Samantha Sanella: Designers as Superheroes. More Powerful than a Speeding Locomotive
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Samantha Sanella: Designers as Superheroes. More Powerful than a Speeding Locomotive

Samantha Sanella: Designers as Superheroes. More Powerful than a Speeding Locomotive

All designers can tap into their inner strength, tenacity and knowledge to make huge differences in our world. Design, at its most powerful, is a public service. Many leaders, however, and the citizens they represent, are at a loss. They have no idea how design impacts the greater good and no idea how to reinvent themselves, and they perceive municipal—and societal—decline as inevitable. Imagine if federal governments worked with municipal leaders and teams of designers to re-imagine cities that have deteriorated over the years. We could reinvent Detroit! Imagine if we re-invented the road? The train? Our entire way of transporting goods and services? Our healthcare system? Our education system? Imagine if a Mayor called together a design team to re-imagine the skyline or the abandoned industrial lands of a city? As designers, we are educated to create vision. Perhaps it’s not the X-ray vision of Superman, but it’s still our super power. We need to put it to use for the greater good.

After years of observing our general lack of value for our knowledge (evidenced by low-wages and commodity servicing), I became President and CEO of Design Exchange, Canada’s National Design Centre. At the DX, we place great emphasis on design’s value and its contribution to our economy, environment and quality of life. In fact, we believe that design is a driver of our economy, preserver of our environment and essential to our quality of life. Design is in “every experience, every product and every environment.” Getting our audience to understand the ways in which design is utilized to develop and implement ideas is difficult. I often say, ‘does a fish know that it’s swimming in water’? Likely not. Do people know that they are surrounded by ‘design’? Likely not. We must converse with the public as if we are starting at the very beginning of the ABC book.

I work with diverse audiences to teach them how to ‘connect the dots’ and see the bigger picture of our world. Designers hold great responsibility, but they often do not take time to understand how their choices affect every aspect of our lives. Whether materials, fonts, heights or structures—these choices all have significant implications; it is the ripple effect. An interior designer from Alberta can make a choice that affects an entire stone plant in Mexico. A graphic designer can make a choice about lighting signage that affects the safety of an elderly person with low vision. An architect can make a choice about a building façade that reinvents a business’ entire image. As designers, we have a tremendous amount of power, but fail to recognize it and fail to verbalise it to others. Educators and professional associations should focus on the strategic nature of design and its broader impact on our society. However, it is not their responsibility alone.

Design Policy is critical to our profession. It is absolutely integrated with innovation, economic development, public safety, culture and heritage. For policy to be most effective it must be embraced by leaders at the federal level and translated downstream into provincial/state/regional and municipal levels. Many countries have embarked on policies and programs that have stellar results, including Korea, Denmark and the UK. Countries around the world have linked manufacturing to design innovation, but in North America and in many countries in South America, we struggle to make our case to the leaders of our countries. In Canada, I have spent countless hours in rooms with bureaucrats and politicians who stare blankly at me as I explain the power of design. One particular amusing moment, was in Ottawa with a Senior Advisor to the Minister of Industry. After spending forty-five minutes extolling the power of design as a driver for our economy, he looked at his watch and said, ‘I’m too busy to worry about design, I have to focus on General Motors and Canada’s role in the auto industry bail-out.” It seems that my elementary explanation of the value of design was still not enough for this bureaucrat. Convincing as I am, reaching the government in Canada remains elusive.

For the design profession to advance, we must also approach this problem from the ‘bottom up’. This begins with teaching our children creativity. Creativity has been socialized (or institutionalized) out of many of our schools—especially in North America. It is rare that children participate in a significant amount of art, drama or music instruction. Pushed aside for math, science and computer training—children have been taught to exercise the left side of the brain, but not the right side. Whole brain thinking is required for creative problem solving and it is critical to our society and its survival. This should be emphasized in elementary school and strengthened as a child grows. The easiest way to change the world is to begin with children.

Design is a holistic process that begins with the conception of an idea. It is strategic by nature of the process. We should approach the larger issue of undervaluing design in a holistic manner—by revolution or by evolution. This challenge does not belong to one design discipline alone, it belongs to all of them. As well, this challenge belongs to our entire education system, not just primary education. And it belongs to the world, our global economy—not just one country alone. As we struggle to sustain our population, grow economies and raise the standard of living for developing countries, I ask, how can we put the ‘superpower of design’ to good use? Think about it. You will be in good company. More at Hiatus.