One can link the development of cultural production of nations and its affluence to their economic indicators, as they seem rather proportionate. An economically sound country supports its cultural production, but can a nation’s local cultural production strengthen its economy?
Cultural production refers to a holistic package that includes design, philosophy and the arts. A quick look at the timeline of philosophic thought shows advancement in the Arab world only when the latter was politically and economically prominent. As power shifted to Europe and then to North America, so did philosophic thought, with a similar form abiding by the transferal of power. In contemporary times, design has become the most accessible element of cultural production, and a less cerebral dialect than its counterparts, philosophy and the arts, that are somewhat perceived as salacious in developing countries.
The historic trajectory and current state of Arab cultural production compels us to rethink its value and role as catalyst in a reverse equation, through the perspective of design: Can design save the Arab world?
In its barest form, design is a seamless intersection between function and tangible form. When we discuss design, we become prone to delve into a conceptual rhetoric that departs from the design of everyday life, more so in the Arab world where design has become synonymous with ornament. “Not designed enough,” is something you would most likely hear in criticism of a product, but not whether the product actually serves its purpose. This is not surprising, as the Arab world is in fact somehow a society of ornament that still clings to the aesthetics of its heritage as opposed to its function. Contemporary Arab architecture, for example, remains primarily a vault of stone-clad sculptures referencing the past, or glass-clad towers referencing a speculated skyline of the future. Design impacts, and is impacted by its space and time, which reinforces its worth in an attempted mass regeneration.
The Swedish case study best exemplifies an all-encompassing approach to the relationship between social philosophy and design, and the value of design on human wellbeing. Sweden’s economy is based on a socialist template where the collective good trumps the individual good, and where conventional wisdom postulates that a comfortable and happy society is a society of comfortable individuals. This tint has an obvious sequel in Swedish design that could be summed up within three main pillars: function, aesthetics and affordability. These principles become more tangible when we note that H&M, IKEA and Skype are all Swedish products. A more radical example is the Swedish Ergonomidesign founded in 1969 and renamed Veryday. The company’s work concentrated on user-centered, sustainable products sourcing ergonomics as their main pool of study. Ergonomics is the science of studying human relationships with machinery and space in ways that would decrease fatigue and increase productivity by simply coordinating the natural ability of the user with the functionality of the tool. Veryday’s portfolio ranges from training toys for disabled children and the world’s most comfortable bike handles, to mobile apps aiming to facilitate the everyday life of adults with ADHD.
Where is the Arab world in all of this? In the absence of official patronage, the responsibility shifts back to individual initiatives that are caught between an overflow of enthusiasm and a complete lack of infrastructure.
A number of individual design-based initiatives aware of the need for an institutional vector to reach the masses are striving to reshape official landscapes in the region, as well as the implications on education, knowledge-based repercussions on daily life, craftsmanship, architecture, urban design, and obvious impacts on political policies and consumer awareness in the process.
In Amman, for example, Redesign Arabia is a new initiative claiming to intersect design with day-to-day life. Their slogan: “Design Will Save the (Arab) World,” is a bold one given the state of that same Arab world. They see their line of action in three main stages (1) appeal to Arab designers to contribute positively to different faces of contemporary Arab life (2) celebrate, feature and discuss different experiments by Arab designers (3) challenge the Arab design community with simulations of futuristic problems that would require real design-based solutions. Their first take on these challenges was proposing the birth of the Free Arab Union in 2013, “Design its flag, currency and visual identity.” What’s interesting about this approach is how it highlights the intrinsic connection between design and social consciousness. In designing the requirements, though highly visual in briefing, designers must go through alternative modes of understanding what that declaration would entail: its social structure, values, laws and planning principles.
In Beirut, the thriving design scene remains impotent in imposing itself as a serious counterpart in restructuring the social state. This seems like it’s about to change, as the city is home to the Mena Design Research Center, an NGO composed of international multi-disciplinary members that believe in social change through research and design-based solutions. Since its foundation in 2010, Mena Design Research Center’s work includes workshops, conferences and projects focally using empirical research methods to enhance the design process. In 2012, the center launched Beirut Design Week with the aim of “promoting all Lebanese designers, who have been playing a vital role in the formation of the city’s contemporary design identity and culture,” and highlighting Beirut as a key player in design in the region. In its second round, Beirut Design Week 2013 put forward the future of the city through a competition to envision Beirut in 2090, playing along the same lines of Redesign Arabia in Amman, where designers are being challenged to stand at the front-lines of constructing the future of their environment.
Palestine, somehow marginalized at the edges of consciousness of contemporary Arabia, is now emerging from oblivion. Visualizing Palestine is an initiative that re-narrates the Palestine-Israel story with raw facts showcased in internationally communicable, highly visual media. Functioning under Creative Commons to encourage sharing and re-adapting their findings, Visualizing Palestine combines communication channels, social sciences, technology, design and urban studies to produce infographics highlighting social injustices inflicted upon Palestinians living in Palestine. Clear design and rigorous campaigning are again putting Palestine on a redesigned frontline.
Will design actually save the Arab world? It may be the road less taken, but we think, why not?