Bring me sunshine: the designers being briefed to create a happier planet

By Christopher Turner via The Guardian

6/23/17

his week saw the publication of the 2017 Global Emotions Report, an ambitious survey of the global mood. To compile it, Gallup conducted in-depth interviews with nearly 150,000 people in 142 countries. The report seeks to measure positive and negative daily experiences by asking people to rate their previous day. “Did you feel well rested yesterday? Were you treated with respect all day? Did you smile or laugh a lot? Did you experience enjoyment? Did you learn or do something interesting?” (In response to the latter, 64% of the UK survey said that they did.) And conversely, interviewers asked them if they felt pain, anger, worry or stress.

Politicians have been increasingly paying attention to emotions as indicators of well-being with surveys aimed at measuring citizens’ moods, intangible feelings that escape economic indicators such as GDP and unemployment rates. In 2012 the UN launched its first World Happiness Report, using data also collected by Gallup, and called on member states to place more emphasis on happiness as a measure of social progress and to guide public policy.

In the UN’s report, interviewees are asked about their perceptions of social support, personal freedom and corruption, rating their lives on a ladder from zero to 10. The results correlate closely with a list of the world’s wealthiest nations. Norway is currently the happiest country, followed closely by Denmark and Switzerland, which all rate life satisfaction at an average of 7.5 (the UK is 19th on the index, after Luxembourg and above Chile); at the other end of the spectrum, people from Syria, Burundi, Tanzania and the Central African Republic rate life satisfaction at about three.

In contrast, the Global Emotions Report poll of positive experiences, is led by Paraguay (only 70th in the Happiness Report, and one of the poorer countries in terms of GDP), then Costa Rica. Indeed, Latin American countries traditionally come out top in the index, a fact attributed to the presence of strong social and family networks. The UK is ranked 38th in the world, alongside the US, Germany, Brazil, Mali and South Africa. At the bottom, as you might expect, are conflict-torn countries, where personal freedoms are in jeopardy: Ukraine, Yemen, Iraq and Turkey (Syria was lowest in 2015, but was too dangerous for Gallup to survey this year).

Jon Clifton, managing partner at Gallup in Washington DC, points out that non-traditional data, such as measures of evaluative well-being (how citizens rate their lives), showed signs of the growing discomfort that led to the Arab spring and to Ukraine’s Maidan revolution. The Global Emotions Report also gave important insights into the national atmosphere in the runup to the Brexit vote last year. At the time, GDP in the UK was growing at about 2% and unemployment had dropped below 5%.

“From a data perspective, things seemed OK,” says Clifton. “Another metric, however, showed something different happening in the UK in terms of ‘happiness’. In the two years leading up to Brexit, there was a 15% decline in the number of people rating their lives positively enough to be considered thriving, among the largest drops in Gallup’s history of global tracking. If that had been GDP, it would have been front-page news.” According to the report, 29% of the UK population would like to move to another country.

In the face of such statistics, what lessons can architects, designers, citizens and community activists learn from these polls? The theme of the second London Design Biennale, announced this week, is “Emotional States”. It aims to inspire a diverse, global commentary on our turbulent times, interrogating the ways in which design affects every aspect of our lives, and influences our feelings and experiences.

More than 40 countries will present installations, curated by distinguished museums such as the Victoria and Albert in London; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian in New York; Moscow Design Museum; and MAK, Vienna. Exhibits range from robots with uncanny facial expressions, to software programmed to capture the subtle changes of the human face, gauging the mood of a crowd or signs of lying. Talks will explore how designers are trying to create more positive conditions for social development.

The discipline of architecture and design is at the forefront of change-making, and designers, ever since William Morris, have been naïve evangelists for the socially transformative power of good design. However, we’re not proposing that design can save the world: for every innovation that solves a problem, another ethical one is created. The smartphone, for example, facilitates new, exciting social possibilities; sold as instruments of liberation, in the same way as cars were in the 1950s, they are the most rapidly adopted form of technology in history. But as they mediate human interaction they are also alienating us from the world.

The biennale will feature an installation by Norway, in which the government is backing a decade-long initiative devoted to a people-centred approach to design. Engaging citizens in the process, it’s part of an ambitious action plan to make Norway “inclusively” designed by 2025. The government is also taking a proactive approach to the environment, and recently pledged that all cars on the roads will be electric within a decade. The exhibition includes examples of technology and innovation that employ design as a strategy for a better future.

Guatemala, which ties for sixth place in the Global Emotions Report, will show an installation about the community action taking place in Santa Catarina Palopó. This town on the volcanic shores of Lake Atitlán is reinventing itself as a kind of conceptual art, using the paintbrush to boost civic pride and tourism. Its residents have become involved in a two-year scheme in which they are painting their houses in bold Mayan patterns, with a strict but vibrant palette of five colours sourced from local textiles.

Emotional states are, of course, deeply personal, and the biennale will survey the full subjective spectrum. In his recent documentary, The Happy Film, Austrian graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, approaching 50 and recently single, charts a year of self-discovery. Based in New York, Sagmeister has designed album covers for Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones, David Byrne and JAY-Z. Every seven years, he closes his studio to take a sabbatical, and on one of these breaks set himself the task of self-actualisation, using design, in the tradition of Morris, to solve life’s problems.

He drew on the ideas of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who suggested that there are three ways of learning to change an innate emotional bias towards negativity: through meditation, cognitive therapy and drugs. Sagmeister devoted three months to each technique, turning himself into a design project. He got engaged within 10 days of being prescribed antidepressants, but the relationship didn’t survive his coming off them.

Asked if he still thinks that design can make people happy, Sagmeister says that 50% of the world’s population now live in urban areas. “Everything surrounding them has been designed, from their contact lens to the park, and these designed surroundings play exactly the same role to a city dweller as nature does to an indigenous person living in a rainforest. They can be designed well or badly. They will make a difference.”