Question of Responsibility

Linda Elliott Smith, FASID

Design solutions can reshape lives.



Once a luxury enjoyed mainly by the very wealthy, interior design now enhances the lives of millions of people, extending into nearly every aspect of contemporary life. Unlike the drab, utilitarian boxes of the industrial era, today's offices, restaurants, hotels, shopping malls, museums, schools, libraries, government buildings and healthcare facilities provide occupants and visitors engaging, vibrant environments infused with attractive and thoughtful design. Consumers, in turn, have embraced the pleasures and benefits quality design provides and are spending more of their time and resources on design-related products and pursuits.

The commercialization of design has been a boon for our profession, as has the astronomical increase in affluence among certain demographic groups. And while we can only be grateful, we cannot let ourselves become too satisfied. As business people, we can appreciate the opportunities afforded us by the current surge of demand for design, but as designers we must not turn a blind eye to those who need our services yet cannot afford to pay. We have a responsibility to use our talents and skills in the best way, not just the most profitable way.

I was reminded of this responsibility recently when I attended an address by Cameron Sinclair at this year's NeoCon® World's Trade Fair. Sinclair is the executive
director of Architecture for Humanity, a non-profit organization he founded in 1999 to
promote architectural and design solutions to global, social and humanitarian crises. To date, the group has helped generate programs and designs in 20 countries, including Afghanistan, the Balkans, Turkey, Iran and South Africa.

Among a number of sobering statistics Sinclair shared during his talk was that one in every six people on the planet lives in a slum. By the year 2025, that ratio is expected to escalate to one in three. Consider further this statistic cited by Bill Stough, CEO of the Sustainable Research Group: more than three-fourths of the world's population—about seven billion people—live on less than $11 a day. What are the implications of these staggering challenges for today's design professionals and tomorrow's aspiring professionals? And what is our profession doing to address them?

Certainly we are working on other fronts to respond to pressing social and global issues. More and more we are adopting sustainable design practices, mindful of the consequences of the products and materials we use in our designs for the continued health of our planet and the judicious use of natural resources. We are promoting a more equitable and accessible society by promoting universal design as a standard of practice. Similarly, we are preparing for the increased aging of the population in developed countries by creating environments now that will support and contribute to the quality of life of older persons.

These are all important and worthwhile endeavors. But what are we doing to assist those throughout the world who need basic shelter and the rudimentary necessities for survival? How can practitioners use their design skills to reach down and across the various strata of those less fortunate and not just up to the most affluent? How can we extend our reach to designing living environments that will not just promote an enhanced quality of life, but provide for survival?

I confess I do not have the answers to these very difficult questions. Yet I do not see how we can use our talents every day to improve the built environment and yet neglect to apply ourselves to developing solutions for housing and facilities that meet the most basic survival needs of a vast majority of the world's population. As design professionals we are problem-solvers at heart. Let us join together to put our problem-solving skills to greater use than ever before. As our solutions begin to reshape lives worldwide, others will come to appreciate what design brings to the human experience.

Linda Elliott Smith is president of education-works, inc. in Dallas, TX, and serves as president of ASID. She has served the society in a number
of volunteer positions for more than 20 years. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480; fax: (202) 546-3240;