Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 137, Sept 2015

Something rotten in design

There is something rotten in design. Something is corrupt at the very core of our practice: a fraud.

In design school we are taught the value of abstract ideals. And later, as we work within our discipline, we often rally around these abstractions, they are the buzz-words which wins us jobs and which makes us speak the same language: function, ergonomics, innovation, participation, democratization, social change etc. We guide our practice according to these ideals, and we try to implement them in our processes and outcomes.

The problem I see with these abstract concepts is that they have the tendency to draw our attention away from the real impact of design, the relationships at the foundation of our relations with our fellows and the environment, such as power and domination. The ideals make us believe we can change the world at the root, while we merely touch the surface.

I think this fraudulent distraction away from control and dominance coincides with the systemic ignorance produced concerning the real workings within the heart of our everyday democratic politics. As citizens, we fail to see that the real power in our everyday lives exists in its political administration, the planning, execution, sorting and shaping of our lives. Our failure to critically examine how design is part in the administration, distribution and cooption of citizen agency matches our willful submission most of our design agency to the all-powerful “market.” Both government and market present themselves to us as colossal, external and untouchable, almost divine in their nature. They are purposefully arranged to make us feel small.

As political philosopher Bernard Crick observed, government is not “democratic”. Such notion is pure propaganda. The election process may in itself contain elements of democracy, for example citizens casting their vote. Yet, this does not guarantee the intertwined prerequisites for an open free election such as freedom of press, freedom of assembly, the rule of law, etc. But, as Crick highlights, however democratic the voting process is, it invariably turns into a system of administration: the winning political fraction starts the process of bureaucracy that leads to the manifestation of political decisions.

Administration is very far from democratic: it is an execution of power, most often opaque, veiled in mistranslation, deception and lies. True power over everyday life is always very far removed from the political subject, even in the best democracies.

This is where we come to design, not least the most recent expansion of design towards fields such as service or social design. Even if we as designers support participatory and democratic design processes, we are totally entangled into an operational and bureaucratic environment that is far from democratic. Our government “partner” in the project, in the planning office, the care sector or the public-private partnership is most often neither democratically elected, nor held responsible to the public in a transparent way.

As designers take on to work with bureaucracy or government, to work on social issues or processes, we are thrown deep in into the most corrupt parts of the administration of the everyday state of affairs. And most often we have few tools at hand to deal with the forces and practices that shape our project, as it gets real.

Design to many still represents ideals of beauty, justice, progress, innovation, the better life. The magazines are often reporting on how things will be better with new designs, technological stuff or new types of housing and transport. Thus the fall into corrupt reality is all the more painful: the promises of design are noble deceptions that barely cover our slow decent into civil strife.

In design school, students are usually trained in formal design, and not in real design. This is a necessary distinction, just like we must distinguish between formal and real politics. We are taught formal design, and the design magazines are full of images of such flawless endeavors: ideal scenarios for ideal markets and ideal users, or ideal do-good project for the ideal marginalized community. But it is urgent that we as professionals come to trace and deconstruct real power in design: I have earlier called this Realdesign, a parallel to the Realpolitik.

We must ask “what rationalities of power are at work when we design?” That is, what power have we already submitted to, or let our design process be submitted to, as we engage with a situation? Most of our ideals are easily used for domination: beauty, function, ergonomics, sustainability and participation. We must be more inquisitive, more critical to our briefs, more realist to where our practice is situated, that is; in the cruel real world, not in the frictionless scenarios of the studio.

In Realdesign we must come to acknowledge that design does not materialize through abstract ideals, but that these abstract concepts are bent around power, veiling control and coercion behind a curtain of reason and rationality. Concepts are themselves idealized projections to model our senses. Power is practiced, it is hard and real. Reality has the power to destroy us, to set us against each other: far from the democratic ideals of consensus and peace.

An essential design-teacher must be Machiavelli, who said that “a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way to self-destruction.”

Realdesign sees the condition of design as it is, not as it should be. Designers must produce their patches to this imperfect world as it actually is, not as it should be. Ideals are not enough, participation and co-design is not enough: we must radically change how design administers the everyday. We must affect actual behaviors, not intentions or distant constitutions. We must not convince new incentives, or make people “aware”: we must change real physical behaviors and conditions on the ground.

This may be nothing new to many who are out working in the field, they encounter the corrupt sides of bureaucracy every day, often leaving them disillusioned. But when we speak of a democratization of design we must have the ugly reality of undemocratic governance and administration in mind. Democracy is not primarily a matter of occasional voting. It is a matter of dedication and endurance. In design, as in any state, democracy is not something we “get”, it must be fought for and reclaimed each and every day. All citizens, in concrete situations, must practice it. Every day. Over and over again. The struggle must be hands-on. It must challenge the inherent corruption of administration, and also the docility of critical cynicism. If we do not engage in this struggle, we have no democracy.

Design may essentially be a gesture pointing towards the ideal. This may be the naïve nature of our trade. But there is something rotten in design, a foul smell of deceit and corruption. If we want to make a difference, design must reclaim the real. And like democracy, it has to be reclaimed anew each day.

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