asapdesign wrote: can an Industrial Designer solve crime? gangs? poverty?
To the original posters question, I am sure that the "stuff" we generate is the not cause or the solution to the above three issues. There are solutions to be found and creative minds are needed to find them.
I agree fully with this:
iab wrote:I am a firm believer that design methodology can be applied to create solutions to complex problems, including those outside of producing a product.
I certainly think it is a superior methodology to the scientific method as it isn't necessary to test one variable at a time that is the heart of the scientific method. It is extremely difficult to quantify complex problems/issues as stated in the OP. A design approach or a qualitative approach can look at the problem as a whole and is more likely, I think, to succeed with potential solutions.
As a designer we practice finding these solutions for physical objects, as iab and Taylor point out, these skills apply to designing social outcomes as well.
On the secondary topic of making ourselves feel good about what we do. In our sphere of making things we control a lot of factors that impact people's lives and the environment as well. We can choose different materials and processes that have different footprints. This is how I self-justify the work I do.
To know the processes and the factory conditions is key to developing more or less responsible ways of making a product. Walk through the factory that makes your product. In some cases it is a negative surprise, but you have the power to change that as well.
Example 1: The first products I designed and produced use a shiny lacquer finish, the industry standard. Volatile Organic Compounds, solvents emitted by the tons using a spray booth. One spec of dust and the product had to be sanded and repainted. That part of the factory was an awful environment. Step one was to replace the spray booth with a fountain or curtain coater, zeroed out the waste of overspray. Step two and the real solution was to design a matte finish. Tolerant of minor imperfections, no need for double coating. Became the industry standard before laquering was eliminated entirely through the use of texture raw materials.
Example 2: The company that I used to work for (Taiwanese owned in China) had workers manually removing plastic parts from injection molding tooling, reaching into the live cycling machines to do so. The workers with the knowledge of the supervisors had tied off the safety switches, so that the safety door could remain open and save time and energy. Nothing would stop the machine from closing with hundreds of tons of force. I had to raise hell with the owner and make repeated trips down to the floor to make sure that this practice was abolished.
Example 3: EPS machinery for helmets requires workers to stand on a wet board, between the huge hydraulic platens of the press in order to load the inserts in the molds. Dangerous, uncomfortable, loud work. I developed a new process of manufacturing helmets, huge press eliminated, assembly outside of the press on clean, dry well lighted tables. Less energy used, superior test results and a work environment that does not make you feel guilty when you design for product built in it.
Visit a shoe or boot factory and walk past the gluing line, walk into a screen printing room. The smell of solvents is so overwhelming, that it will make you question how you design your next projects and the processes you use. UV cure inks for example, powdercoating instead of painting.
There are options as a designer to make things better and have the same commercial result. If your role in life is to design things there are solutions to make a positive impact. If your main goal is to solve the big social issues, then product design is not the answer, but it provides an approach.