Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 92, September 2010

Re-examining the politics of design

Design has, for as long as it has existed, tried to improve world, in one way or another. Not only has it tried to make things more user-friendly or act as a spur for economic growth, but it has most often also had an explicit social agenda. This commitment has been everything from designing for social inclusion and world betterment on a personal scale to working towards the end of hunger or creating world peace. Design deals with politics everyday, as it deeply affects the very microenvironments of our everyday and our social situation.

We can easily trace design’s social motive throughout history. From the straightforward political agendas of William Morris and the Arts and Craft movement, over the socialist rhetoric of the Bauhaus, to the ergonomics of the 70’s and today’s “universal design” and “design for social impact”. As designers we have been schooled in systems inheriting a lot of ideas from these traditions and the social agendas are so integrated we hardy seem recognize them. We learn from Morris that aesthetics and high quality craft should be an important part of mass production and the right for every consumer. We learn from Bauhaus that industry, mass production and economic growth are the foundations for a more equalitarian society. We learn that ergonomics are important values that add to a qualitative user experience and avoiding blisters, and injuries. We learn that “universal design” is something good, and we should design also for handicapped and left handed people. Today we are taught to be better at designing for the “other 90%”; our poor and people in the developing world.

Throughout this history there have been fierce discussions within the design community if design should be “political”, that is dealing with other issues than purely aesthetic or economic ones (as if aesthetics and economics are not political). But a simple glance to recent history shows that the discipline has always been an arena for current social debates.

However, the social issues addressed by design have by large not arrived safely at the ambitious destination. Most problems addressed by the discipline have not succeeded in the way educators and well intended designers wanted. However, we should not forget that quantitative statistics say the world has somehow gotten better; world population is increasing and we churn out more mass-produced stuff than ever. But perhaps this improvement was not how most designers imagined their social commitment.

Indeed, William Morris’ workers could not afford to buy their own well-crafted furniture. The modernist mass-housing architecture proposed by the Bauhaus did not increase equality as imagined. The dream of mass production has turned into a global environmental crisis. Surely, history is a tough jury that would send home any designer weeping and demoralized.

What’s wrong here? With centuries of trial-and-error, why doesn’t it seem like design can save the world? Can we blame history’s flux of political ideologies and romantic revolutionaries? Or a continuous corruption of ideals by some evil capitalist machine?

It seems one answer is an “inconvenient truth” stemming from an inherent paradox in design’s approach to problem solving, namely, design fosters passivity.

If designers want to take the political consequences of their practice seriously they need to deal with the basic problem of generosity in general: How to give without being pacifying. Or; how to approach a situation of need without putting the receiver into disadvantage or at the loss of agency.

The charity created in the hand of designers is not justice. Still today, creativity and overview is reserved for designers, planners and experts. Design has to be enabling rather than only solving immediate problems or shortsighted needs. By habit, we make user-friendly stuff – so simple that we never let users know how it works or what the true cost is.
But we need to design agency and involvement. We need to design for inclusion, repair, co-innovation, and to involve many more stakeholders as agents and actors.

Politics, the discourse of possible futures and the work towards them, is at the core of design. And it is true – design can’t save the world, at least not by itself and by producing the stuff the discipline does by habit. An advancement of community skills and the diffusion of agency to the Everyman might improve the world though. We better start experimenting and find best practices. How are we to embrace the everyday politics, become better aware of its issues and design for that?

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