks travelling around islands on the coasts of Malaysia and Thailand. The scenery was amazing and I had a fantastic time, but I was shocked at the amount of rubbish and litter lining the shores of the islands. Most of this was plastic or polystyrene packaging such as bottles, bags and containers, and my initial reaction was that of frustration with the local people and tourists for being so thoughtless and irresponsible.

It wasn’t until I started discussing the issue with people in the area that I learned plastic packaging was a relatively new thing there and that, as recently as 10 years ago, most food from the local markets was served on a banana leaf with a skewer. Under this system, the ‘packaging’ that most food came in could happily be thrown away, and there was no need to recycle anything, as disposing of your plate on the ground was as harmless as a tree losing a leaf. Unfortunately, with the introduction of plastics, people kept doing what they had always done with their packaging: throwing it away, resulting in system that is now completely broken.

In Australia, we have supposedly trained ourselves in the use of such packaging, to put things in the bin and to recycle, yet the train lines and my local river bank constantly remind me of those beaches in Thailand with the amount of litter they hold. Looking at this, I often find myself wondering whether this system is the right one at all. For if our natural instinct is to throw things away, shouldn’t we be using a system that encourages, not conflicts with that? Why is it that a product such as milk, which only lasts a couple of weeks at best, is packaged in a plastic bottle that will last hundreds of years?

Thinking is good – let’s do more of it

The profession of a designer is an interesting one. We are trained to look and think about problems from someone else’s perspective, using what we have learned in order to find a solution that works not for us, but for that person. We include a piece of ourselves in that solution, but for the most part we are putting ourselves in another’s shoes, trying to understand what it is they wish to accomplish, and the best way of doing that.

As designers we need to start using this skill to look at design issues at large, to begin thinking about redesigning systems or products that, like packaging, need serious reconsideration. There are many issues that are raised on a daily basis, from high density housing, to water catchment, to traffic congestion. It shouldn’t matter if you have no formal background in these areas, a good idea is a good idea no matter where it comes from. Start thinking of why there is an issue, and how it could be redesigned to function correctly.

An idea is good; an idea shared is better

Ideas are one of those things in life that are best shared. After spending my first five years as a designer working in small teams, I went out on my own midway through 2006. I knew that working for myself was going to be a challenge; however, what I hadn’t accounted for was working by myself. There is nothing more rewarding as a designer than sharing an idea and watching it grow and develop as you bounce it around.

Fortunately, we live in a time where sharing thoughts and ideas is as easy as sending out a tweet, writing a blog post or sending an email. Even if you’re not comfortable sharing your idea with the world online, you can run it by some friends or peers. At the least, jot it down somewhere, so that you can refer to it later.

I still cringe whenever I read a headline proclaiming ‘design can change the world’. Ironically, everything that we interact with every day of our lives has been designed by someone at some point, so theoretically, it already has.

Initially published in Desktop magazine #269