What Should I Tell Michelle Obama About Design?

The National Design Award winners are invited to the White House for an annual breakfast this Friday. Honoree Tom Dair thinks this could be a good opportunity for designers to talk to Michelle Obama about the importance of what they do.

tom dair whitehouse

I'm off to the White House this week for the National Design Awards. It's not my first time; my firm Smart Design was honored as a finalist for a National Design Award and few years back and I got to meet First Lady Laura Bush (above). This year once again, there are plenty of great firms to be honored. But that's not the topic of this posting.

Here's what's really on my mind. There is a good chance I'll get to meet the honorable—and outspoken supporter of design, certainly with regards to fashion—First Lady Michelle Obama. And there's a good chance I'll get to say "hello," or "it's an honor to meet you," or "thank you" when she congratulates me for my firm's recognition for this year's award.

But here's the thing: I think that this administration really gets it. If any administration might consider design as a possible way to help solve the world's problems, this is the one! Let's face it: The Obamas are progressive, big thinkers who have an unprecedented understanding of branding and social media, not to mention the importance of reaching the world's masses through multiple communication touchpoints. Their commitment to change—everything from clean energy, to foreign affairs, to healthcare and even organic gardening—is inspiring in the way they embrace new approaches to solving old problems. Bringing design to the forefront could be next!

Here's my question to you. If I get the chance to tell Michelle Obama something about design that might get her to take more interest in how design can help to improve the world's condition, what should I say to her? I'm not talking about an elevator pitch for design, that would be way too wordy. I need the perfect soundbite. Something impactful, something prolific, something powerful and something that will stick—something that will make her consider the power of design and designers in making the world a better place.

What should I say? Add your perfect soundbite below, and I'll do my best to deliver it.

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Tom Dair, co-founder and president of Smart Design, runs the company's San Francisco office. He directs the firm's Insights and Strategy discipline, where he has pioneered techniques for achieving better design through an understanding of user behavior, business factors, and technology trends.

Dair holds 19 patents for products ranging from complex medical devices to children's toothbrushes. His designs have won a variety of awards and are featured in a number of museum collections.

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  • william campbell

    wow, what an opportunity. Congrats!

    The best design results are often born of partnerships. I'm not sure all the approaches outlined here reflect that.

    Some seem more like "this is my chance to shine! How can I impress her with how smart we are so she can't help but get a designer involved in something big?" ;-)

    How about, "We'd love to help find a way to apply design thinking and prototyping methods to some of our most urgent issues. How can we help?"

    best wishes, bc

    ps don't forget to mention we're all extremely underpaid. ;)

  • carol vanderkloot

    Dear Tom:

    Congrats on two years success and a repeat trip to the White House! That's one road show, I think we'd all aim to be hitting up annually.

    I hope that you will convey to Ms. Obama, that, despite the near dearth of women and people of color among last year's recipients, that design is a great equalizer of democracy and goodness. (And, while it's tempting to think of a pithy, catchy phrase that captures this thought, the loftier and more praise worthy the prose about designers, the better!)

    For whatever the reason, designers, perhaps because their work is so accessible and public, simply do not receive kudos deserved for their ability to elevate a chair, a thermometer, toothbrush, heck a vegetable peeler..as isn't the reason why Sam Farber created OXO because his wife loved to cook and arthritis in her hands prevented her from doing so....and hence a brand and new way of thinking ensued.

    Of course, I could go on and on...as Cooper-Hewitt's exhibition Design for the Other 90% and Cameron Sinclair's book Design Like You Given A Damn--illustrate design's possible mind-blowing effects on re-thinking ordinary, common items such as tarps, tents, drinking glasses that literally can save the world!

    Okay...soap box has been dismantled now...but maybe someone could improve upon that as well...but seriously now...design is so much more than in over simplified generic terms, "cool stuff."

    Tell Ms. Obama (and urge her to speak to Mr. Obama, too) to let designers in on this big project called, re-thinking, re-imagining America. Let's create a design and architecture cabinet, let's imagine that horribly landscaped, insensitive, overscaled housing that seems unlivable and unaffordable, and, ultimately, becomes deflated of value. Let's give incentives to U.S. firms to manufacture in this country and extra bonuses if they use green practices to create product or incorporate recycled or repurposed materials.

    How incredible that Detroit's College for Creative Studies has acquired GM's historic Argonaut Building that will be transformed into a research and teaching institution for graduate and undergraduate study of design. Maybe some of the GM execs (and other US auto makers for that matter) should request sabbatical time and sit in on classes..

    In any event, let it be known...design can be life saving, mind expanding, democraticizing, global in scale and still be fun and highlight cool product too.

    Enough said.....

  • David-Henry Oliver

    I'd say you should ask her to describe something that effects her, something for which a solution might be designed. I imagine privacy is an issue for her and her family, but leave it to her. Then, perhaps you can share the insight with the design community and we can try to address the issue through design. There's no better way to demonstrate the potential of design than to design something that solves a real problem for her.

  • Tom Dair

    Thanks everybody for your comments! This is great stuff, but I need more! My meeting with Michelle is just a day away and a want to make sure I’ve considered all the angles… it’s now or never! Right now I’m considering “do you want me to teach you to sketch?" (yuk yuk, funny -- thanks Brian!)

    Please send me your thoughts and maybe I can spark design fever in the White House.

  • Peggy Monahan

    "Once we find solutions to the world's problems, we need designers to make those solutions fit into our lives."

  • david conover

    Mrs. Obama, You, your husband, your "family" has exhibited the traits admired by all who respect and hope for continued social change. Please maintain your embrace of design (in its many manifestations) to affect change for the better. Too often design is seen as merely a conduit for crass commercialism when the reality is it has participated equally in every aspect of progress for every cultural advancement throughout history.

    Thank you.

  • Brian Ward

    Great opportunity!
    Ok, here are some flip/ funny but possible statements-

    1. "Design can save our lives." Hmm a bit kinda doomsdayish!
    2. "A Designer in every pot." A political twist but oh,so 1901...
    3. "We need more designers influencing government,do you want to know why?"
    4. "Design makes the difference...excluding Martha Stewart"
    5. "Every child needs some form of design education"
    6. "Do you want me to teach you to sketch?"
    7. "Design can help direct the US to find it's path again"
    8. "Jonny Ive 2012!!!"
    9. "Design is a resource undervalued by our government"
    10."For the US to rebuild it must Design first- here's my card"
    11."Lets get the US back into making things that are good for the world"

  • Tucker Viemeister

    you’re right he “get’s it.”
    I didn’t get as good of a picture with Clinton when I went down for the awards (I was just in the audience). But I did say to David Kelly over wine and shrimp, that I never thought I’d be getting drunk in the White House!
    Getting the design story out used to be the big battle – now that we made it to the top of the hill – what?
    Design thinking makes things make more sense – and helps find a solution, like:
    Paying for Health care isn’t the problem – the problem is the cost of sickness – and even curing sickness isn’t problem – the solution is keeping everyone healthy.
    Or education: problem is too many dumb people (they get in the way and certainly can’t help) - the smarter we all are the better we will be able to live!

    Design thinking can make anything smarter!

  • James Monsees

    Government needs a design review. Congress needs a prototyping culture.

    Congressional review ensures that we either bicker about perfect solutions and get nothing done, or charge ahead with relatively uninformed solutions. We rely on smaller or more progressive countries/economies to prototype our options, or crowdsource ideas from within, guaranteeing that only the loudest voices get heard. We should be discovering what really works by employing designers in government, introducing brainstorming and prototyping as cornerstones of our governmental process.

    Why aren't we on the 15th prototype of healthcare reform by now? Why don't we vote online? Why was the difficulty in Iraq so surprising? Design has a process for that.

  • Andrew Hayden

    Every great advancement in the history of man has been because of design. The wheel, the bow and arrow, the pencil, architecture, space flight...you name it and it's design that made it possible. If we fail to understand the importance of design we stop advancing and ultimately we lose.

  • X. Matychak

    Designers are advocates for end-users. All govt development teams should have designers on them to insure that the products and services being made for the public (for e.g., open access to healthcare software) will be usable and therefore effective.

  • jerri neufeld

    i dont think you can tell obama much--politicians are the epitome of a philistine--especially a ill-informed politically correct-mile-wide and an inch deep bureaucrat--good luck

  • Holly Harlan

    We can not conserve our way to sustainability. The future of sustainability is design. The future of design is biomimicry.