Design in Crisis - We Love Inc

A gallery exhibition of work generated by Livia Lima, Joanna Alpe, Kylie Phillips, Renée Lam, Vincent Thornhill and Ralph Matthews specifically for a concept show - visually responding to the question 'What happens to design in a time of crisis?'

On 18 September 2009, 6.05pm, on the fifth floor of the beautifully renovated Achilles House (building for lease now) in downtown Auckland, the doors opened and people began arriving, guided by a sandwich board and street-level way-finding signage (necessary due to a google-maps-crisis that resulted in the wrong address being advertised). Those dedicated tackled the stairs (due to a last-minute lift crisis) and were rewarded with an acknowledgment of their efforts by a sign stating "sometimes design in crisis means doing things the hard way, thanks for taking the stairs", a glass of Fiasco Gewurztraminer (there in the nick of time after a courier crisis) and an awful lot of food for thought.

We realised we had thrown people a curve ball; exhibitions of Graphic Design in New Zealand are seldom seen, especially work generated specifically for a concept show and not shown as a graduation show, in retrospect or as part of a portfolio show. The brief was our own, the work our response - a visual manifestation of research and ideas around the core question: what happens to design in a time of crisis? This was a presentation of our thoughts on something that was directly affecting us, our clients and the people around us.

On 15 September 2008, the global financial services firm Lehman Brothers collapsed. This event, the largest bankruptcy in US history, among many other links in the chain, seemed to sound the charge for worldwide recession. We founded We Love Inc, the company that initiated the Design In Crisisproject, within a fortnight of that announcement. Others represented in the show had found themselves in similar situations of transition, moving from jobs into careers, moving from education to industry.

So the issue was something of which we all had a very real world experience and we were therefore keen to discuss it with the wider design community around us. The work was wide ranging, generated after a period of personal research. Pieces like Kylie Phillips' Sell Out had tongue implanted firmly in cheek with statements like "BUY ONE - TAKE MY SOUL FOR FREE". A candid social commentary was offered using the conventions of the current retail market. Kylie invokes questions like:

Ralph Matthews cast a future vision of the design industry. Design By Numbers taps into and reflects the growing 'DIY design accessibility'. Layout programmes like PowerPoint, Word and Publisher that give non-designers design capability will most likely evolve into products like the ones he proposes.

"Are designers expected to offer the same slashed prices and cheap deals? By churning out mass-produced bargain basement material, will we ultimately be selling out?"

"One such response to the current crisis is the prediction that the designers of the future will devise 'design machines'. These machines will be an advanced form of interactive software, employing artificial intelligence in a manner that goes way beyond the scope of current software packages such as Adobe or Quark... a comparison of roles which echoes the step-up from tools to machines and from artisans to engineers that took place during the Industrial Revolution."

Livia Lima's work None of Our Business highlights the order and chaos of the newspaper medium by crafting an exploded view of a randomly selected newspaper from April 2009, which is then compounded to create a new form.

"When the given information is reshuffled and recollated using new criteria, order is transformed into chaos and, likewise, some of the ordinarily chaotic elements of a newspaper gain a new sense of order."

She questions whether all the essential facts are being given to us and, most importantly, whether proper attention given to the facts that matter the most. Renée Lam took a more up-close-and-personal tack - she looked at the dynamic of Fight or Flight. When the going gets tough, do you stand and fight, or flee the scene.

"The work acts as a commentary on both the entangled thought process that occurs in the mind of the young designer and the multiple routes/ occurrences they may undertake if they choose to fight."

Joanna Alpe's work Hello Future uses the key supposition - that in a time of crisis we look critically forward. She interviews Robin Gunston, a Futurist with experience in government, business, oil and the movie industry (advising to the movie Minority Report).

"Designers are inherently and historically forerunners of visual trends and purveyors of the zeitgeist visual style. Trend spotting and forecasting are easy inclusions into design practice, but what if there were something more in-depth that could super-charge our insight into business and brand."

While Future Theory is already an inclusion into inter-national creative practice, this is one of the first times it has been raised in the context of New Zealand design. It covers the Futurists' thoughts on economic recession, an introduction to what Future Theory is about and how this could relate to the design paradigm.

Vincent Thornhill takes a questioning look at the news - the reporting of what is going on around us and how the information relating to the crisis has been presented to us. We are spoken to as consumers, rather than concerned citizens.

"All of these media carry with them an agenda, the objective of which is to deliver advertising to the audience. Therefore, the 'news' or information about a global crisis is packaged within a consumer context."

Storm of Inquiry  is a collaborative interactive design project by Luke Malcolm, Ralph Matthews and Joanna Alpe. Innovation is something that has to come from a time of crisis and interactive design is one of the current technological innovations in the area of graphic design. This project focuses on engaging the audience through the interaction - providing a point of contact and a vehicle for response, rather than just a play piece.

  "This work centres around the question how does design change in a time of crisis?' and the answers provided by the viewer help craft and shape the work into being."

Joanna Alpe and Livia Lima collaborated on Opening Night Poll. This work surveyed the exhibition crowd - asking them for their thoughts on crisis. The responses were extremely varied. Think focus group meets high school toilet door. To some, the recession was a fuss about nothing, a conspiracy, while to others, a harsh personal reality. It seemed clear that, unless you had personal experience with the crisis, it is merely an abstraction. The handwritten notes people contributed worked on the same user-generated level as did the interactive piece: acknowledging and involving the audience.

So why did we exhibit this work... why not just blog thoughts, write an article, post a series of posters, run an ad campaign or some other form of idea-broadcast?

Because Context Is Everything.

The gallery space, even a constructed one as ours was, provides presence. There is a three-dimensional aspect to the work that requires a different type of attention than it would if the ideas were written about only here, within these pages. The viewer has time and space to reflect, absorb, accept, reject and expand on the thoughts. Showcasing contemporary design issues in a gallery context is something we would love to see happen more, as it can only strengthen the New Zealand design community and further encourage design dialogue. Our intention is to continue to support and help facilitate this.

Another reason our response to Design In Crisis became an exhibition - we think in images, not just in words. It is vital to our practice that we are able to manifest our thoughts as visually designed pieces. We have become increasingly interested in the 'thinkers as makers, makers as thinkers' discussion established by Amsterdam-based based designers Experimental Jetset.1 We are keen to embrace this duality in our approach to design.

Our ethos is that as designers we have a trifold responsibility - to the environment, to the people around us and to the progression of culture. But, likely the most important of these is people. Without them, we are talking to ourselves: redundant, self-focused, irrelevant.

"What you will find works is the age-old wisdom - he tangata, he tangata, he tangata - it is the people, the people, the people. People not only generate and store information, they process it to make it more relevant to the era they find themselves in." 2

We need to think in ecosystem terms, realising that we are not hierarchically co-dependent, existing as titled boxes in a governance flow chart, but rather we are interdependents who need each other to survive, respecting that fact.

The exhibition came and went, as most do. People conquered the '16 flights of stairs' and descended them again but we would hope the conversation keeps going. As designers, we should be determined to keep thinking, challenging, creating and acting. The New Zealand design landscape will only be better for it.

1The designers as thinkers and designers as makers discussion comes from Experimental Jetset; you can read more about this at www.experimentaljetset.nl/archive/sbook6interview

2Robin Gunston: Abstract for the Design In Crisis catalogue September 2009