I Began Questioning
Where does your journey begin for making a difference that matters? We all have the same amount of time, and each are gifted in some ways, some more gifted than others. I’m interested in this question of when and why people chose to make a difference, rather than how much of a difference they might have made which is a very subjective measure of contribution.
I was delighted to meet up with an old friend Cynthia Smith in New York the previous week at the conclusion of my epic running stunt where I ran 10 sub-marathons each of 24 km in 10 cities across 10 countries. Many of you know already that the running was a stunt to thread a common narrative through 10 cities where an important question will be explored through a nine month period this year in a series of Design Forums asking: “how might we use our networks to improve the delivery of child survival?”
Cynthia is a curator of design at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in what was once Andrew Carnegie’s home.
Cynthia Smith is a remarkable lady who has led a movement examining ‘design for the other 90%’. The idea is that most design is made for that 10% of the global population that can afford to live in homes, drive cars, enjoy discretionary entertainment, and then still have money left over for fashion, holidays, pets, and everything else that we seldom stop to think twice about.
There is a quote in a book she curated which I read once and carry with me as an inspiration. The quote talks about a decision to make a difference, rather than worrying about how ready we are to make that difference. She wrote:
“As a result, I began questioning: ‘In what ways could I, as a designer, make a difference?’
We met for breakfast, and afterwards spent some time at the collection at the Cooper Hewitt. After saying farewell, I spent some time wandering around the collection myself. What impressed me most was the idea of accessibility of being a designer. One exhibition was about Human Centred Design, and was essentially a call to action for everyone who walked into the exhibition in the old library of Andrew Carnegie to become a designer.
So what does this mean for you and I? Are we any different to Cynthia? After all, she is a ‘capital D’ Designer. You know, a real one.
I think what it means is that you need to read her quote above and own it for yourself. Take ownership of becoming a designer. And start by asking ‘will you decide to make a difference?’
If is not a new thought to you already, then there is one thing I want you to do for me. Share this post with someone who is ‘just ordinary’, but let them know they are far from ordinary. We need them as designers to make a difference. Maybe not in a big way, but with some sense of conviction that they can actually make a difference.
The centrepiece exhibition was about tools, and was thought-provoking. It took the ordinary and showed how everything has in some way been designed.
I like this thought because it comes back to the Design Forums I spoke about earlier in this post. In every city, we will have a particular focus. When we arrive in New York which I believe will be in May, I would like to pick up this theme of tools as it relates to child survival. It is a conversation I want to pick up with Cynthia, and in some ways I am opening up that thought with this post.
In a stroke of serendipity when we were walking to the Cooper Hewitt, we passed the church that is adjacent to the museum. Apparently, Carnegie’s wife gifted the land to the church knowing that the highrises of the city were starting to be build closer and closer to her house. It was an ingenious was to create a buffer to allow her garden to receive sunlight. That the church doesn’t have steeples confirms this story.
I visited the church the Sunday after we met as was totally inspired by the vision of the Minister who had created a real culture of questioning in what ways could the church make a difference to the local community. So my intention is to speak both with Cynthia and the membership at the church to ask, together in what ways could we make a difference?
But the person who I most want to engage in this conversation is you. In what ways as a designer could you make a difference?
Cooper Hewitt’s Curatorial Director, Barbara Bloemink, at the New York Museum of Design which is now part of the Smithsonian collection has a great quote:
“Human beings have always used ingenuity to solve problems.”
It sounds pretty straightforward, but it is worth reflecting on for a minute. It is saying that we tap into a genius mind when we solve problems. That is profound.
We take solving problems for granted. We should see every problem that has been solved, resolved or reframed as an achievement worth celebrating. Do you?