“Design is a fight against ugliness,” writes a visitor on the chalkboard wall at the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA).
For many, the late Massimo Vignelli’s aphorism — voiced in the documentary Helvetica — is the perception of the design field: one focused on aesthetics over practicality, often coated in gratuitous amounts of gradients and Helvetica Neue Ultra Light.
There is some truth to this: Frank Gehry’s lionized Walt Disney Concert Hall, for example, received so many complaints of blinding glare and increased air-conditioning bills from neighboring residents that a number of its mirror-finished stainless steel panels had to be painstakingly resurfaced in 2005. Such stories make the headlines of popular news and blog websites, ever contributing to the stereotype of the egotistical design mastermind.
Design for Social Impact, MODA’s current exhibition, challenges that perception. An exploration of design as a tool for real-world problem solving, it takes visitors on a journey through the careful process of observation, research, development and execution that leads to effective design.
Encompassing a wide range of social, economic and environmental issues, a series of case studies — several featuring projects and designers from the Southeast — make this tangible. From the technologically innovative One Laptop per Child to the humble Universal Nut Sheller, the products reveal how design can be utilized by everyone — the famed architect, the curious student, the casual tinkerer — to solve problems, both big and small.
One local project, AIGA Atlanta’s America’s Dirty Secret: Designers Against Human Trafficking, is especially moving. Though largely unnoticed, human trafficking affects an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 children in the United States alone. In fact, Atlanta ranks among the top 14 cities with the highest rate of child prostitution. In response to these staggering figures, AIGA Atlanta held a contest to design a poster that would make this appalling issue visible. The project yielded a series of compelling graphics that elicit a stronger emotional response than statistics alone. Rights to the winning posters will be donated to organizations battling human trafficking for use in public awareness campaigns.
The design and execution of the exhibition are themselves studies in social impact. The design-related questions on a large chalkboard wall engages visitors in such discussions as how one might design a grocery store to encourage healthy eating or how to make streets safer for bicyclists. Visitors are also encouraged to interact with the designs, including the SOCCKET, a soccer-ball-powered LED light fixture developed for children without access to a constant source of electricity, and the Hippo Water Roller, designed to ease the burden on women carrying gallons of clean water from pumps to their homes.
MODA’s Design for Social Impact demonstrates that design can mean more than picking out typefaces and Pantone colors. True and impactful design can create safe spaces, solve difficult problems and help make the world a better place for all.
Check MODA’s calendar for related lectures, discussions and films highlighting designers and organizations working for social change.