Remember when Kanye West did that odd stream-of-consciousness thing on Twitter a couple of months back?
If you missed it, here’s what happened: West took to Twitter one evening in early January and proceeded to unleash an hours-long barrage of tweets that wandered all over the place. One minute he was tweeting about problems with his agent, next he was quoting Da Vinci, then analyzing the failings of the modern school system, and reminiscing about his days studying fashion in Paris, and marveling at Dr. Dre’s headphones, and tallying the current population levels of the planet—and much, much more. We’ve all had those moments, in the wee hours, when we get to rambling with a friend and just can’t stop. The only difference is that Kanye was doing it with millions of followers tuned in.
Anyway, Kanye’s crazy Twitter rant briefly became a “trending topic” on the Internet and was the subject of a TV comedy skit by Jimmy Kimmel. Everyone had a good laugh, and then it was pretty much forgotten.
But I started thinking about Kanye’s rant the other day, and actually went back and read through the tweets again. Yes, they’re still wildly disjointed. They still made me laugh at times. But on second reading, it occurred to me that the wandering Kanye was actually roaming into some pretty interesting territory.
The gist of what he was saying is something that’s close to my own heart: It has to do with the potential of design to improve the world we live in. That’s a big and audacious idea—the kind that isn’t always welcome in today’s cynical world. I wrote a book a couple of years back about the power of smart design to address some of our biggest, thorniest challenges. And while this didn’t cause me to get spoofed on Jimmy Kimmel (I wish!), I did have a number of critics say to me, with a pitying tone, “You don’t actually think design can save the world, do you?”
Whenever someone asked me that, I knew they didn’t really understand what “design” means. They probably think it’s about stylish handbags, but it’s a lot more—it’s a way of thinking. It’s the art of problem-solving. It is, to quote one of my favorite designers Bruce Mau, “the human capacity to plan and produce desired outcomes.” You want to make something better? You have to envision a new and improved way to do it. Then you have to bring that vision to life. That process is called design.
Some people are very good at this—the late Steve Jobs being an obvious example—but all of us are capable of it. We all have that “human capacity” Mau says; that innate ability to plan and produce “desired outcomes.”
How could design for example help advance black male achievement? Or design a vibrant society that invites all people to participate fully in civic, economic, and cultural life. We don’t tap into this capability as much as we might. And when we do, we don’t necessarily apply it to the really important things. A lot of our best designers have devoted their talents to making cool gadgets and sleek furniture—nothing wrong with that. The design of the iPad certainly represents a “desired outcome.” But what the world could really use at this moment in time are better-designed schools… cities that are more livable… hospitals designed to better serve patient needs… prisons designed to actually help rehabilitate people… better-designed social services… better ways of motivating and encouraging young people… better everything.
This brings us back to Kanye’s tweets. At one point, he issued a call for talented people of all disciplines to come forward and start designing solutions to the human needs that are all around us. “We can collectively effect the world through design,” Kanye tweeted. “We need to pick up where Steve Jobs left off.”
Here I would differ with Kanye only to say: We actually need to one-up Steve Jobs; we need to start designing great things for the world that exists outside the Apple Store. It’s going to be up to all of us, as citizen-designers, to bring about the much-needed redesign of our failing schools, outdated social systems, entrenched cultural biases —the big stuff.
So if we’re going to try to redesign the world around us bit by bit, we’re going to need to think like designers. Designers tend to start out by questioning the way things are (“Why are we doing it this way? What if we did it that way?”). They’re not afraid to experiment with radical alternatives. They’re often adept at “mashing up” and synthesizing—combining two or more existing ideas to create something fresh and original. They’re also good at testing their ideas—putting something out there in the world, seeing what works and what doesn’t, then continually tweaking and refining until they work their way to a solution. Maybe most important, designers aren’t afraid to fail; they see it as a necessary step in the design process. Designers know how to “fail forward.” Failing forward through design may actually address the most pressing threats to open society by creating bold, integrated solutions that address root causes and advance systemic change.
In Warren Berger's next post on the untapped power of design, he will look more specifically at how design might be applied to the black male achievement field. He is working with the American Values Institute, a grantee partner of the Open Society Foundations, to help think about ways design can address the issue or black male achievement. Learn more about Warren Berger's work at AMoreBeautifulQuestion.com.