Michael: the one world user. Supposedly we all design for ‘him’ – the average person. I was surprised and annoyed that my class decided to define themselves as designers that design for a ‘one world user’, by naming our show Michael. As far as I see it, we don’t pick a user and design for them: we pick a concept, design something, then figure out who the user is.
I studied at a traditional product design university for two years before transferring to Goldsmiths Design BA. I was faced with briefs such as ‘design some non-area-specific waiting area seating’ and ‘design a manbag for men over 50’. The course equipped one with the skills to style objects beautifully, but did not stretch me intellectually. At Goldsmiths, our briefs allow for any kind of design. ‘Find anti-social behaviour in an area in London, and intervene to either encourage or discourage it. Don’t get arrested.’ Resulting designs included campaigns, installations and performances – all to change behaviours. Design can mean something that is creatively planned to make a change.
There is no obvious user in many of these kinds of brief; the user emerges through conceptual exploration, trial and error.
I moved away from designing for generic users. I didn’t want to be labelled as someone that does. I felt that calling our show ‘Michael’ was misrepresenting what Goldsmiths design is about. I spoke out strongly against the show title in our decision meeting back in the first term, yet it was still voted in by majority.
Over the year, and especially towards the end when the graphic identity was finalised, others came to realise that of course we don’t design for a ‘one world user’ at Goldsmiths. Our projects have proven as so. Not one of us is designing for an Average Joe. We are designing for people that want to reconnect to our inner child, for a future where farming is more sustainable, for forming micro-communities where there were none, to raise awareness about riots, and to celebrate the beauty in the everyday. I am hugely proud of my friends and classmates who can design like this – we are identifying real problems and coming up with solutions, and learning whatever skills we need to solve the problems along the way. Our process doesn’t usually focus on the user until the end.
We made the graphics as average and nondescript as possible, trying to form the identity (or non-identity) of an average person. The concept has developed into the statement that none of us design for this person. At the same time, that average is always different. Our ‘Michael Hour’ event involved taking a photo of participants and asking them ‘How Michael are you?’ – to which the responses were interesting and varied. We often have things in common, but we are not all the same. Rather than profiling people and making assumptions, we design around a concept, and when this concept is relevant to someone, it’s really useful and relevant and not contrived to suit a profile.
No, it’s not an immediately commercial way of designing. But it leads to ideas that can really make the world better, and eventually these ideas will trickle down. Design can be soulless and actually harm the environment. We are going to change that. Watch this space.