You don’t need to look deep into history to see where design has been instrumental in guiding cultural change. Designers Henry Dreyfuss and Norman bel Geddes dreamed of the future and then built two separate models of the future at the 1939 World’s Fair: Democracity and Futurama. It worked. 20 years later their vision of cities full of skyscrapers connected by interstate superhighways came true.
Dreaming of a more vigorous America, President Kennedy promoted the President’s Council on Physical Fitness (curious fact: Richard Nixon was the first chairman!). The Council promoted exercise by publishing inspirational posters, producing demonstration programs in schools, and by challenging people to make 50-mile hikes. It worked. Now there are more health clubs than Starbucks!
In the late 1800’s Patty Smith Hill and her sister Mildred worked together in the Louisville Kindergarten Training School. They dreamed about bringing children and parents together. So they created games for the whole family and wrote some songs like “Happy Birthday to You.” It worked. Now kids are king!
People need contrast: Innovation feeds on variety.
Today lots of people think diversity is a problem. Stereotypes, prejudice, tribal warfare and religious crusades are messing things up. Those clashing cultures need to stop forcing their counterparts to be like them, not just because peace is good, but also because our differences are good. Diversity should be tolerated and encouraged. Plain vanilla is bad. Problems spawn innovation. Variety is a prerequisite for progress — without mutations and change there would be no opportunity for dreams!
Designers are in the dream business — from concept cars to the ill-intentioned “design obsolesces” — and designers get paid to make things distinct from the competition (we like to think we are making them better, but objectively, difference is the first hurdle for survival: once the shopper can distinguish between things they can start to make decisions based on other qualities). Homogenized plain vanilla is boring because people need contrast: Innovation feeds on variety. Societies where innovation is prized are the ones that lead. Take 18th century England’s enlightenment, which fed the Industrial Revolution, or Silicon Valley’s culture of globalized entrepreneurship that drove the development of the Internet.
Since diversity is essential, let’s plant the seeds for more public acceptance of variety, inconsistency and change. What can we do to encourage tolerance of differences and change? How about a Festival of Multiplicity? A Carnival of Things Outside Our Comfort Zone! A Celebration of Unusual. A Day of Openness.
We already have a national holiday meant to honor diversity, tolerance, non-violence, integration and community service, but Martin Luther King Day is a holiday without a ritual to give it any personal meaning. For Thanksgiving we feast to celebrate the harvest, at Christmas we give gifts to demonstrate goodwill, on the Fourth of July we march in parades to honor our communities. But what about Martin Luther King Day? Here’s my plan.
The Martin Luther King Day Lunch
To celebrate diversity on Martin Luther King Day let’s have meals that connect dissimilar people. Let’s sit down and eat lunch with someone who we think is different from ourselves.
Why lunch? Because it is historically significant to Dr. King’s life. The non-violent sit-in at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina in February 1960 gave national awareness of the depth of segregation in our country. ?And lunch because breaking bread with someone is primordial, biological and has social meaning. Lunch is easy, meaningful and fun, and afterwards, you can go back to work or continue to take the day off. It gives you something to do with your hands while you get to know each other.
How to participate. All you have to do to observe Martin Luther King Day, this Monday, January 17 is look around, find someone who you think is different (they could be another color, different origin, different age, different sex). Ask them to have lunch with you because — and this is the hard part — they are different from you. Then eat lunch together and talk about what makes you different, what that means, and, especially, how great it is to live together and still be different! Homogenized is boring. Variety is the spice of life. See, design makes the difference count!
Pass this idea around. Write about your lunch on Twitter and Facebook. Maybe it will catch on?
I’m going to ask Beyonce. Remember, I said it was a dream.