Is Design for Everyone?

23 February, 2017

As a curatorial assistant at MoMA and educator in design history at Parsons The New School, Michelle Millar Fisher spends her days exploring the cultural impact of contemporary design. As part of our Truth-tellers and Troublemakers series, Michelle recently shared her perspective on the recent MoMA exhibition, “This is for Everyone: Design Experiments for the Common Good.” This is an edited transcript of the talk. Michelle donated her speaker's fee was donated to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.

Can you tell us about people working in social design that you particularly admire?

Does anyone know who Aneurin Bevan is? He was the architect of the National Health Service in the UK. He's the reason I didn’t pay for any kind of medical care until I got [to the U.S.] about a decade ago, and the reason I still pay, even though I don't have to, my national security. He’s the epitome of good design, designing a system that has stood the test of time. You do have to wait a little bit longer than you do here to get some surgeries, but it does work, and it's definitely saved many peoples lives, including family members of mine. I'm a huge fan of Nye Bevan, may he RIP.

Tim Berners-Lee.

Anyone else?

Tim Berners-Lee is also another amazing designer who has created fantastic social experiments. In 1989, working with CERN [the European Organization for Nuclear Research], he created what we now think of as the World Wide Web. Internet and email protocol came a little bit earlier with Ray Tomlinson, but Berners-Lee was really the ground-zero for an amazing social design experiment. These two, Nye Bevan and TBL, are really are the benchmarks for me in terms of what low-barrier design means.

What does “design for the common good” mean to you?

Modernism has often posed human progress as a straight-arrow line forward, and design has been used as a tool of progress, a way for us to manifest our destinies as progressively better human beings and progressively better societies. I think that design for the common good is more networked than this, like the examples above.

How did this exhibition came about?

Flashback a couple of years ago. I was fairly new at MoMA. Every year, we create an exhibition from the design collection. I was watching the 2012 summer Olympic Games in London, not my home town, but definitely my homeland. The opening ceremony was choreographed by Danny Boyle. I grew up in Scotland in the mid-’90s, and watched Trainspotting until my VHS ran out, so there was no way I was going to miss this. And to my delight, in the middle of the ceremony, this house in the middle lifted off. Underneath it was Tim Berners-Lee, and he typed out, This is for Everyone. It lit up the stadium and went out as a tweet to millions of people. My design heart just exploded. I thought, yes! This is what design is for! And then about ten seconds later, I was like, hang on, how many people actually have access to the Internet? In 2012, it was 39% of the world's population. And when I looked at the statistics even more closely, if I'm recalling it correctly, 75% of that 39% of the pie, is just in 20 countries alone. It really surprised me: a significant number of rural homes in the States don't have access to broadband. So it made me question my own lack of criticality. When we ( the exhibition was in concert with my amazing MoMA mentor Paola Antonelli) put together the exhibition, we used “This is for Everyone” in the title, but it morphed every couple of seconds to ask the question, “Is this for everyone?”

“When we’re talking about barriers, it’s not only between user and designer, but also in terms of what you can have in a museum.”

What did you include in the exhibition to help answer that question?

We put together a range of designs that Paola had pioneered in the MoMA collection that spoke to universality, accessibility, and the ways in which we may and may not experience design as users. We had a range of different things from our collection, including the Kinematic Dress, that uses software to 3D-scan your body, create a digital garment and tessellate it. You can make the tessellations larger if you want a more rigid fabric, smaller if you want a more flowing fabric. And instead of needing to print it in a large 3D printer in order to get a dress that's a certain size, you actually digitally crumple the design, so you can print in a smaler printer. It’s really a wonderful project. Kinematics put the software online, so you can play with it yourself. When this particular project debuted, it was exciting to think about ways anyone, not just 3D print enthusiasts and experts, might engage with it.

Are there other examples?

The Free Universal Construction Kit was also in the exhibition, a collaboration between Golan Levin, who’s in the Human Computer Interaction Department at Carnegie Mellon, and his student at the time, Shawn Simms. Golan and Shawn took various construction kits on the market and measured their connecting points, then calibrated a set that would allow these kits to work interoperably with one another. Then they went a step further, and put these instructions online, so anyone could 3D print their own kit. When we acquired it for the museum, so no one was actually going out and buying this as a readymade kit, but that really wasn't the point. The point was you could put these things online, and the provocation was there. The best part was the acronym: Free Universal Construction Kit became, rather wonderfully, the "FuckIt."

I’m very interested in how design interacts with everyday life. Can you share any examples from the exhibit that speak to that?

Neri Oxman’s Imaginary Beings series is definitely worth checking out. Neri is a professor at MIT who works in an interdisciplinary manner between architecture, biology, and design. She wanted to think about the ways in which we might push not only 3D printing, but also how we think in the future of growing things that augment our own biologies. So we might be able to, for example, breath underwater or fly. She took Jorge Luis Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings and looked at mythologies in the western world around half-men, half-beasts, and created these sculptures. While they have a life as aesthetic pieces, they also suggest what could happen as barriers to certain technologies fall away.

So we might someday be able to design our bodies? Are there others working in biological design?

One of my favorites is the Wyss Institute’s Organ on a Chip. It's still very much at the prototype testing phase, but the idea is to bypass animal testing and lengthy human drug trials. They're tiny little silicone things that fit in the palm of your hand. If you can take a cell biopsy from your lungs, your heart, your liver: each one is slightly different, so you can either test them solo or in concert to see how pharmaceuticals might work. Not only on somebody, but on your particular body, because you're testing your cells on them. For me, this was a really interesting part of the exhibition because it talked about universal access to the possibility of personalized medicine.

“The Internet is something you can use for sharing, to democratize design. It's something that all of the designers in our collection use for the greater good.”

In terms of accessible design, I see that the museum has acquired some very recognizable cultural icons.

We acquired the @ sign through Paola in 2010, and others like the Google Maps pin. We got Susan Kare's work into the collection; she was the designer of the GUI, the graphic designer interface, for Apple, in the early 1980s, she was a young design student just out of NYU who went to the West Coast. A high school friend asked her to help him plot out the early icons that we now know and love, so she did them on graph paper — and then they were transformed into icons like the bomb, the watch, many now-iconic symbols. We brought the Rainbow Flag into our collection, which was a huge, huge high point. We had it raised on the day that the Supreme Court passed the same-sex marriage law. We also have a ton of video games, which has actually been fairly controversial in our collecting policy at MoMA.

Why is it controversial?

When Paola first brought some of these in to the collection, and we sort of do them now on a fairly regular basis, MoMA got a lot of press. Some people were really elated that we had them in there, but a lot of people thought video games weren’t art, that they shouldn't be next to Picasso. The critics conveniently forgot that this kind of conversation went down in the 1930s when MoMA exhibited Cubism. Certain works were stopped at Customs in 1936, and the museum was told “this is not art, you can't have it in your Cubism show.” They had to delay the opening of the show by a week, and pay quite a hefty fee to Customs because this stuff was assessed in terms of its material, rather than artistic, quality.

Do you think there are still mental barriers around certain kinds of design?

When we’re talking about barriers, it’s not only between user and designer, but also in terms of what you can have in a museum. We started thinking about the ways in which we might break down some of the barriers of what we show and how we talk about design in the museum. For better or worse, what museums put their galleries ends up in textbooks, and sets the tone for what becomes canonical at a certain moment.

“How far can you walk in someone’s shoes? How do you walk in someone’s shoes? How do you even attempt that kind of empathy?”

The Liberator. 2013. CAD Files. The worlds first 3d printed gun.

Paola, along with myself, another curatorial assistant names Kate Carmody, and importantly, Parsons professor James Hunt put together an exhibition called “Design + Violence” in 2013-15. It was a new conversation for our institution, and that was incredibly important. It definitely changed the ways in which we think about the cannon of design, and the ways in which we talk about design being for everyone.

We brought The Liberator [a 3D-printed gun] into the conversation. It came out in 2013, and was put online, much like the Free Universal Construction Kit, so it was something that was out there for anyone who wished to download it. It does shoot one bullet, but you have to very carefully load it; it can actually destroy the interior of the gun itself. It was pulled off the Internet fairly quickly by the government. Cody Wilson and Defense Distributed were told that they had to cease and desist. They fought it, but they didn't win. About ten thousand people had downloaded the files by the time that they got the letter and removed the files from the Web.

So the democratizing of design can reflect the best and worst of our impulses?

The Internet is something you can use for sharing, to democratize design. It's something that many of the designers in MoMA's collection use for the greater good. When we collect video games, we don't collect first-person shooter games. We don't have an AK47 in our collection, or a Beretta, even though both of them are really, I would say, pretty iconic, elegant designs in the end. I don't know if anyone has seen George Nelson’s “How to Kill People.” It's very short. He was given a show on CBS Camera Three in the ’60s. You’ll know him from his work with Herman Miller or his own particular design practice. But in 1960, he delivered a monologue to camera about what it is to design weapons and how we’d moved from having to very physically engage with someone if you wanted to kill them, to pressing a button (during the Cold War era in the 60s), this idea of remote killing. It’s a conversation we're having again today with our current President carrying that particular responsibility. Nelson talked about the ways both explicitly and implicitly, or sub-consciously, design should have barriers: a set of parameters to who can access it and how we talk about it in terms of ethics.

Can you say a bit more about the Design and Violence exhibition and how that played out?

Each week we chose a particular design, and had someone with a stake in it talk about it. We looked at classic handcuffs and Judge Judith Sheindlin responded to it. (She was the person involved in work against stop-and-frisk.) We showed the box cutter, and had John Hockenberry respond. You can still see those online if you want to take a look. We asked which other invisible everyday objects can become lethal weapons? We looked at tattooing. We looked at American Football helmets. We also had speculative and critical designs, offering a question or provocation rather than a design solution to a particular idea or issue. Because designers have always had imaginations, and so they always think about what might be.

“Modernism has talked about human progress as a straight-arrow line forward, and design has been this kind of tool of progress. This way for us to manifest our destinies as progressively better human beings and progressively better societies.”

Can you share some of those speculative designs?

There’s the Euthanasia Coaster by Julijonas Urbonas, a roller coaster that speeds up until you pass out and then die. It’s a speculative work, obviously, because he hasn't been able to test this on anyone or build it. In the online post for this project, an eminent neuroscientist said it was horrific. But someone who had a long-term illness and wanted to be able to die at the time of their own choosing loved this design. I wonder if we would ever have had been able to have it as part of the conversation in the museum if we hadn’t had it online first.

So would you say the Internet helps design overcome barriers to empathy?

Using the online platforms as a springboard, there has been debates that looked at everything from Temple Grandin's Serpentine Ramp, the architecture used to create a supposedly humane entrance and exit for cattle, to Sputniko’s Menstruation Machine, which anyone can strap on to feel what it’s like to have a period. It was a conversation about menstruation, which we haven't had at MoMA before. How far can you walk in someone’s shoes? How do you even attempt that kind of empathy? So yes, the Internet is one way to think about barriers and empathy.

Words by The Editors, in conversation with Michelle Millar Fisher.

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