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21: The Magic Number

In a midtown Manhattan townhouse, just around the corner from bustling 5th avenue and only blocks away from the newly reopened MoMA, a team plans a transition from retail to philanthropy. Their endeavor: the Design 21: Social Design Network. The network is forming as a source for non-profit organizations (NPOs) and designers to engage one another and designers to respond to calls and briefs developed by the network in conjunction with NPOs. Christine Rangel and Jaqcui Khiu of Design 21 Social Design Network entertain inquiries about the history and future of their endeavor.

RJH Tell me about the network you’re building. What’s behind it?

CR Felissimo has always had a great need to give back in what we do. We’ve always factored philanthropy in as a cost in almost every item, instead of just donating when sales are good. We did this as opoosed to a percentage of revenue. What if you have a bad year? Then too bad for the charities you’re associated with. They lose out. What Felissimo decided to do, and this is huge, is we closed the retail store, because we wanted to pursue something more philanthropically focused. The plan we came up with was to start a network where people can go to one website and get everything they need to know about the various non-profits that are out there. In the beginning this will be limited to our non-profit partners, but we’re hoping to develop it to include many non-profits covering all sectors of social concern, humanitarian efforts, environmental efforts, etc.

RJH I understand the involvement of non-profits. How do designers fit in?

CR We’ve been working with designers for many years, with the Tribute 21 plate program and the Design 21 international competition we had, which was and continues to be an amazing success. It was on exhibition at the Louvre. We’re looking to extend that work with designers.

RJH Where does the name come from?

CR We got the name from the Design 21 exhibition.

RJH So you’re using the name of the successful exhibition because of its recognition?
CR Right.

Design 21 was an international competition, where we were giving new designers a chance to come forward and pull some amazing things together. We had various themes, and different mediums, for example fashion, inventions, and sculpture, all sorts of design and art media. We’ve developed Design 21 from different themes. The most recent one was “Love. Why?” We took the success of that and wanted to so something more philanthropic.

We’ve been working with UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) on the Design 21 competitions. We’ve been working hand-in-hand, side-by-side with them since the beginning. They’ve been amazing.

RJH What led you to partner with UNESCO?

CR Our director Horuko Smith, has been vary instrumental in forming these contacts. I believe she initiated the idea of a collaboration and to create a competition that will give young designers an opportunity and have an amazing message of peace or love or unity. Those themes are the ground work because we work with UNESCO.

RJH The Design network is more grounded in a way. Not just promoting the abstract idea of peace or unity, these non-profits are on the ground working.

CR Exactly. This is where designers come in. We’re holding a series of competitions. The first one begins in September. The themes are Global Warming, Children, and Emergency. We have underlying themes with all of our competitions. Those and other themes were developed with UNESCO: Architecture, Children, Communication, Environment, Self-sufficiency, World Aid. These themes are going to be the basis of what will be our design competitions.

We’re hoping designers will get involved. Designers will get the word out about themselves, but we fully support the idea that we can use design to create a better world. Whether it’s a more friendly crutch for a handicapped child or a more effective water sanitation system for a 3rd world country. That’s where the link with other designers in the network comes in. The designers will be able to share their opinions in a forum-like arena. Designers can post good, bad, and missing design.

RJH Though you’ve started with a logo design competition to engage designers in shaping the network, the network itself is looking through a much wider lens than graphic design.

CR Design is huge. Almost everyday I think we realize on a greater and greater scale how much design really is incorporated into the world. We’re finding that this project is massive. It’s infinite. We want to hear from designers. What would you like to contribute? That’s where the missing design ideas come in.

RJH What is the intention of the competition format. One alternative would be specifically selecting a designer? Why use competitions to engage the design community.

CR These proposals will be available for everyone. Anyone can join the network, even those that may not see themselves as designers or inventors. We’re catering to an audience of socially conscious people, people who say, “Why isn’t there something to do this? I have an idea of how to do it.” We’re leaving it very open. One of the mantras of the site and the project is that we don’t want to be dictating the content. We want this to be the designers’ space.

JK It’s a good, fun way to get people interested around the world. Get them engaged in these ideas and exploring them, students and professional designers alike. Hopefully our NPOs will be creating briefs too. Hopefully corporate or government interest will come up with briefs too, if they have social or environmental concerns they want to address.

For now we’re creating briefs based on general concepts and we’d like for them to be tied with contexts and real world scenarios. It might be something very localized and small, and a part of our community can engage in it. Others may be wider, for example one of our first briefs is for a campaign for global warming, for a street campaign of sorts. How can we address the issue of day-to-day energy consumption and consumer choices feeding into part of the equation. That’s to launch off the themes and ideas. After that, we’re going to bring in the NPOs from the other side and create briefs with them.

RJH What do you see as the outcome of these competitions? When someone proposes a design and wins the award, what is the outcome beyond the designer’s receipt of the award? What happens to the designs beyond that point? Will there be something there to help realize that?

JK We hope so. We’re building our networks now, creating a pool of designers and a pool of NPOs and then around the same time our pool of corporate members and government agencies. It’s hard to say what happens to the winning design. We’re hoping to have this pool of ideas that corporate sponsors or NPOs may want to take on and produce. The aim would be to get these things produced or at the very least provide a forum where they can be exposed to people that may be able to fund them.

RJH What is goal of the network beyond the design competitions?

CR We want and encourage our NPOs to be there to say, “these are my needs, how can I work with designers to meet those needs?” We see designers as a resource NPOs really need to use. That’s why we want to provide this forum and make the connection between NPOs and designers. For designers to say “I have this idea” and it be something an NPO may need, or to have NPOs say, “we wish we had this.”

JK That may generate an idea for a competition brief. That’s the link between designers and NPOs. These NPOs do have needs. Do designers really know what they are?

RJH It seems like there is a concensus in parts of the design community that designers want to engage NGOs and NPOs and find ways to run design businesses working less in the commercial sector and more with these organizations. In the network there’s the potential for engaging members in other projects not necessarily initiated by the briefs.

CR We’ll offer profiles for the NPOs. NPOs will be able to tag designers’ entries and submissions, so they can build a library of things they may be looking for. Designers can see which organizations have expressed interest in their designs.

RJH It’s interesting that it has the potential to address large issues in a recreational or playful way. There’s an element of fun in the tagging scheme and competition format.

JK We want the format to be really accessible and popular. We don’t just want a particular kind of designer to go there. We want as broad of an audience as possible. We want it to appeal to designers and ultimately everyone interested in the subject matter.

RJH With this project manifesting online, what’s the future of Felissimo’s New York space, the former retail outlet?

CR If these competitions grow and we get amazing inventions, shouldn’t the public know about it? We should open the town house and put them on display. That’s what we did with the Design 21 competitions. They were also shipped all over the world in a traveling exhibition. We don’t know what’s in store and we don’t know how large this is going to be, but I think we’d like to reopen the townhouse as an event or exhibition space.

RJH Is Felissimo or your partners supporting the competition?

CR Felissimo is supporting it with UNESCO, but this is the Design 21 Social Design Network, a new and distinct initiative.

The Design 21 Social Design Network is accepting submissions for the network logo until September 18th, 2006. The prize for the winning logo is $5,000 US. More information is available at design21sdn.com

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Sep.13.2006 BY Randy J. Hunt
felixxx’s comment is:

Words to social weary:

... understand that this (SDN21) logo must not contain profanity or nudity, and must not exploit or offend any persons or groups on the basis of sex, race, origin, religion, or culture. DESIGN 21: Social Design Network™ reserves the right to modify (your) winning logo as appropriate. Furthermore, DESIGN 21: Social Design Network™ reserves the rights to use or not use the design at its sole discretion.

Careful, kids: be sure to read the fine print on that logo competition. The veteran "social designer" in me reads this as don't waste your time. However, to a student, it wouldn't matter much would it? No, but nonetheless, what kind of message does this send to young designers entering the profession? What are the rules? It's a bit contentious, but hopefully they will trust us enough to have their (er, our) best interests at heart.

On Sep.13.2006 at 01:26 PM
felixxx’s comment is:

full disclosure: SDN21 hired me to design 5 of their icons (fee: $500 for total buyout). You know me (big whore), I jumped all over it. Seemed like an interesting endeavor and hopefully will be.

but, let's judge us.

below is the sample/ reference fwded to me from SDN21:

If you're from San Francisco you know this as the ratings system used by the SF Chronicle. I love it, personally, and to see it again gave me that special, social feeling.

So, here we are, designing a "ratings key" for the designers who participate at SDN21. What would you have done? Heres is where I was eventually led:

its not great. there were many versions but in the end i felt the logic (high to low positioning) was most appropriate. In hindsight, did I follow SDN's rules too closely? Per the reference, it would appear to be exactly what they were looking for. Well, It wasn't. Ce la vie. At least they paid my kill fee. Thx SDN! Look fwd to seeing whatever it is you do.

On Sep.13.2006 at 02:02 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

I commend D21SDN for embarking on a worthy project. It has potential to benefit both needy organizations and designers as well as raise awareness of needs outside of our own local spheres.

However, I do have to question the methods, particularly in relation to the logo competition. I don't need to raise the debate again, but I think that anyone who thinks raking through hundreds of competent and incompetent submissions is "fun" has never had the real fun of seeing their identity realized through the process of working with a professional designer.

Furthermore, I'm sure they could save $5,000 a whole lot of time (their own and others') and get a much better result by finding a worthy team to do the logo right the first time, pro bono.

There just seems to be a bit of a lack of understanding as to what design *is*, here.

Open competitions to the general public can be fun for all (except the judges) in the matter of t-shirts and non-strategic things that can just provide a pretty gew-gaw that can be used to raise money or awareness. But I think that they would find that acting as a resource to partner good NGOs with good designers will be more rewarding for all. (But isn't there a website already doing this? ... David Stairs?)

In terms of inventions or ideas that can help change the world, I can see the possibility for NGOs stating a need, people entering ideas, and perhaps corporations stepping up to develop or produce said ideas, and perhaps a "store" where people can go to "buy" e.g. 30 water filters for a village in India. Kinda like that UNICEF card we used to get where it said "1 cent can buy 30 carrots, or 1 vaccination, or ..." we could go to the store, see and examine these new inventions and then "order" 1,000 non-tree pencils for x-school in Africa.

On Sep.13.2006 at 02:05 PM
JonSel’s comment is:

There's the Taproot Foundation.

On Sep.13.2006 at 02:47 PM
Thomas’s comment is:

Sorry, this is bullshit.

All it does is just push the idea of design as a commodity.

When these NPO's come to the site, they have a "need" to satify. the problem is that we all know the "need" is going to be:

"deisgn me a logo, brochure, etc. etc."

the issue with this is that the "problem" has been define from the get go.

On Sep.13.2006 at 02:55 PM
Echo’s comment is:

What's the difference between Speculative Work and what you guys are doing? You are asking people to submit original art work for free and all rights belong to you.

On Sep.14.2006 at 12:24 AM
david stairs’s comment is:

I can't criticize humanitarian efforts, but they come in all varieties. Some NGOs are so large, the last thing they need is all our efforts.

Me, I prefer to work for the disenfranchised.

On Sep.14.2006 at 05:25 AM
Armin’s comment is:

In regards to the logo contest, this is a perfect example of whether the end justifies the means. You can't argue against the mission of D21, it is commendable and makes the logo contest easier to swallow. Unfortunately, NPO is as NPO does. Other NPOs, relying on the example of D21 will think that this is the best way to proceed, by holding contests that encourage people to "get interested" regardless of whether those people are "socially conscious". There are probably a dozen firms in New York alone that would be happy to provide pro-bono services and establish an identity and personality for the network that exemplifies the design process. An opportunity wasted, if you ask me.

Besides that, I hope the D21 network is succesful. It's a valiant effort and from the sounds of it – and if designers are willing to put their money where their mouth is – you should have many interested designers who want to contribute a little more to the world besides designing just another corporate glossy brochure.

On Sep.14.2006 at 08:20 AM
felixxx’s comment is:

(the) logo must not contain profanity or nudity, and must not exploit or offend any persons or groups on the basis of sex, race, origin, religion, or culture.

That one kills me. Nudity? Christ. I hope whoever is writing the legal copy isn't doing the judging.

Nice building though.

On Sep.14.2006 at 10:29 AM
Randy J. Hunt’s comment is:

In interviewing Design 21 Social Design Network, I was well aware of the potential reaction to a design competition.

I'm not convinced that design competitions are fueling some sort of cataclysmic shift in the design industry. They have existed and will continue to exist regardless of the flag-waving some of the design community does (I have been and may still be one of those). I don't use their history or future to confirm a judgement of right or wrong, but simply to indicate that their influence on the profession is minor. The fact that this is not for a commercial endeavor pulls some sympathy from me. Maybe I'm a softy.

I attempted to question this in asking for an explanation of what the intended outcome of holding competitions is. I find it evident that D21 is operating with the best of intentions. What Marian suggests, a core misunderstanding of how design as a discipline operates, may in fact be the case.

I've expressed, myself, many times in the past, my distaste for competitions, for exactly the same reason's Marian cites. I'm confident that an approriate and effective design could be created by a single designer given a modest budget (or done pro-bono) and take less time and resources from both the designer and the client. What it seems is that Design 21 is introducing their "everyone's a part of the project" aspect. A meta-project of sorts, with their hopeful future participants helping to shape the network they're a part of. No other flatly organized, everyone's welcome format seems to work, save a competition. Thankfully, there is a fair compensation for the winning design.

Given the context with Felixxx's other comments, I can't help but infer that the intention of calling attention to their building was to somehow cast a negative light on this initiative. One of the most responsible things a non-profit (or any organization, really) could do in a real estate market like New York is hold property that is increasing in value. Whether intended or coincidental, this can help ensure their stability over time.

The Design Altruism Project is another project with the best intentions and I suspect very worthwhile to be involved with. The participants in and supporters of DAP clearly have some overlap with this D21 audience, but they're approaching things in very different ways.

Is one better than the other? I hold my conclusion until seeing these and other initiatives play out in the long term.

What I do know, contest or not, is that we need more collective action. More doings to go with the talking. If Design 21 helps that happen at any scale, large or small, I'd consider it a success.

Maybe I'll go work on some logos. Maybe I'll keep my finger's crossed.

On Sep.14.2006 at 09:08 PM
felixxx’s comment is:

does the building have anything to do with the initiative? as i said, i hope their mission gets accomplished- its a good thing we all agree... just think the strategy could have been worked on.

no entrant strategy... no success.

many weeks ago i said (to them): took a read at your logo design competition rules. i would caution you to change the "reserves the right to modify the winning logo as appropriate." language. its contentious and sets the wrong tone for a fruitful collaboration. you'd be amazed how many good designers you'll get just by talking to them in a more hospitable way.

DSN21's reply:
...of the logo competition - I agree with you and will share your feedback.

I guess the attorneys won this one. Ce la vie.

On Sep.15.2006 at 10:00 AM
Randy J. Hunt’s comment is:

I certainly appreciate that you addressed your concerns and brought them to their attention.

On Sep.15.2006 at 10:27 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

I've tried to digest this and see it for more than that what I read, but I think it's just a web forum for design contest/spec work, right? Is this any different than Worth1000 or any other of the dozen or so design contest sites other than having a slightly better PR firm?

On Sep.15.2006 at 01:47 PM
felixxx’s comment is:

hate to say i told you so but heres what happens when you ask students to design your logo.

On Oct.13.2006 at 10:59 AM
Randy J. Hunt’s comment is:

Certainly. Nothing new, imaginitive, or relatively well-designed there. So it goes. We designed a few. They were better. Clearly their tastes aren't at the same level as their intentions. I'm still fond of the organization and look forward to what they'll do next.

On Oct.13.2006 at 11:07 AM
Armin’s comment is:

I hate to say it, but this is one of the most depressing pages of design that I have seen in a long time.

Note to anyone running a contest: limit entries per participant to 5, 3 or even 1. Force them to edit their every minor move. As an example of a design process to NPOs, this is sad.

On Oct.15.2006 at 08:49 AM
Randy J. Hunt’s comment is:

Painfully true.

On Oct.18.2006 at 10:10 AM