Randomly pick any Lebanese citizen and they’ll be able to list many negative things about their home country: power cuts, traffic jams, excruciatingly slow Internet. But Lebanon is also home to hundreds of talented design professionals in all sectors, some of whom are starting to tackle these problems. From graphic designers, to app developers, to urban planners and architects, the country is full of brilliant individuals who are helping to improve it, whether through a tiny urban intervention or a large-scale project.
Here are seven exciting ways designers are already helping improve the country.
1. Easing the electricity crisis
In a country which suffers from crippling electricity shortages, streetlamps are often switched on during the day and off during the night. The mobile app Waffir, run by the Muhanna Foundation, allows citizens to anonymously report the locations of lit streetlamps during the day.
The app gathers these notifications and forwards them to the respective municipalities, reporting the energy waste. This crowd-sourcing app aims to reduce energy wastage and creates a platform for citizens to hold municipalities accountable – something we rarely see in Lebanon.
2. Empowering rural businesses
Farmers across the country cultivate food that defines our culinary traditions but they face problems getting their products to market and getting a fair deal.
Initiatives such as Souk el Tayeb and Slow Food Beirut bridge the gap between rural food producers and the marketplace centered in Beirut. Both organizations offer spaces for these producers to sell their goods.
Slow Food Beirut commissions graphic designers to work on the brands of these rural producers, facilitating their entry to the marketplace and consequently improving their businesses. Simply by turning a handwritten label into a professionally branded product, designers can help rural farmers get better deals.
3. Helping the sick
When children are diagnosed with cancer, a long battle lies ahead. Designers are not doctors, but they understand the importance of maintaining high-morale for sick children.
The Lebanese charity Toufoula has for the last nine years brought color to the lives of children with cancer through art and design. The organization has designed dozens of ‘Dream Rooms’ in various hospitals around the country, harnessing the power of design to inject a surge of positivity into young cancer sufferers.
4. Reducing pollution
The toxins breathed by Beirut’s residents are double the limit set by the World Health Organization, according to a study by the American University of Beirut. Around 93% of the city’s residents are exposed to dangerous air particles due to heavy use of diesel generators, a surplus of cars and a lack of green spaces.
Cleaning up our air is not the job of environmentalists alone. Researchers can partner with urban planners and architects to create easily implementable solutions, such as architect Sandra Rishani’s Beirut the Fantastic, a blog charged with practical solutions for greening the city amid today’s current setbacks.
Smaller projects can also have a powerful impact on society. Metel ma Shelta, a witty campaign by AUB graphic design students last year, raised awareness about littering in the streets. The campaign revolved around mock-ups of a 10,000 Lira banknote thrown randomly on the streets. Once pedestrians eagerly lunged for the money, they realized it was a piece of paper with a message on the back: “If you can pick this up, then you can also pick up your trash.”
5. Rethinking public transport
“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transportation,” Gustavo Petro, the mayor of Colombia’s capital Bogota, once said. Fifty years ago Lebanon had a train, tramway and bus system. Today there is little public transport and our streets are clogged with cars.
Designers are starting a debate about how to change this. Architect and urban planner Sandra Rishani shows in her car-free city proposal that creating mixed-use streets, designating bus lanes and designing a solid transport map could help reduce traffic.
6. Reviving artisanal trades
Lebanon was historically known for its artisanal craftsmanship, such as metal and woodworking, glass-blowing and hand chiseling. Foreign imports have weakened these trades, with many of them on the brink of extinction.
Product designers and interior architects naturally create jobs for these people. Upon co-founding Kashida, my partner and I scavenged the country for reliable, talented producers to work with us. It is an example of a Lebanese brand designed and manufactured in Lebanon, empowering local artisanal trades.
7. Empowering other designers
One way to help designers change the country is to train them better. Design educators must involve more real-life projects in the classroom, especially community projects addressing real problems.
A good example is Desmeem, a cross-cultural design collaboration organized by the MENA Design Research Center in Beirut last year. Desmeem was a three-month-long project involving young professionals that came up with design solutions for lingering issues, ranging from public transport and sustainable consumerism to gender equality and migrant integration. The results were displayed at the Ministry of Tourism and are currently being executed.
Design is more than making a water-bottle label look pretty. Advertising your product on a visually pleasing billboard or designing mass-produced eyeglasses for impoverished communities are two very different forms of design. One betters the pocket of your client, while the other betters the lives of your community.
Design will not save the world without political stability and a decent economy. However, creatives that think outside the box can help find solutions.
If you are not a designer, join a collective whose cause you believe in. Your skills, contacts and mere presence will be a push forward. If you are a design educator, bring the real world into the classroom.
And finally, if you are a successful entrepreneur in the creative field, invest in the passionate newcomers. Funding can get a team together, create momentum, attract media coverage and even gain enough traction for lobbying.
Call it corporate social responsibility, then everyone is happy.
Mirna Hamady is the co-founder of kashidadesign.com