Social Design Gets Its Own Curator

With the Cooper-Hewitt appointment, a design movement claims a more prominent place on the agenda.

Last month the Cynthia Smith curator of socially responsible design, the first position of its kind at any design museum. Her new duties include helping to select candidates for the 2010 Triennial, which the museum is giving over entirely to social and sustainable design. These are the clearest signs yet that social design, as it’s come to be called, is more than a passing fashion on design’s evolving agenda.


We’ve been here before. In the aftermath of 9/11 many designers declared their intention to put aside colored gels and titanium coating and concentrate, at least part-time, on designing new security systems, pharmaceutical labeling, and other features of a new world preoccupied with safety. The effort started auspiciously, and quickly, with a viewing platform at Ground Zero (above) designed by a consortium of architects.

Many of us thought it was a signal moment, the beginnings of a design culture that would place more value on the public realm. “I think we’re going to come out of this with a much more human culture in the United States,” David Kelley, of IDEO, confidently declared at a roundtable discussion I helped convene at The New York Times a month after the attacks. “There are designers who are humanists, and they’re going to come to the front.”

Most of those good intentions were forgotten when renewed prosperity swept designers away into a fresh wave of luxury condominiums and furniture collections for a quickening consumer culture. It’s understandable; designers want to earn a living like anyone else.

Will the same thing happen this time around? I suspect not. Design’s greatest talent is to pose and then solve problems, and designers of all stripes seem committed to playing a role in innovating a way out of the economic crack-up and the attendant inefficiencies of production and distribution.


The Cooper-Hewitt deserves a fair shake of credit for helping to put humanitarian design on the map with shows like “Design for the Other 90%,” which launched in the backyard of the Cooper-Hewitt two years ago, well before design was widely talked about as a vehicle for solving humanitarian problems. In May the museum opened “Design For a Living World,” (above) a roundup of products that sustain the people and places that produced them.

The Cooper-Hewitt is a branch of the Smithsonian and it had a reputation for putting out the unimaginative content one might expect from a government bureau. But it appears to have found a leadership role in social design, a topic we all hope has staying power.

Read more of Michael Cannell’s blog on Fast Company