Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 126, June 2014

The Realpolitik of Design

A dominant perspective of design is famously caught in an idea by American scientist Herbert Simon, that design devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. Every design is thus a small step to incremental change within a paradigm of progress. In the world of design we can all feel we are adding something towards a future better world.

But Simon’s quote also highlights a great controversy. When we change one situation into another, more preferred one, who actually prefers this new situation? That is, we design for whom? The basic question to ask ourselves is: in whose interest do we design? For what system, what order – and perhaps on a more abstract plane, for what human nature?

Within the field of participatory design it has been popular to design withinstead of designing for users, which means that the designer acts more as a facilitator, a guide or teacher, more than a expert problem solver. But it still requires us to ask in combination with the first question: with whom do we design? With what order, what tools, what capacities? With what order and with what political ends – and perhaps on a more abstract plane, with what human nature? 

In a traditional setting of design, perhaps most popular in industrial product design, progress is taken for granted. As we look back in design history we can see the progress of smaller, lighter, faster, cheaper stuff. We can see how things get more ergonomic, more user-friendly, more accessible. And we may also experience it in our everyday life, more powerful phones, better rain jackets, safer houses and better household appliances.
Design fits into the idea of progress, that things get better, and that together with these tangible developments to the better also our human nature improves. With design, the world is getting better. We designers, we are the good ones. We are the heroes of progress and peace!

Together with other social engineers or social designers we build a “better man” and a better and more peaceful society for all, and we can actually see in the statistics that the world is more peaceful today that a century ago. Thanks to modern progress there are fewer wars, less famines, and of course we must be much smarter and informed today than yesterday.

But in this saga of progress there is a small dark uncertainty tearing in the margin. It asks, what if the progress we experience in the world of design is not reflected on a global level, or in the soul of man? What if all our nice and smart gadgets do not make us better human beings? This question becomes even more urgent as we come closer to actually work with and for real people, not ergonomic or economic models of them, that is, not our ideal consumers, users and personas. What if real people are more real than we hope they are?

As we engage in participation, tackle social issues and design politics, our glorious path towards progress and a better future may seem less bright than we first imagined. People are not always cooperative. They are not always so friendly and do not always seek the equal benefits of all. Sometimes, as we try to mitigate the amount of suffering in the world, we actually just push aside or displace one type of suffering with another. What if the state of human life is constant, the misery of human life endless, the amount of suffering equal and eternal? Perhaps all improvement and progress we have seen in design is only on the surface of things and nothing, in the depth of the soul of man, has actually changed. What if man is by nature evil, there is no progress – and design is just yet another tool wielded by the powerful to exercise domination, or even violence?

Simon’s classic stance of design, that the world can be changed to the better, resonates well with the idealist camp in political science. The idealists seek to see things in a hopeful manner, where human agency can shape situations with our own ideas and often with lofty ambitions. For the idealist, human societies love to cooperate, progress is undeniable and politics is a field of visionary imagination of a better world. However, the main opponents of the idealists are the realists, and see things in a less optimistic way. They, on the other hand, want to assess a situation as it is, without overt emotional involvement or hope, and sees man as practical and pragmatic, fighting for survival and power.

The way we experience design is per definition a visionary practice, just like Simon argues. We want to change things and thus engage in what ought to be. But in all our affirmation we may simultaneously refuse to see how things really are. This becomes especially problematic as we engage in social and political issues where our hands-on imagination and prototyping of better futures may easily be hijacked by internal or external interests or other political camps, especially those hungry for power and who do not take the same moral and ethical considerations as we do. In the world of realist politics, or what German chancellor Otto von Bismarck called Realpolitik, politics is based primarily on the execution of power, aiming at domination, rather than explicit ideological notions or moral or ethical premises. Realpolitik is a perspective and a mode of action in a world where man is by nature hostile and cruel, rather than cooperative and kind, and where there is no progress, no idealistic or peaceful future. In such a world also design must be very different.

As we take on to design, it may still be for and with people, we must see that neither our collaborators, nor ourselves, exist in a vacuum. We live in a world that is cold, cruel and violent. The small initiatives and projects we instigate and make together are always threatened to be undermined, used or exploited by those who do not have the same intentions as we do. If we do a small urban gardening project in the neighbourhood, others will seek to use it, draw gains from it, and increase their influence, wealth or power, often at the cost of others. This is the reality we must learn to act in.

The Realpolitik of design, let’s call it Realdesign, must restrain some of design’s naïve idealism and dream of peaceful progress, but without sacrificing any of design’s visionary imagination. It must start to see the world as it really is; yet still act towards what ought to be. But most crucially, the new proposed future we just designed must be safeguarded from the political forces that really is, the forces that seek domination through force and violence and which undermines the peace that ought to be. Our little urban garden must be protected, the initiative sustained through the use of contracts and law, policies and activism, and in the end perhaps, by nonviolent force. In the Realpolitik of design, this is the cruel reality.

Within the Realpolitik of design there are wolves and lambs, those who feast and those who suffer. Designers can still be heroes, but no longer the heroes of self-deception.

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