A Call to Humility in Design

Bori Fehér and Taavi Hallimäe

Published on 31.12.2023

Bori Fehér is associate researcher at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, where she leads the Social Design Hub at the MOME Innovation Center. For more than a decade, she has been guiding practice-based research projects focusing on social, eco, and humanitarian design within. Her work involves overseeing various experimental educational and research initiatives, supporting students and researchers in executing their practice-oriented projects. Her research primarily revolves around the climate crisis and its connections to social resilience, with a particular focus on disadvantaged communities and organisations residing in rural peripheries.

Taavi Hallimäe is a cultural critic, lecturer and editor-in-chief of Leida. He works as a visiting lecturer in the Faculty of Design at the Estonian Academy or Arts and is a doctoral student at the Institute of Art History and Visual Culture. His doctoral dissertation is titled Critical Objects of Late Soviet Design. In 2023, he had his own column Disainistik in the cultural weekly Sirp, where he wrote about the connections between design and art, politics, modern culture and cultural theory.

The general perception of a designer who makes only beautiful objects or buildings is outdated. Bori Fehér, the social designer and design researcher at MOME, discusses how to maintain the credibility of the profession of a designer in changed circumstances when facing a multiplicity of crises. In the interview she brings together the responsive role of the designer and the necessity to co-create with vulnerable communities or other professions. She indicates how these principles imposed on the designer will result in an urgent need to reconsider the design practice and education.

Taavi Hallimäe: Today, design can be quite ambiguous, especially in the case of social design, which focuses on working with different communities. It isn’t always clear what the end result should be or sometimes even what is the problem the designer is going to solve. We still design objects, services and spaces, although the focus is more on shared values, different identities or relationships in a community. In these cases we can question what exactly the designer is going to do. What is there that needs to be designed?

Bori Fehér: When we look at design from a very traditional perspective, we notice tangible outcomes, such as a chair or an architectural space. On the other hand, I think it’s really important to note that these outcomes are created through a design process, but the design process as such could also be an outcome. It can also be assessed and described as a tangible outcome. Especially nowadays, when we have so many objects around us, designers and industries unfortunately have filled our world with these objects. I am not sure we need more, I do think we need less.

Design as a discipline and as an approach is always focusing on solving problems. If a designer creates a chair, the sole purpose of the chair is to divide the person from the ground and to give a comfortable, ergonomic and aesthetic seating position. We see all these aspects as necessary conditions for the design outcome. But in its core we are trying to solve issues that the seated person may have. So if we’re looking at everything through the lens of the design process – regardless of whether we are making a chair or dealing with some issues in a community – we are attuning ourselves with this attitude to approaching the problem and here I am not saying solving because I don’t believe that design has the capacity to solve problems on its own. Despite this, design has the capacity to initiate change and it can be used as an intermediary, mediator or connector between agents to create situations, thus allowing change to happen.

TH: In that case it seems that the toolkit the designer needs is endless because you would have to tackle different problems during the process. You may discover that when the community opens up and shares their actual concerns it may appear that the problem the designer should tackle is something else than expected. The designer may not have the necessary tools or may not be mentally prepared for it.

BF: Yes, this relates very well to László Moholy-Nagy when he was saying that designing is not a profession but an attitude.1 I think that in the 21st century, one of the most important traits for a designer is humility – to be able to say that I’m not needed or I’m not here to solve problems. Instead, I am here to mediate and to contribute to the situation and with my tools of creativity, I am here to support, to help. Sometimes this can mean that the designer doesn’t do anything, besides connecting the community to someone else because maybe it’s not design which is needed in that situation. Sometimes it is, but not always.

TH: How would you define the concept of agency in the case of working with a community? Is giving agency to the people the aim the designer is looking to achieve?

BF: Agency has a lot to do with it when we’re talking about the responsibility of a designer. In many cases the designer has a privileged position and should therefore act only as a helping agent, giving agency through design processes. I am somewhat critical of that approach, but I also understand that there are certain social considerations that we as designers cannot change. We should acknowledge our privilege, but also our limits. It is important how we approach the community and how openly we acknowledge it through participative processes. I believe that the design process can be useful in giving agency using the means of creation and at the same time through collectively creating new objects or processes we can all grow. Already designing tangible things gives agency to the people who are lacking them. To experience this you don’t have to be a designer. We can take a look at the DIY movement or just anyone who enjoys decorating their home and notice that it has many things in common with the professional design process. These people will also experience how creation can give agency.

TH: What kind of experiences have you had from participative or co-design?

BF: In the past decade I have worked with different kinds of vulnerable communities. For example, the communities at risk of poverty in Hungary are mostly in rural areas. There we created situations that made it possible to open new perspectives for the participants through co-creational processes. To be more exact, we visited different villages and worked with various NGOs and community organisations and engaged communities in co-creation processes. We built, designed and used various tools of design from stop motion animation to architecture to see how these processes can enable creativity building for children among others. While I am working at a higher educational institution, I am also looking at how the social sensitivity of participating students and teachers can grow through these encounters and cultural interactions.

TH: Today, we are all living in constant crisis – we cannot end one crisis before a new one starts. Whether in Hungary or Estonia or some place else, social designers are working directly with local communities. If we take this into account, how should we reflect our local work on a global scale? How should the discipline of design approach the refugee or climate crisis? Although these global issues cannot be approached locally, they are most probably in the back of our heads while working with a local community.

BF: It is important to have a global perspective. Contemporary crises – now always plural – are interconnected and multifaceted, they are happening at the same time all around the world. But these crises have similarities. They are affected by ecological, economic, cultural, societal and historical aspects, thus we cannot merge different localities. We can never do that. I wish it would be possible to come up with an idea while working with one community, which could then immediately be used in another part of the world, but unfortunately it’s not the case. So, I think it’s really important to understand the locality and the local urgency of the situation, to assess the local crisis or the effect of a global crisis on the local community and understand the impact on the local stakeholders, be it individuals, communities or the environment. This is absolutely crucial.

I also think that adaptability is an important and responsible aspect here. Nothing from the things I have described before, can be adapted without a tremendous amount of work in other locations, communities and situations. Because of this global interconnectedness, I believe we should rely more on each other and share our experiences and knowledge. This is also one of the reasons I came up with the idea of the Social Design Network. Locality is the key, but because of the multifaceted crises we cannot afford to reinvent the wheel all the time locally, but we have to rely on each other, foster collaboration, iterate each other’s ideas and adapt them to the local communities. I think we should foster global collaboration as well as interdisciplinarity in order to include as many experts as we need. I cannot stress enough that designers cannot solve these problems alone.

TH: You said before that there could be a situation where the designer shouldn’t do anything. How can we know when we should intervene, when we adapt, when it would be better to just ignore what is happening? Is there a manual for this or should there be one?

BF: (Laughing.) Unfortunately there’s no manual for it, although I wish there was. But here comes the question of the attitude of the designer and how we should approach whatever we are doing. As designers we have an ethical responsibility for what we are working with. The aspect of time becomes really important here. We cannot talk about social change in a short time, social change happens over decades or may even a lifetime or more. If we approach our work with the aspect of longevity, and are willing to take small steps and accept continuous learning with this ethical and critical lens towards what we are doing, we might experience less situations when we feel we are not needed. We might find better opportunities to collaborate and to contribute to certain situations. For that, we need to focus on all the stakeholders who are involved. We should assess what we can contribute as designers to a certain situation. What is the need and what are the opportunities we are actually able to create?

In my practice-based doctorate, I focused on resilient communities and how design can contribute to these communities. I was working with these vulnerable communities for 7 years, after which I created a diagram with three core aspects we have to consider when we start a social design process. I called it the Social Design Start Diagram and it consists of time, stakeholders and the attitude of the designer. My colleagues and I are using this a lot in the Social Design Hub at the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design in Budapest.

TH: Of course, the possibility of social change means we should also include a collective imagination for a better future. For a working designer where does this imagination come from? How can we believe in a better future when everything seems to go worse? Should designers be more naive to maintain hope?

BF: Going back to humility, I think it’s important to know that we are all contributing hopefully for a better future, for a better earth and its species. Most of us are trying our best. I have studied and practised design, I am experienced in it and although it’s a very small element in the world, I think it can make a real contribution. Maybe I am naive, but I still think that design has the potential to initiate change. Maybe it’s on a very small scale in a very wicked, complex and interconnected crisis, but this doesn’t mean we should do nothing or just keep designing more objects irresponsibly. Socially sensitive, socially innovative ways of designing is a better choice than not doing anything.

TH: In the history of design, the role of a designer has been controversial. In many cases the problems we face today are caused by design and designers. Do you think we should redefine the role of a designer?

BF: Yes, I think we should. We should acknowledge what happened in the past two centuries in regard to design and take responsibility for what happened. We should take action and create the conditions so that nothing similar can happen again, but not only that, we are trying to come up with processes, approaches or outputs that are actually useful for humanity. We are in the process of redefining the role of design, which is really difficult. Universities teaching design are coming out with new programmes, new ways of teaching. I am doing it as well – trying to figure out new ways for the designer to be able to give the knowledge we acquire through design education and to be useful for humanity, but also other species, to be respectful, ethically responsible, continuous learners, flexible, collaborative, to work with integrated and honest approaches. We’re doing all this with the aim that the next generation of designers can acknowledge this realm of design.

TH: One of the things to keep in mind to achieve this, is to open design to other disciplines or at least to recognise that all the issues we are facing today should be tackled together.

BF: In the past, the star designers or starchitects were people who set the trend and who in a very capitalistic way delivered the products the public desired (or were thought to believe they desired them). This enabled situations that were very unfavourable for other species and also for most humans. Now, I think it’s very important that design is just one actor among many in an interconnected and multidisciplinary world. We cannot act alone and for a designer it’s not responsible to act alone. We should rely on trained experts who know the field in which we are working and who have the cultural, ecological and economic sensitivity and understanding from which we can learn.

TH: Do you see art practices also as counterparts in crisis solving?

BF: In my view and because of the urgent situation we are living in, I see the borders between design, the arts and other creative processes fading in a really good way. I believe that it is really important that more and more of us collaborate, learn each other’s languages of creation and try to understand different ways of communication.

TH: For me, it seems that design is a really nice tool for learning. Design has the capability through making together with other people and from this process to learn about people, different cultures, materials and working methods, but of course, during the same process you can unlearn your own skills or methods.

BF: Yes, it is. As a designer you should stay curious and open to other creative processes. I sometimes experiment by collaborating with other art forms. For example, we used stop motion animation as a tool to develop creativity among Roma children who are at risk of poverty. Although this creative process is very different from building an installation or some useful furniture that we also sometimes do, I still think it is important to cross these boundaries and find ways to collaborate. I also enjoy projects where I get the chance to collaborate with ecologists and find ways to co-create together. For designers it is extremely important to look beyond our discipline.

TH: In the beginning of the interview you brought up Moholy-Nagy’s insightful saying that designing is not a profession but an attitude. Should universities and other educational institutions teach attitude instead of profession?

BF: What I am constantly trying to do in my practice is to burst the bubble, to bring my students out of their comfort zone and create new situations for design processes which are unusual for them. Be that a new cultural setting, a community with a very different financial and cultural background. It is the responsibility of design universities to contribute to that attitude building in students. But I also believe that part of this attitude building shouldn’t happen only within the comfortable white walls of the university, but should go outside of it.

  1. Moholy-Nagy, L. Vision in Motion, Paul Theobald, Chicago, 1947.
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