Design for Resilience
Learning How to Learn
I am a designer living on Sumas Mountain on the unceded territory of the Sumas First Nation, about an hour’s drive east of the city of Vancouver, Canada. While I have been working as a professional designer over the past three decades in graphic design, web design, and user experience design, my path has led me from design practice to design education and mentorship to an exploration of design philosophy and community building.
For me, design is a process of learning how to learn. As a designer, I have been learning how to adapt to changing technologies, changing work environments, and a changing society. I have been trying to help other designers learn how to navigate these changes. I have also been learning about my identity as a human being, how I fit into the social, economic, and political systems of our world, and how I often don’t fit at all.
Through that process of reinventing myself, I have been learning how to be resilient in the face of changes, challenges, problems, failures, crises, and grief. I am still here, so that must say something about how I have learned to survive ambiguity, uncertainty, and insecurity.
But, let’s be honest. I was born into privilege. I know I have much more to learn about resilience from those who face far greater challenges than I have.
What I love about the process of design is that it is a process. What I have been noticing over all these years is that we are all in process. Everything is always changing, always in motion.
In a conversation with Nahlah Ayed of CBC Ideas, Roman Mars, host of the podcast 99% Invisible, remarked that design is everything a human touches. If that is the case, then we are all designers, whether we know it or not.
Often, when we are facing the unintended consequences of the things that we have designed, we lose confidence in our ability to solve our problems with the same process that created those problems in the first place. I would suggest that this is just a matter of perspective. We tend to consider the parts, rather than the whole. It is often a failure of imagination.
What if our social, economic, and political systems have been designed for learned helplessness, trained incapacities, and bureaucratic intransigence. We blame the individual, but the problem is systemic. Again, the problem is a lack of perspective. It is also an identity problem. We wonder how we can do anything, because we feel powerless as individuals. What gives me hope is what humans have been able to accomplish as a collective, through cooperation and collaboration.
The Bauhaus school of design offers us a story of resilience, how a group of artists and architects gathered in Weimar, Germany, just over one hundred years ago, after the end of World War I—in the midst of multiple systemic crises— and transformed the modern world. They had a vision to build the future together, and in many ways, they succeeded. They became the evangelists of modern architecture built with steel, glass, and concrete. In almost every modern city in the world, you can see these structures have changed the skylines.
However, we are also living with the unintended consequences of that vision. In some ways, it was because the vision was never fully realized because the school was shut down by the Nazis in 1933. However, the ideas lived on through the people who became the Bauhaus diaspora, scattered around the world, but carrying and spreading the ideals and vision of modernism wherever they went.
To practice design for resilience requires that we learn how to overcome adversity. We learn from our mistakes in the same way a baby learns to crawl and to walk. We fall down and we get back up again. Failure is a part of the process of learning.
So, my question in this podcast is, Can we learn resilience by learning how to design? The biggest mistake that we have made is to think that we don’t have the ability to design anything better than what we already have. We have outsourced our influence, capacity, and agency to people who claim to have the authority to make our decisions for us. That is what has led to our collective failure of imagination.
Design is a process that begins with core values, intention, motivation, and behaviours that lead to personal resilience. Then we discover our social influence, which grows our economic capacity, and leads to greater political agency. Ultimately, we realize ecological harmony, as we see ourselves as interconnected and interdependent with the more-than-human world.
Our social architecture grows out of who we are as human beings. To change the world, we start with ourselves. The shift is an evolution from the design of physical artifacts to the design of living systems.
To end this first episode, I would like to share a different perspective of who we are. What might happen if we shift our sense of who we are, from helpless individuals to a powerful collective?
A Podcast for Human Beings
Design for Resilience is not a podcast just for professional designers. This a podcast for human beings, who may have forgotten that they are creative. We build our personal resilience by first remembering that we are all designers. We make language, sing songs, invent alphabets, share ideas, create images, build cities, and organize social systems. When we think of a murmuration of starlings, we are amazed at the way birds will fly together as a group, swirling around in the air as if they were one organism.
What does a murmuration of human beings look like? When we look around at the modern world, we can witness the way humans work together to build architecture that draws from various traditions and styles. Ideas, tools, and systems spread around the world. We do this with language, education, commerce, and politics. We can do this with technologies, such as the internal combustion engine. We are social creatures, and we have amplified our ability to travel and gather together with trains, planes, and automobiles.
But, now we have seen what can go wrong when we design without thinking about the possible consequences of our actions. If technology scales, accelerates, and amplifies our abilities and capacities as human beings, we need to think carefully about who we want to be. We are discovering that we can project our intentions into the world and build our own reality.
Design for resilience begins with an inward journey into who we are as human beings and thinking carefully about the future that we build for the generations to come.
Join us as we explore how we imagine, design, and build the future together.
Documenting a community into existence
Does the world need another podcast? We are not necessarily talking about building something at scale. We want to start small and build a local community who shares a similar vision about building resilience into our lives.
We are making this up as we go along, because we don’t know how to do this. We make the road by walking, so we are inventing a way forward with the awareness that we live in a moment when the adjacent possible presents opportunities to move in a direction that represents unfamiliar and unexplored territory. To us, that is a journey into an adventurous, hopeful, creative, and exciting future.
As a first step in that journey, my friend Brad Jarvis took the initiative to envision a podcast about resilience. He commissioned Caleb Chan to compose the theme music for the podcast, providing a few words as inspiration for the creative direction.
- World music influence
Here is what Caleb put together for us.