Can design change the world?

I was taught to believe that it could.

For a long time, I believed it – not in an entirely naiive solve-all-problems-with-a-poster way, but I did have faith that good design could create incremental changes that could make lives better.  I still have that faith, but it resides dormant somewhere and only comes up when I get really angry, or really frustrated about a situation or system which I know could have been improved upon if only designed had played a part.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve spent more time than I’ve wanted to at two kinds of places I think a lot of people dislike as much as I do- hospitals and banks. Two weeks ago, I walked into a hospital. The chaos that surrounded me as soon as I did made me want to turn right around and leave. After making my way through the crowd gathered at the entrance, I looked around, trying to navigate my way to a registry desk and eventually located one. Ten minutes later, hospital card in hand, I was left to my devices- left to figure out where in that five storied hospital I’d find the department and doctor I needed.

In the midst of a giant hallway crowded with stressed out, unwell people and their worried families I stood still, observing the madness around me. At the bottom of every staircase, at the door of every elevator, at the mouth of every corridor, were people looking up. Looking for a sign to direct them. Something spelling out where they should be going. And for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why way finding and signage in a hospital was given so little priority.

In this situation, I do believe design can solve a problem. I feel the same way about banks. The same way about stations. The same way about airports. The first two spaces are high-stress spaces. People are anxious, stress levels are high. Why can’t we save them a little stress, make their lives a little easier?  With stations and airports, people are in a hurry- can’t we have them a little time and effort by not making it such a chore for them to get where they are? Design in India may be growing, but we seem to have equated design with branding and the way things look. While there isn’t much wrong with wanting to make something look better, and valuing it more for its improved aesthetic, we seem to have ignored design’s potential to improve human lives, to make lives simpler, easier, less stressful.

My love and (mild) obsession with planning and organizing has always made the thought of intelligently planning a large space appealing to me. But when I walked into that hospital, I knew it was something I wanted to do. I don’t know about changing the world, but I do believe that design in these spaces could do our country a whole lot of good.


4 thoughts on “Can design change the world?

  1. Hey Anya, I enjoyed reading this post! Intentional, thoughtful design is hugely important, and I’d argue that it’s even more impactful in low-resource, developing country settings. I’ve been working in Haiti with Dartmouth on a number of initiatives, primarily medical but also around community development and urban planning in areas that were destroyed by the 2010 earthquake.

    I think you’d like the work of the non-profit design/architecture firm MASS Design. They have designed and built a number of hospitals for leading NGOs, including Partners in Health in places like Haiti and Rwanda. Their work is incredible. They also tie in education and training whenever possible to build up the local job opportunities available.

    Also, a group of architecture and design students at Dartmouth are working on affordable housing models in Haiti. I am sharing the link to the 2011 design competition below. Prototype designs have been created for a rural and urban house in Haiti that are culturally appropriate. The beneficiaries would ideally be the “poorest of the poor” in Haiti, some who are living in slums in Port-au-Prince. We have roped in business students at Dartmouth to consider potential microfinance models so that the beneficiaries could afford to pay for their own homes.

    Not sure if any of this in line with what you are thinking about but I think there may be some ideas to be shared! Will be in India in 2 weeks with my mom… hope to see you!?


  2. Hey Amita,
    I’d love to go through both sites. Design for spaces, primarily spaces and situations where stress levels are high, is something that really interests me and I’d love to see what people are doing…
    I didn’t know you were coming down! Would love to see you..Lets this conversation over to facebook/email?

  3. great writing Anya, and so very true. Whenever I read something written by you, I feel moved and motivated in some way or the other! good luck always:)

  4. Anya, every time I read your posts, it leaves my brain energised and feeling better about why I chose design.

    You have a brilliant way of putting thoughts into word; many thoughts that cross the minds of many but don’t translate into a form that can be shared with others. Sharing is important and a beautiful way to connect at many levels.

    All this while I have been trying to put this down after I read your posts I have finally done it today and I feel good. I hope to Do this more often in future.

    I look forward to your future posts and hope you are doing great. Cheers! 😀

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