Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 128, September 2014

Design and Conflict

Design is usually thought of as an activity that solves problems or tends to needs. A problem or a need means trouble. Something is broken or untended to, and design is the solution. A problem is undesirable, something bad, thus design, in its attention to make things better and fix things, is good. A design makes things better. It may have flaws, but it is rarely evil. Thus designers are good people; they sleep well at night having rid the world of yet another ghastly problem.

As designers solve a problem the process often seems to restore some form of original harmony. A problem is a disruption in the balance of life, an asymmetry that needs fixing, and thus the design makes things good again. With a problem solved the balance of everyday life is repaired, stability and order is restored.

Lately, many designers have started to address more intangible issues and materials, such as interfaces, interactions, services and social issues. When we as designers turn to work on these issues, which are often also political, we inherently tend to see conflicts and frictions as bad, something that needs fixing in order to restore harmony. The idea is to establish a smooth and predictable social order, functional governance, a rule of reason amongst citizens, and thus harmony and peace.

However, designers not only work for the user, or for the “good” of society at large. We are always working in someone else’s interest, and also inherit someone else’s problem. But this is seldom explained in the design brief or noticed on the first field trip.

There is a big risk in using design to social issues: as we take on social conflicts and try to solve them, we may merely be smoothing the surface, displacing the conflict. It may look as if we have restored harmony, but without actually tending to the deeper conflict or clash of interests. Instead, we may ourselves have enhanced injustices, betrayed our collaborators, exhausted the energy of the local community and radicalized some disillusioned participants.

Most design does not produce harmony. It may solve one problem, while simultaneously producing more problems in the future. In a similar vein, a social design may disarm some conflict, but produce more social antagonism or friction for the future. For every newly designed alternative previous orders are pushed aside or become destabilized.

We must come to see that every new social order, or newly designed system, is also a counter-system. Our new solution is in conflict with the old one, and most probably also in conflict with other systems too. The new alternative we designed has political agency, and shakes the existing loyalties and orders. Of course, sometimes this instability is what we want, as it opens new pathways to negotiations and agency. But we must come to understand that this is not harmony, it is a design as conflict management, as a peace-building process.

On a very basic level we can draw parallels to how a new technology makes old ones redundant. Old gadgets may be useless and jobs lost in the factories. But when it comes to social design, the conflicts may be hidden and the consequences more far reaching. Obvious examples these days may be the couch-surfing system AirBnB which disrupts not only the hotel business, but the very way we use our home and who lives in it. Or the ride-sharing system Uber which circumvents laws, insurances and transport unions, and so taxi drivers in London have gone on strike against this new asymmetric “sharing service”.

It we turn to smaller scale we must examine the conflicts generated by everyday design examples: What social orders does a community garden upset? Or a bike sharing system? Or a street library? How do we better understand which orders we want to upset, which flows of money or loyalties we want to disrupt? How can we better see the disputes we have to engage with, and be better at negotiating with the parts in the conflict.

Our first step must be to acknowledge that design is as much problem-solving as conflict-generating. In order to highlight the conflicts of design, we could try some other design agendas:

  • Design that reveals conflicts, rather than hides them
  • Design that uncovers everyday obedience and submission, rather than gives the illusion of freedom or “consumer choice”
  • Design that traces power structures, mobilizes confrontation and resistance
  • Design that “hears the other side” (audi alteram partem), opens for adversary arguments, rather than suppresses them into harmony or consensus

In order to better build a foundation for such approach we could start with re-examining our own field and how we study the history of design. As new students look at the history of design, they are usually shown an evolution of objects and styles. Instead of mainly looking at the aesthetics, functions and ergonomics of design, we should better show them the social conflicts of the times and how these were made into design. Early modernist design movements, like the Arts and Craft or the Bauhaus, were themselves as much about aesthetics as epicentres of political conflict.

So how is it today? Are we really designing for a “better world” – and “better” for who? While some may argue that it is conflict that pushes design to make things better, that there is a problem to be solved, we must also come to see that most problems are never solved, they are merely pushed to the side, often just out of view for the designer and user.

We must ask ourselves: what social conflicts are left unsolved or even amplified in the design of our everyday things or in the new services we encounter? If we do not see the social frictions behind our design, and how these conflicts migrate and are transformed, we are still only working on the surface of design.

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