From the issue feature, "Living by Design in the Pacific Northwest." 
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street chess

Design for vibrant social life: A morning chess game occurs on the street. Photo: Barbara Swift

The below is adapted from a talk given at a PechaKucha Night Seattle event, Designing Leadership, which was hosted in collaboration with Design in Public for their Seattle Design Festival. Over the coming weeks, we'll release more adaptations of presentations given that evening. —ARCADE


Design and leadership are inextricably linked. As designers, we each engage, all of the time, with questions that require design and leadership skills at all levels. Designers have a civil and collective responsibility to design and act in the search for combined function, service, resilience, beauty, economy, elegance, complexity and poetry. Each of us must lead every day, all day. We have leadership obligations. This past spring’s news confirming the shrinking of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, with climate change being a contributing cause, brings the need for vigorous action into sharp focus; sea levels will rise to heights that will fundamentally change coastal cities, influence food security, etc., etc. For designers, I don’t think there is a better option than to lead through example and design. If someone tells you otherwise, don’t buy it. Just take quiet, persistent guerilla action. This is nothing new, and it starts with each individual.

What’s important in the practice of design? Optimism, profound curiosity, generosity, empathy, trust and a commitment to civil life, along with a passion for change, a zest for exploration and the ability to take action—the willingness to ask, “What about . . . ?” and consider everything at both the global and personal scales. Design is about care, kindness and craft. It is about the right material in the right place, creating the functional and poetic—it is always both.

If you are leading, you are doing the following simple things: You are pushing from behind and pulling from the front (this is hard work). You are looking for synergies—strategies that accomplish two, three or four things with grace. You are connecting in a visceral manner to each individual to create poetic experiences accessible to all. You are designing for beauty, elegance, resilience, function and economy—this is the standard. You engage in smart, managed, ongoing risk—you are not reducing risk but embracing it as you move exploration forward to the next set of questions. This is how we change the future, day in and day out.

Leaders look for relationships and patterns under the surface. This means that income distribution is important for designers to consider—it has implications for decisions associated with civil life. Even in a democracy, those who have money are in a disproportionate position of power and have the ability to define the nature of our civil life. It is important who gets to decide what. As Peter Coy reports in the Bloomberg Businessweek article “The Richest Rich Are a Class by Themselves,” a study by economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman states that in the US the top 1% controls approximately 40% of the wealth, with 11% going to the top .01%. This circumstance and the related distribution of power result in limiting or focusing the identification of critical issues. It drives decisions regarding priorities and the nature of our civil society. The economist Robert Reich is right when he argues that income inequality is the defining issue of America’s future, and designers need to understand its implications in order to push for a broader view and strategies.

Leading means designing for rich, resilient ecological function as well as vibrant social life. This is essential for planetary vitality and a society in which the value of environmental health is central to discourse and action. Leading means design for informal appropriation and making space for the creation of elegance in the broadest sense of the word—efficient, beautiful and primal.

This work involves all designers, all of the time. This is leadership, and it is difficult. If you’re outside your comfort zone, it’s OK—you are moving toward the future.