design for each, not everyone
sustainability and accessibility in design are currently dominated by endless optimisation and perfectionism. intuitively—but they don't have to be. we are constantly trying to 'design for everyone,' which only makes sense in the framework of profit-oriented mass production. the much more fun (and useful) alternative is to design for—or preferably with or even as—each, individuals. to get there, we need to lose our attachment to mass production, to making royalty money, owning a patent or founding the next start-up. we need to change the system from the outside.
the problem with design for everyone
the long overdue climate awareness in the design field has produced a huge mass of designers, educators and students that are faced by the harrowing effects and terrifying future implications of the climate crisis, and are aware how the field of design has been a massive driver of these changes in the last century.
at the same time, we are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that a lot of our design icons, while pretty or 'functional,' only properly serve those that are neurotypical and do not differ from current body norms.
we want change. we want to include more variables into the way we work, make it more sustainable, use less materials or develop new materials, improve production and distribution. and because our products will need to be produced for the masses, and made to work for everyone, we need to be really careful that we don't make any mistakes. otherwise, we're back in the same downward spiral. there seems to be no escape, no wiggle room. design for everyone will always be a design of optimisation, of improving, of perfecting. in the ideal (and imaginary) scenario, this would make our current way of life possible without destroying everything. but as soon as one thing falls out of place, we have tipped the scale towards doom again. we are trying to stay afloat.
and quite frankly, it isn't working. it all smells a lot like the preachers of techno-solutions, of silver bullets, of carbon capture, of nuclear power; the business as usual, but make it greener types. science tells us that they are wrong.
design for each
so how do we get away from the constant stress of trying to consider everything and everyone while not propelling ourselves towards catastrophe? how do we break this endless cycle? by refusing its basic logic.
the problem is trying to make things that fit everyone and then to make a lot of them. what we need instead is to produce a lot less (or entirely reject the concept of production) and make things with or as individual people, or communities; to design for each. stop designing by doing massive consumer studies or becoming pseudo-scientists and start creating for smaller scales instead. make something that you would need, or somebody else you know, or your local community; build it yourself. publish your process and your results and let other people copy and change your ideas.
what you make might only work for you. and the result might not be as sleek or shiny as what we are are used to. but that's okay. since we are breaking away from the need to produce for the sake of producing, we are making a lot less. that means we don't need to worry about perfection any more. we also break away from our current division of labour and become more involved in the entire process of creating—in return, everyone can be a designer. we will have more of an appreciation for all the invisible work that is needed to make everything we depend on. we will know how to repair things, and repair them. making things as (or together with) specific individuals and communities will allow us to build things adjusted to their specific needs and preferences, instead of trying to find the blanket solution that works for everyone and in the process cut corners.
we can become much more playful with our design process; make shapes that don't `make sense' and work with our immediate environment; build things that are fun and make building them fun too. by leaving behind a need for perfect solutions, we can experiment with norm-criticism and -creativity to find new ways of expression. we don't need to think about the horizons of understanding or worry too much about communicating the wrong things to people we don't know, because we are building for the people we do know. we can include a lot more artistic qualities in our work and blend the borders between arts, craft and design. for those of us interested in incorporating scientific research and new concepts, they can experiment much more freely, because the results don't need to be mass market ready.
i hope it's clear i am not telling you to make a bunch of art furniture and sell it for enormous sums. instead you should make things that you want for yourself, and show people how to make it themselves too. this is not another movement of 'great designers.'
this is the movement of sharing, of open source, of imperfection, of playfulness, of decentralisation; of small tech, of makerspaces, of independent repair shops, of libraries, of zines, of community gardens; of guerrilla gardening, of graffiti, of piracy. design for each cannot exist outside this movement. it can only grow in communities that aren't being exploited and impoverished. it relies on decolonisation and international reparations. it is a part of system change, but the system needs to change in all other ways as well. for that, we can't stay at our drawing tables, we need to take to the streets. still, design for each will connect the practice of design with individuals again and make us all a lot less stressed and a lot happier along the way.