German communication designer Charlotte Ladiges is part of a generation of creatives whose practices aim beyond mere aesthetic gestures. Chasing a type of beauty and order that fosters potential for change, Charlotte turns her work into a continuous process of imagining solutions and interventions which carry innovation into the realm of sustainability. Charlotte fully embraces the idea that “perceptions of what design can do are changing,” and defines her own role, and that of her peers, using a language of unlimited opportunities: “I see designers today as change agents and process facilitators; they can be the linking element between different disciplines.”
Her work on the AmiAmi project, a rebranding effort for an activist organisation helping sex traffic victims, brings to light questions around the structure, shape, and future of communication design, and consequently the role of visual production in the larger, more direct attempts to tackle issues of justice and human rights.
Elena Stanciu: Please tell me a bit about your practice as a designer. Where do you look for inspiration?
Charlotte Ladiges: I come from a family that places huge value on arts and crafts. I have always had the urge to create things; I have been practising to be a designer since I was able to hold a pen. At the university, I started with typography and bookmaking, significant parts of my designer´s DNA. Afterwards I worked in the fields of editorial, corporate and web design.
My design practice has changed radically during my master studies at Design School Kolding in Demark (the past two years). My projects now are the result of intense research and a long design process. I find great inspiration in discussion with others. I tell people – my grandmother, neighbours, colleagues, friends – about my projects and use their associations as inspiration. This approach helps me understand different perspectives and avert tunnel vision. I carry my ideas with me at all times, and process them even when I am not consciously thinking about them.
ES: You state in your bio that you´re interested in design beyond beauty. What drove you to start exploring this post/counter-aesthetic function of design, and how is it going so far?
CL: I can’t deny that I am an aesthete and I love the designing part of my profession. But it can be one dimensional work, if there is not more to it. I found myself focused more on the ends as opposed to the means. Rather than just creating aesthetically pleasant work driven by commercial needs, I felt the urge to do something more meaningful. I wanted to focus on social challenges, one such issue being sex trafficking.
During my Master´s, I discovered that design has the power to create change. My final project developed out of the need of AmiAmi to become more visible. It was my first real world project for which a focus on social impacts was the main drive.
ES: You are part of a generation of designers whose creative mission is almost always intertwined with an aspect of activism. Do you find this to increase or limit creativity?
CL: If the mission is only to create something beautiful I am to choose from different aesthetics, the process is comparatively random and subjective. These designs are often only guided by trends and therefore short-lived.
A mission of activism calls for more careful consideration of the consequences. There are moral considerations in how the solutions can be and can look like. Once a concept is implemented in our society, it will have an impact on our social fabric, which means a greater responsibility for the designer. I do not see this as a limitation, but as a challenge to my powers of creativity.
The front doors of sex workers' houses in Esbjerg, Denmark. Photo by Charlotte Ladiges, 2017.
ES: Innovation is at the heart of sustainable design, also one of your interests; what´s your experience of the capacity of innovative products to become part of the everyday life of people? How do you see the process of decision-making with regards to embracing innovation, on the part of consumers today? Are people ever resistant?
CL: My understanding of innovation in sustainable design is the application of better solutions that meet people´s and the market´s needs. People want to be supported by products and not overwhelmed with features. Often the best solution is a product that includes simplicity and intuitive usability. The problems that innovators try to solve have to be relatable and concern our own lives. Innovative ideas are being embraced if they are easily accessible, people resist if it is too difficult, too expensive or takes too much of their time to engage with the product. People resist innovation if they feel they might be losing something, such as identity, worldview, or income. This fear is driven by subjective perceptions, so it can be very hard for a designer to understand which products might create resistance at first.
ES: You make a good point – innovative solutions are often also expensive, with access limited to certain groups and classes (rich, urban, educated) – how can designers and innovators avoid enlarging this inequality gap?
CL: Innovation has to be as inclusive as possible. If a product is only accessible to certain groups, it limits the scope of innovation. Reducing the inequality gap requires innovative practice, that itself is affordable and inclusive. The way a product is designed has a great influence on how expensive the production or how inclusive the product will be. As a designer, I always have to ask myself why I take certain decisions in the designing of a product and what the consequences will be. It often means stepping back: using fewer superfluous, if desirable, elements to allow a better overview, choosing the less expensive materials to make the production more affordable.
ES: Are innovative design products at risk of failing to provide the solutions intended, because people are not ready to embrace innovation? How do you imagine this could be overcome?
CL: It helps that we are so much more interconnected in this day and age. If a new innovation, after being introduced, can be shown to be useful then others can identify these successes. This enables a diffusion of solution-orientated innovations at a global scale. Sharing knowledge and experience of design products and their impacts is a sure-fire way to promote the embracing of innovative design. I think people are ready to embrace innovation where it is affordable, purposeful, and, above all, effective.
ES: Tell me a bit about your work on the Ami Ami Project?
CL: The AmiAmi project is my Master´s thesis: it is a collaboration with a small organisation in Denmark (previously Pro Vest) which is a non-profit counselling and health care service offering help to migrant sex workers and victims of sex trafficking. The organisation needed a new visual identity and tools to communicate with two target groups – sex workers and supporters. They needed to become more visible in the public sphere and at the same time create a discreet and respectful relationship with the sex workers. The topic itself is very delicate and the two target groups are essentially different and call for almost opposite communication strategies, so the project was a huge challenge and fine-balancing act. My close collaboration with the organisation and the long research phase helped me to get to the core of the issues and to bridge these differences.
ES: How important is communication and brand design for organisations that deal with social problems such as sex and human trafficking?
CL: In the case of human trafficking and sex trafficking, we are talking about a huge issue that is, for the most, ignored. There is an estimated 45,8 million people around the world, who are victims of human trafficking. There are more slaves in the world today than ever before in history.
When communicating for causes like the fight against sex trafficking, the challenge is to communicate and educate about a taboo topic, without crossing the audience’s limit of what is acceptable to be shown and hear. If those limits are crossed, the communication risks failing. On the other hand, there is an urgency to such topics that doesn’t allow a disguising of the facts or a beautification of them.
The challenge is to communicate about a socially difficult topic and break through the indifference of people, inspiring them to take action whilst safe-guarding the integrity and dignity, in this context, of sex workers and victims of sex trafficking.
ES: Sustainable design largely refers to environmental concerns; how did you incorporate the idea of sustainability in a project like Ami Ami, focused rather on human/immaterial relations?
CL: I have a broader understanding of the concept of sustainability rather than just environmental issues. For me raising lasting awareness, creating durable concepts that have a positive impact on people, is sustainability in a social context. If social sustainability isn’t considered in a project like this, it can result in lost opportunities or even negative social outcomes.
Working with AmiAmi, I tried to find solutions that can last, a message that is true not only today but for a long time. The intent was to develop a solution-orientated network through building trustful relationships between the organisation and the sex workers; as well as creating a support network from donors and the local community. In order for this to get off the ground, grow, and flourish, sustained communication between these relevant agents was and will be necessary.
ES: There are so many developmental problems in the world today (I´m thinking poverty in third world countries or the Global South as one of them) – what would you say is the biggest challenge designers and innovators face in successfully producing viable solutions for these areas?
CL: I believe that designers have a new way of thinking, more human-centred, which can help create better solutions for any given problem. Of course, identifying the biggest, most urgent issues is a task in itself.
As a communication designer, one challenge is to communicate issues in a way that touches people, but moreover moves them to act and to become part of a solution. We are often overwhelmed and tempted to put problems in the “too hard” basket. Designers alone cannot save the world, but they can help to break the indifference many people feel towards issues that are difficult to solve and that might not relate to them directly.
I am overwhelmed myself by the scope of developmental problems. I find myself thinking that there is so little I can do. During my project there was one quote, by writer Helen Keller, that helped me keep faith and not give up: “I am only one but still I am one. I cannot do everything but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”
Words: Elena Stanciu