Not-so-super humanism

On the SuperHumanism design conference: For most of the design world it seems that human-centred design means putting limits on the development of products, images and technology.

Vicky Richardson

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SuperHumanism – a conference involving 500 high-powered designers and creatives, discussing how creativity could be directed to improve people’s lives – had huge potential.

As a sucker for a slick branding exercise, when I received the brochure for SuperHumanism I bought into the idea immediately. Apart from a catchy title, well-designed graphics and expensive tickets, its main attraction was that (by today’s standards) it set its sights ridiculously high.

‘You have one day to save humanity’, read the promotional blurb, ‘one day to meet people’s real needs, physical and emotional…nine hours to restore the population’s faith in brands and business’. There to help the 500 assembled CEOs, brand managers, designers and architects was an impressive line-up of big names, led by No Logo author Naomi Klein and the man who got us all hooked on branding, Mark Leonard, author of Britain TM.

Organised by D&AD, the professional association of designers and the ‘advertising community’, SuperHumanism was really the brainchild of Richard Seymour – the portly product designer best known for reinventing the bra. His compelling design philosophy, as seen on TV, is based on the frustrating experiences of modern life that we can all relate to. As he put it, ‘we can plot the individual building blocks of organic life, but we can’t get a decent babysitter…you still can’t programme the video, understand a gas bill, open a tin of corned beef safely or see the numbers on your mobile without specs’. Best of all, Seymour thinks that by the application of creativity and intelligence such problems can be solved.

SuperHumanism started full of promise. ‘No question is too big for designers to ask’, announced Seymour, following talks by Klein and Leonard which set the scene. Klein gave an elegant summary of her bestselling book, and flattered the audience by saying that part of the problem was that corporations often do not live up to the promotional images produced by designers and ad agencies. Leonard talked about ‘rediscovering a belief in progress’, and a ‘new deal based on the rights and responsibilities of corporations’.

But, as the day progressed, it appeared that few of the big name speakers or high-powered members of the audience shared Seymour’s optimistic outlook.

The struggle to improve our lives by the application of human creativity turned out to be a struggle inside their minds and souls. The main contradiction that seemed to bother everybody was that the business of creating seductive brands and products ultimately serves the interests of greedy corporations – and the better the image, often the more this conceals a different reality. As Face magazine’s Neville Brody put it – with a dose of self-loathing – we’ve become ‘bloated media junkies…sub-humanised, not super-humanised, and obsessed with the how and the what, and not the why’.

Refusing to work for companies that produce petrol, drinks or cigarettes, Brody is typical of a new ethical designer who believes that design is an unnecessary ‘obsession with communication and images’. Strangely enough, this comes at a time when the UK creative industries have never had it so good. The idea of Cool Britannia may have lost its credibility, but following in the footsteps of the New Labour government, almost every public body, professional institution and flagging corporation is using design to give it new direction.

According to one delegate, even failing schools are getting the treatment, thanks to a Channel 4 show which brings in designers to make over a school in Newcastle: top commercial architect Fletcher Priest was asked to remodel the dilapidated buildings, interior designer Ben Kelly to cheer up the corridors, and Paul Smith to redesign the uniform.

You would think designers would be excited by the possibilities of this new influential position. But one of the most popular concepts to emerge from SuperHumanism was the ‘open system’ – the product created by a designer who does not assume he is a ‘god’. Even the head of R&D at Philips, Irene McWilliam, argued for ‘unfinished designs’, where, given the tools, users come up with their own (more democratic) solutions.

McWilliam went on to advocate ‘moving away from Marshall McLuhan’s image of the global village towards a local level’. Gadget lovers might be somewhat disappointed to learn that currently under development at Phillips is a computerised version of a ‘lost cat’ notice. Should you lose your cat, instead of nailing a flyer to a tree, you’ll be able to post digital information on a flat screen at your local pub. McWilliam went on to repeat the familiar refrain of the conference: ‘fancy technology will not solve the real problems, like getting a babysitter.’

By this stage I felt like getting up and saying how straightforward it is to get a babysitter – compared to designing computer software, anyway.

During the lunch break, delegates were invited to scrawl playfully examples of ‘SubHuman’ and ‘SuperHuman’ aspects of society on whiteboards. Predictably, on the former, appeared ‘globalisation’, ‘McDonalds’ and ‘Coca Cola’. I was given hope, though, when I read on the ‘SuperHuman’ side, ‘Ducati 916’ and…’McDonalds’.

Another encouraging sign that designers do not all take themselves so seriously came with the final speaker, the cult Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Talking about his plans for an art gallery combined with casino and hotel in Las Vegas, he seemed to be going out of his way to provoke the audience to react against this tawdry mixture of art and cash.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Koolhaas – recently hired by Italian fashion designer Prada to come up with a new concept store – presented a set of complex studies and world maps to describe how, despite the pervasiveness of branding, many parts of the world surprisingly enough cannot sustain a Prada shop. Koolhaas’ ideas for Prada involve innovative building materials, forms and structures, and further blur the line between commerce and culture, turning shopping into a hi-tech experience.

‘Unbranded space’ and ethical design are notions that flashy Italian designers have not cottoned on to yet. But for most of the design world it seems that human-centred design means putting limits on the development of products, images and technology.

At the end of the day SuperHumanism was a great marketing concept – but the reality failed to live up to the promise, and we ended up with the disappointing feeling that we are, after all, ‘only human’.

Vicky Richardson is the editor of Blueprint magazine, and the author of:

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