Sunday, February 18, 2018

Is it ethical for designers to function as activists when practicing their profession? If so, when? If so, how?

A version of this post will be published on IxDA's Medium site.

(about my talk at the Interaction Design Education Summit during interaction 18 in Lyon France -- February 2018)

Definitions of the type of design we practice and many of the labels increasingly applied to it (e.g., human-centered design, purpose-driven design, design through collective action, …), the missions and proclamations of many of it’s professional organizations (including IxDA) and more and more of the institutions where it is taught and of the design organizations where it is practiced, the types of projects designers are increasingly choosing (e.g., working on “wicked social problems”), and the nature of the codes of ethics increasingly advocated for designers suggest a strong commitment to activism. 

But activists (tend to) approach a problem with a solution in mind and engage in a variety of activities to see that that solution is implemented. Designers, on the other hand, (supposedly) approach a problem with no solution in mind, and ultimately (should) advocate for whatever solution emerges from a design process influenced by a multitude of constraints. Is it unethical for a designer to function as an activist?

Indeed, design is most often practiced in a context which at best puts community interests at parity with client interests. Is design inherently an unethical profession?

Katherine McCoy wrote this about design education in 1993: “We must stop inadvertently training our students to ignore their convictions and be passive economic servants. Instead, we must help them to clarify their personal values and to give them the tools to recognize when it is appropriate to act on them.” Has that happened? What are those tools and when and how should they be applied? When is it ethical for designers to function as activists when practicing their profession?

As Joe Edelman proclaimed during the closing plenary of this Summit, we have reached a social crisis brought on by design concepts that are most often taught. In my view, there is much that should be taught (and applied) instead, in addition, and/or more often to address this crisis and to help address and avoid others.

According to Ann Thorpe, design as activism can take the form of resistance or protest (as activism is commonly viewed) or can be generative (and often less negatively perceived) via creating alternatives more appealing than the status quo. In my view, there is a need for more and the use of additional or more desirable ways of both; there are more times and additional or more desirable ways to be assertive, and there are more times and additional or more desirable ways to identify the need for and to create alternatives that are in a client’s — and the community’s or even humanity’s — best interests. In my talk, I identified some of these times and some of these ways, as well as ways to help design students clarify their personal values; I included pointers to further information in all cases, but will be elaborating on all of these and others in upcoming writing, talks, teaching, and workshops.

Contact me at (and follow me at @riander on Twitter) if you want help with (or want to help me with) the identification, design, and teaching of how and when designers should function as activists when practicing their profession.

Richard Anderson is a human-centered design practice, management, & strategy consultant. He has led design disciplines in three consultancies, held other leadership/management roles, and freelanced for multiple companies. He is presently Principal of OE Strategy, providing services to organizations seeking to make a positive difference in the world.

Richard was Editor-in-Chief of interactions magazine, helped start and grow numerous HCI communities around the world, has organized and moderated numerous design events, and writes and speaks often about the need for change in the design profession and the need for applying design to wicked social problems (with particular attention to healthcare, homelessness, and ageism). He has taught at the University of California, the Academy of Art University, General Assembly, and multiple conferences and companies. He is now on the faculty of the Austin Center for Design, splitting time between Austin and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Ah, to truly dance through life…

A version of this post has been published on Facebook.

I fell in love with “contemporary ballet” when I first saw a performance by Alonzo King’s LINES Contemporary Ballet many years ago in San Francisco. And I especially fell in love with LINES, which has dropped the word “contemporary” from their name, though I’ve never seen them perform anything “classical.” They just never disappoint. Indeed, they inspire, move, challenge, excite, awe, and all sorts of other fantastic things!

Dance has mattered much to me for years, beginning with learning how to dance from watching American Bandstand on TV. When I was a student teacher at Ames High School, I’d occasionally go sit in the back of the auditorium between classes watching students participate in the school’s excellent dance program while wishing I had had access to such a program when I was a high school student. Many years later, a large photo of Mikhail Baryshnikov adorned my bedroom wall. And the best Christmas present I ever received was a pair of ballet slippers from my then wife, a gift given to me, she said, because I dance through life; wow!

I reconnected with LINES in November when I attended a performance by students in the Alonzo King LINES Ballet BFA program at Dominican University in San Rafael. Later last month, I attended an amazing contemporary dance salon in San Francisco organized by RAWdance (as I described in a prior FB post). Then back to LINES two weeks ago with an even more amazing performance — the winter showcase of students in the LINES 2-year intensive training program for pre-professional dancers. What made these wonderful performances extra special was their intimacy; for the latter two performances, I was right there on the level with and within reach of the dancers (as suggested by the photo from the winter showcase). Such proximity to the orchestra and chorus (see other photo) at the Sing It Yourself Messiah at the Southern Pacific Brewing Company this past Sunday made that experience extra special as well; by the way, I’ve always considered Handel’s Messiah to be dance music! And along with the close proximity at these performances: conversations with the artists. Yum! True immersion. And real rather than provided via VR goggles. Yum!

Ah, to truly dance through life…

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

On the importance of theory to design practitioners — Jon Kolko & Richard Anderson in conversation

A version of this post has been published on Medium.

When Jon Kolko and I were the Editors-in-Chief of interactions magazine, we would end most issues with a “cafe” conversation on topics of relevance to that issue’s content. We thought we’d resurrect such conversations on topics of relevance to the world of design today. This is our second such resurrection.
Richard: Not long ago, I was being interviewed for an opportunity to design and deliver workshops and (other) educational activities to enable multidisciplinary teams to (more) effectively use design and design thinking in their work. I’ve done lots of this type of work during my career, I enjoy it, and I’m very good at it, and I was delighted by the nature of the company with which I was discussing the opportunity. But the hiring manager knew that I had recently taught the advanced theory course at the Austin Center for Design (AC4D), and she repeatedly emphasized that no theory was to be taught at the company and later confirmed that she was afraid that I would insist on doing so.
You established the two theory courses that are a part of the AC4D curriculum, and you’ve written about the importance of teaching theory to design students. But is there no place for theory in a professional work environment?
Jon: I’ve never understood why practitioners make such a big deal about learning theory; it’s as if knowing the history, ethics, or philosophy behind your profession somehow makes you bad at actually doing the work!
I also see theory as akin to business writing; I don’t think people would argue that those who read BusinessWeek or Harvard Business Review are somehow being too academic, yet that’s what we do with design theory. Part of that is our own fault; design theory is heady stuff, often using overly sophisticated language that bullies a reader. But the style aside, the writing is critical for acting as a foundation for work.
When I talk to some of my alumni, they describe that their education grounded in theory gives them a reason to go to work — it provides them with a level of substance for justifying both their individual design decisions as well as their project and career selection criteria. That is, without a theoretical scaffold to guide decision making, all decisions are equal — and that means there’s no way to decide if a project is worth your time or not.
I do know that there are some academics who venture into practice and are surprised that their intellectual rigor alone (without practitioner skills) falls flat. That seems equally naïve to me. It’s hard to claim to be a designer without being able to actually design things.
I’ve written a little about this before and my biggest personal reflection is that if I hire someone without a deep theoretical understanding of our profession, I’m hiring a set of hands. Sometimes, I want a set of hands to creative direct — someone who can make things, and I can tell them what to make and often how to make it. But that’s not what I want for my alumni. I want them to be in strategic roles where they make decisions, and to have confidence that the decisions they are making are sound.
Did the hiring manager you spoke with add any more details about why she was so afraid, or did you get a sense for where that fear comes from?
Richard: I think many people don’t understand the full extent of what design theory is, let alone its importance to practice.
Consider my interaction with Christina Wodtke — who cares about, writes about, and teaches both theory and practice (and who doesn’t shy away from public Twitter debates) — on Twitter a couple of months ago:

What makes theory “theory”? What makes theory “important” or “useful”? I think if people better understood the answers to these questions, fewer people would fear theory.
Jon: Design theory is a way of explaining design. It’s a point of view or perspective, often gathered through research or observation of human-built phenomena. Design is not science; our consideration is not with the natural world, but with the human-created world. That means we can study and discuss various perspectives on the role of technology in shaping culture, in the qualities of rich and useful experiences, or on the way designers work and think.
For example, Paul Dourish’s article “What We Talk About When We Talk About Context” offers perspectives on the context of digital technology. Context, in this case, doesn’t mean the physical environment, but the social environment in which an innovation is found. He presents several alternative perspectives on how technology is presented to the world. One is the positivist approach, which is derived from a logical, rationalist way of viewing the world. This says that social phenomenon can be observed, simplified into modeled patterns, and then modeled.
Compare this to the phenomenological approach, which thinks of society as something that is always negotiated and ever-changing, and that the context of digital technology is based on our observation of it (and our integration of it into our lives).
This seems highly academic, until you think about the emerging fields of machine learning. Machine learning attempts to train models about human behavior with large datasets, and drives towards a predictive model about how people do things. It’s typically based on a fundamental belief that human behavior can be modeled successfully — a positivist approach.
But people do strange and often unpredictable things that can’t be modeled. When they talk to Alexa, they know things it doesn’t. They know, for example, that people in a room prefer different styles of music and may argue and fight over what’s played; that people change their minds; that people get drunk and act on impulse, and later regret it; that people hold grudges, make irrational decisions, and harbor resentment towards one another.
A phenomenological approach to technology would take a stance that not only can this not be modeled in a rational sense, but that it shouldn’t be modeled because it will lead to a disjoint and broken relationship between people and technology.
These perspectives have real-world implications on the types of projects designers take on, the places they work, the design decisions they make when working on digital technology, and the strategic business considerations companies make related to the changing wants and needs of the market.
Theory informs practice. Without knowing the types of things described above, decisions are still made, but they are made with a less informed, less thoughtful consideration. I want my students to be considered in the choices they make.
Richard: A point that I want to emphasize is that design theory need not “seem academic” or even be called (design) theory or appear where one might first think to look, which is well-reflected, I think, in many of the other readings assigned for AC4D’s two theory courses. For example, Emily Pillotin’s “Depth Over Breadth: Designing For Impact Locally and For The Long Haul” — which you assigned and which Emily wrote for us when we were Editors-in-Chief of interactions magazine — is readily accessible, accompanied by examples of her work explaining its applicability to practice. Much of what Ian Bogost writes for The Atlantic is design theory, including the recent “Why Nothing Works Anymore” which I assigned to be read for AC4D’s advanced theory course though, in it, Ian argues that design isn’t so much at fault. Harvard Business Review, which you mentioned earlier, contains design theory, including things you have written and “Creating Shared Value” by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer (which I assigned) which has dramatic implications for what design(ers) could and should be doing in major corporations.
I’m a big fan of Twitter, and I include tweets a lot in my talks, teaching, and writing, and many of those tweets (including many I choose to retweet) and many others I see daily include design theory. Even my Twitter exchange with Christina Wodtke (see above) includes (i.e., not just points to) design theory.
In my view, your writing — which you referenced above and which I referenced in my exchange with Christina — on why you teach theory includes design theory. Design critique — about which you’ve written lots and which is a critical part of good design practice — relies heavily on design theory.
Reign me in, if you think such is appropriate. But in my view, any design practice reflects design theory, and it is important to acknowledge and understand that. Practice and theory are intimately intertwined.
Jon: They are. But, and maybe this is a shift from what I mentioned above, I can empathize why a hiring manager may be reluctant to hire someone who calls themselves a theorist or overly references theory, because sometimes those people value argument (and often for its own sake, not for a larger purpose) over making.
I’ll offer you a case in point; there’s a mailing list called the PHD-Design mailing list. I highly recommend it, because it has wonderful content — and also because at many times, it is outright hilarious. The content often becomes a caricature of academia. I’ll offer you this excerpt from a thread from October, entitled “Can we learn from books?”
“We can learn something from books. The “we” is important to the question (omitted when one ask whether books contain a thing). What we learn has much to do with how open we are to allow the printed characters to resonate with what we already know and are willing to re-examine, expand or take in.”
The comment is ridiculous; the thread is ridiculous; the idea that anyone needs to spend time talking seriously about “if we learn from books” is ridiculous. But, for many, this is “theory” — this is what practitioners imagine academics spend their time doing and worrying about. I don’t think this is what academics spend their time doing, generally, but this is what hands-on, in-the-trenches designers see and judge.
And so from that perspective, and back to your very first question (“But is there no place for theory in a professional work environment?”), I’ll offer: yes, there is, and there should be plenty of it. But as an academic, I need to understand how pontification is viewed by practitioners, and ratchet my behavior up or down depending on the context. Over time, I can shift the perspective of my team or client by delivering great work with a thoughtful underlying theory. But in the context of a real world design problem, intellectualism without the substantiation of tangible design artifacts is just noise.
Richard: Fortunately, I’m not prone to pontification. (We’re not pontificating in this piece, are we? 😉) Nor have I ever called myself a theorist, and in the context of the interview I mentioned at the start of this piece, never once referenced theory or a desire to teach it. Indeed, I’ve taught theory rarely, other than to the extent that theory is always being taught when teaching practice because of how the two are intimately intertwined.
My concern is that theory and its relevance to practice isn’t understood, and hence any association with theory prompts fear and concern among many practitioners. In my view (and I think in yours), practitioners need to attend to theory more explicitly in their work, or, as we addressed in “On the relationship between design and activism,” risk ignoring or even knowing their convictions and, hence, risk just being passive economic servants.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Yet another dilemma

A version of this post has been published on LinkedIn.

Two weeks ago, I went to an evening event at Thumbtack, a company that occupies space in the same building as Twitter’s headquarters on Central Market in downtown San Francisco. Since I arrived early, I walked through the upscale grocery store on the street level that includes multiple “highly personalized dining experiences.” More words from The Market’s website:

“We strive to create a shared, sensory food experience that connects you and the ones you love to our community by celebrating the best local purveyors and the real food they provide. We are investing in the health of the community.”

The place is impressive and most inviting, and I pondered when I might return as a customer.

All of this sits on the edge of the Tenderloin district, an area of San Francisco known as it’s sketchiest neighborhood: high in crime, it’s hub of homelessness, and a high concentration of SROs. (An SRO: “a house, apartment building, or residential hotel in which low-income or welfare tenants live in single rooms.”) I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the Tenderloin and had walked through some of the neighborhood on a couple of occasions only a few days earlier on sidewalks filled with marginalized people. A month prior, I had walked on the nearby, equally notorious 6th Street going to and from another evening professional event that drew almost no one; the organizers were from out of town and were unaware of the nature of environment and its likely effect on attendance.

While many look down on and fear those who live on the street in the area, I do not. Indeed, I am in awe of how so many people can survive in such conditions. But such people have little hope of eating food of the quality offered at The Market. Perhaps most have little hope of eating food of any acceptable level of quality. Yet, they walk and live on the streets just outside The Market’s doors.

A few years ago when the building to house Twitter’s headquarters was under construction, I participated in a weekend design jam focused on “How to improve access to fresh and affordable foods for Central Market / Tenderloin residents.” This was part of a city-sponsored effort “to provide opportunities for government and citizens to work together by connecting civic challenges to community problem-solvers” and “built out of the belief that the best way to tackle challenges that affect the community is with the community.” I was delighted to participate.

As is common, participants were divided into small teams. My team included a current Tenderloin SRO resident, a current Tenderloin non-SRO resident, a guy who was homeless in NYC a couple years prior, and a business analyst. And the proposal we generated (complete with business plan) involved putting a grocery store on the street level of the Twitter building that would cater to both the building’s occupants (expected to be mostly people who would be well off and did not live in the neighborhood) and the Tenderloin residents — a store that additionally would provide services that would help both groups to meet each other and interact in meaningful ways.

Two weeks ago, I saw no evidence — and am otherwise unaware — that anything resembling what we proposed was adopted.

The event that I attended later that evening — a workshop on becoming an ally for diversity in the workplace — was terrific. Indeed, it gave me several ideas for what I might do to help stop ageism in the workplace (which is of particular importance to me), and the workshop leader later offered to work with me on such an effort.

Topping off the evening was a delicious meal, including an incredible beef bourguignon, healthy salads, and excellent wine. It was so good that I had seconds. Twas an excellent evening, and it was all free. 

But all the while, I was thinking of the many people living on the streets just downstairs in need of such an excellent evening — at least access to the edible components that I consumed at the event or salivated over at The Market (and supposedly invested in the health of the community) — more than me.

(The image is a photo I took that evening of a hallway on the street level of the Twitter headquarters building.)

I’ve written about marginalized communities (including the homeless) before. See, for example, “Reflections on gratitude,” “Why is it so easy to forget?”, and “The dilemma of empathy in design.”

And I’ve written about ageism: “My best work lies ahead of me.”

I also tweet lots about both (see @riander). LMK of ideas or opportunities to attend to either or other wicked problems (e.g., our broken healthcare system) of possible interest to me (see OE Strategy).

Sunday, September 03, 2017

On the relationship between design and activism — Jon Kolko in conversation with Richard Anderson

A version of this post has been published on Medium.

When Jon Kolko and I were the Editors-in-Chief of interactions magazine, we would end most issues with a “cafe” conversation on topics of relevance to that issue’s content. We thought we’d resurrect such conversations on topics of relevance to the world of design today.

This first piece might be a little heavy on the quotations — vastly moreso than one would expect of a conversation in an actual café, but I think all the quotations are pertinent and beneficial. Plus, we reserve the right to play fast and loose with the café metaphor, just as some of us might be playing fast and loose with the concept of activism (which Jon argues might not be a good thing).

Richard: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between design and activism, as reflected in a panel I assembled and moderated during San Francisco Design Week in June entitled, “Are designers becoming the new activists?”, the Medium post I wrote about the topic and that panel, and the SXSW 2018 panel I hope to moderate on the topic.

To me, human-centered design is, itself, a form of activism by definition, but there was considerable disagreement on the SF panel on the ethics of designers being activists in their role as designers. What is your take on this topic? You founded the Austin Center for Design (AC4D) where students learn design focusing on “humanitarian problems,” “problems that matter,” “to change human behavior and improve the world.” Is AC4D about activism? Is or should design be a form of activism?

Jon: There’s precedent of viewing design as a force for subversive cultural change. Carl DiSalvo’s Adversarial Design is a great text describing how design can be purposefully political, and the work of Dunne and Raby has explored design fictions that — described as speculative — are sometimes dark and politically-charged futures. Adversarial, discursive, speculative, design fiction: these are all design philosophies that overlap around the idea of provocation, or design intended to make us question and rethink the world around us.

But I think in many ways, all design can be a form of activism — a form of bringing about political change. Design proliferates into our lives. The results of design process are all around us in physical form, from chairs to computers to cars and trucks. The results are all around us in behavior change, too. People on trains staring at their phones instead of staring at newspapers, people ordering items delivered to their house instead of going to stores, people dating by swiping left or right. These were all designed and that design is a representative of an underlying design philosophy. The majority of this is driven by profit, which some may argue isn’t a political act. But, for better or worse, profit and politics are intertwined, and unleashing any designed artifact, service, or interaction into the world is to take and argue for a way that society should be.

I realize this isn’t what most people think of, when they think of activism: most probably imagine protests and picketing, fists in the air, signs and banners. Design shapes society in a quieter, or gradual manner, and that’s probably part of the problem with it. It’s silent, subtle, and we can ignore it until one day we realize our society has changed and we’ve changed with it.

I suppose in that way, the writing of Victor Papanek was some of the first “activism literature” for designers, recognizing the negative qualities of mass production and calling attention to these qualities. I’ll quote in full some of my favorite paragraphs from his writing:

“There are few professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers, comes a close second.

Never before in history have grown men [and women] sat down and seriously designed electric hairbrushes, rhinestone-covered shoehorns, and mink carpeting for bathrooms, and then drawn up elaborate plans to make and sell these gadgets to millions of people. Before, (“in the good old days”) if a person liked killing people, he had to become a general, purchase a coal mine, or else study nuclear physics. Today, industrial design has put murder on a mass production basis.

By designing criminally unsafe automobiles that kill or maim nearly one million people around the world each year, by creating a whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breath, designers have become a dangerous breed. And the skills needed in these activities are carefully taught to young people.”

For me, one of the biggest problems that faces design (and has faced it probably for as long as it was a profession — certainly as far back as Papanek was writing) is that the activism spawned from new products is not purposeful. Objectives of design do shift culture, and do take a political stance — but it’s frequently happenstantial. Political activism drives a purposeful agenda. I think design activism frequently delivers an agenda only by mistake.

It’s because most designers don’t have an opinion and don’t take a stance. They don’t see that their work is political; they view politics and designed culture as separate.

I don’t believe that. They are inextricably intertwined in a culture of capitalism.

Like me, you’ve worked with big brands and large organizations. How do you feel about them — are they political, and was your design work there a form of activism?

Richard: I see large, “traditional” brands increasingly recognizing that their responsibility to society extends beyond side “Corporate Social Responsibility” projects. Michael Porter and Mark Kramer advocated for this very strongly in their 2011 Harvard Business Review article, “Creating Shared Value”:

“the principle of shared value … involves creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges. Businesses must reconnect company success with social progress. Shared value is not social responsibility, philanthropy, or even sustainability, but a new way to achieve economic success. It is not on the margin of what companies do but at the center. We believe that it can give rise to the next major transformation of business thinking.

Capitalism is an unparalleled vehicle for meeting human needs, improving efficiency, creating jobs, and building wealth. But a narrow conception of capitalism has prevented business from harnessing its full potential to meet society’s broader challenges. The opportunities have been there all along but have been overlooked. Businesses acting as businesses, not as charitable donors, are the most powerful force for addressing the pressing issues we face. The moment for a new conception of capitalism is now; society’s needs are large and growing, while customers, employees, and a new generation of young people are asking business to step up.”

One business which appears to be stepping up is, to the surprise of many, Walmart (see “Business exists to serve society,” a recent interview of Walmart’s Chief Sustainability Officer), which is why I invited Dan Makoski, VP of Design at Walmart, to be on the “Are designers becoming the new activists?” panel during SF Design Week. But, as he revealed, his design organization is not driving most of the change at Walmart, but it is starting to play an important role. And I think that is typical. Earlier during SF Design Week, I asked Jesse James Garrett, co-founder and chief creative officer of Adaptive Path, whether Adaptive Path’s acquisition by Capital One had resulted in changes to Capital One’s service offerings that are consistent with the concept of activism. His answer was, “No, but we are setting the stage for that to happen.” Indeed, Kendra Shimmell, the Head of Service Design for Adaptive Path @ Capital One, was on my panel and spoke passionately about the activist role that design is only starting to play there.

Also, I see designers becoming increasingly aware of the gradual, subtle changes you reference — changes of questionable value to society — for which they are (partly) responsible. (See, for example, designer Lis Hubert’s poignant description of when she realized she wasn’t all that pleased with “The World that UX is Helping to Create.”) This is starting to prompt designers to change some of how they do their work and the attention they pay to its (possible) ultimate social impact.

Finally, as the people with the most power in large organizations participate in the design process (which is happening more and more, thanks to “design thinking”), design’s positive social impact via those organizations will increase. As described in a recent issue of the The New Yorker, what people typically think of as activism (as you mentioned) more clearly prompts actual change when intertwined with working meaningfully with and through people in power.

I think my work in years past with large brands/organizations has been form of activism, but mostly by definition (as I suggested earlier). I think of my work with smaller brands/organizations as being a more impactful form of activism. But perhaps my most impactful form of activism to date has been my teaching, which better equips people to apply design in environments that are often still somewhat hostile to design and that are often not fully open to allowing design to help set an organization’s agenda.

I wonder if you feel similarly… Do you consider AC4D, your teaching, and your writing to have been your most impactful form of activism?

Jon: I don’t agree that big brands presently have a meaningful activism role, in the sense you are talking about — I think the reality for most of the companies claiming that “we do both profit and impact!” is that the impact is garbage. It’s PR. They certainly could have a more active, purposeful and positive role in shaping our world, and there are tools like the b-corp that enable them to take a more principled stance on social issues, but most that I know that are talking about social impact hold a hackathon or give their employees a day to work with habitat for humanity. It’s BS for them to claim that they are playing a positive role in the world, other than cheaper prices for pickles. They have the biggest megaphone for a message, but the message they choose to shout is that “you can have it for less.” It’s a message of blind consumption, and it’s irresponsible.

But we’re not getting at the real articulation of activism. I’ll go again back to Carl DiSalvo’s book Adversarial Design. He describes that “through designerly means and forms, adversarial design evokes and engages political issues. Adversarial design is a type of political design.”

Adversarial design is activism. This isn’t a new idea. It’s echoed in Citizen Designer, quoting Katherine McCoy (in 1993), as she said “We must stop inadvertently training our students to ignore their convictions and be passive economic servants. Instead, we must help them to clarify their personal values and to give them the tools to recognize when it is appropriate to act on them.”

It’s about articulating an ethical stance, and then being a vocal proponent of that stance. I believe the argument can be made from within a corporation; I think you do too. But the argument is often a subversive one, at odds with a corporate ethos or mandate. And that is where the problem arises. Individual designers may have a message, and may be motivated to rise up and communicate that message in their work. But they are often stifled by their employer, not because the employer says “do not do that” — but because they feel their voice has no role in the context of a big brand. They may be right. The Walmart brand isn’t a mouthpiece for the people that work there — if Dan Makoski (who you reference above) has a particular political view, he probably shouldn’t overtly drive the Walmart brand in that direction.

But designers have a unique opportunity to play a subversive role and communicate their message through less overt means than brand messaging. You reference Lis Hubert’s article; in it, she says “Can we decide to stop supporting UX tactics that are aimed at hijacking the end user’s brain?” That’s part of the problem — her attitude is exactly wrong, if we want to drive political activism. Political change comes from “hijacking the end user’s brain,” with all respect to both Lis and the end user; design is about manipulation, and it’s happening whether we intend it or not. You simply can’t create something without changing someone else’s worldview.

I feel like I’m all over the place. I’ll try to focus. You started by talking about activism, and if I’m teaching it to students. I don’t think so. I think I’m teaching my students to take a stand, backed by an ethical consideration of their role in the world. I hope they work on problems worth solving, rather than the next problem that happens to cross their desk. That’s not activism; it’s having enough of an articulated worldview that they can make selections from a morally consistent place.

I think where I’m arriving is that the word “activism” is special, like “design” or “innovation” — we need to be careful when we use it. I think I talked myself into disagreeing with myself (and disagreeing with you, too). Simply making things with a socially-minded intent in the corporate or governmental machines isn’t being a design activist. Design activism is about leveraging design’s scaling properties to drive a political agenda. As Cameron Tonkinwise describes, “being ethical, in order to avoid politics, is a political position, most definitely if you are trying to design (or redesign existing innovations in) non-government-based social services.”

The big question is: from what moral or ethical stance do you leverage design to pursue a political agenda? Most designers I’ve ever met cling to a liberal agenda. Is there room for design activism with a libertarian or conservative agenda?

Richard: I know that “Sex doesn’t sell any more, activism does, and don’t the big brands know it,” as Alex Holder titled an article in the Guardian earlier this year, but I do see brands increasingly “Competing on Social Purpose” (the title of a piece in the current issue of Harvard Business Review) beyond PR.

And that social purpose need not reflect a liberal agenda, as argued by Richard Eskow in “The sharing economy is a lie: Uber, Ayn Rand and the truth about tech and libertarians” (though, as in the case of Uber, the real political agenda might be in the disguise of a liberal agenda).

And though designers have become highly valued by big brands, the obstacles they face when attempting to do right by customers/users — though you might not think that (fully) reflects true “design activism” — are often strong. As stated by Ball and Dominguez in the July issue of Touchpoint (from the Service Design Network):

“Despite an emerging focus on the role of customer experience in creating and sustaining value, the view that firms exist to serve shareholders, profit and the bottom line remains at the heart of business education, research and practice today.”

And from less than a week ago in “Have Designers Lost Control of Design?”:

“More than ever before, designers are sitting on the C-suite of companies. Large corporations are investing in design because it makes good business sense, both through hiring and through “innovation labs” that have become a crucial part of how companies grow and adapt. But as design has become integrated into the heart of companies, [Matt] Webb believes there has been–ironically–an unintended consequence. Designers themselves, beholden to business interests that demand the most optimized, most persuasive version of something as opposed to the most useful and helpful for the user, have decreased agency.”

But in the follow-up two days later:

“Designers have always ceded control to client interests. Empathy has little relationship with who holds the power on making the final decision on an idea or product, strategy, or plan. The larger question is, has design ever been ethical? If one is to define ethical as prioritizing the user’s needs over the client interests of profit, then no. As a profession, we should be clear that at best we put community interests at parity with client interests. Until we remove the paying client it will never change. Design is inherently an unethical industry.” — E.M. Cioran

Interestingly, that was at the heart of the disagreement that arose on the SF Design Week panel.

I love the words you quote from more than two decades ago from Katherine McCoy (which I repeat here for emphasis):

“We must stop inadvertently training our students to ignore their convictions and be passive economic servants. Instead, we must help them to clarify their personal values and to give them the tools to recognize when it is appropriate to act on them.”

I think AC4D does this well, perhaps in no small part due to the theory courses you’ve included in the curriculum. I wonder whether most other design education programs do this nearly as well.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Are designers becoming the new activists?

A version of this post has been published on Medium.

“Why is this question being asked these days?” inquired designer/researcher Sarah Fathallah during her remarks on a panel during San Francisco Design Week with the same title as this post.

Indeed, seeking an understanding of the reason for the question is a great place to start to address it. The question itself — “are designers becoming the new activists?” — was among several questions appearing and reappearing in a carousel at the top of the SF Design Week website, but I chose to assemble and moderate a panel on this particular question, because I think it is of significant importance (as I will explain).

To me, basic human-centered design, which I’ve practiced and taught and facilitated and overseen and written about and … for many years, is already a form of activism. How can a design process committed to, in some way, involving the humans to be affected not be viewed as such?

We believe that the human condition is increasingly challenged by poor experiences. IxDA intends to improve the human condition by advancing the discipline of Interaction Design.
Isn’t that mission a commitment to activism via design?

Julie Anixter, Executive Director of AIGA, explicitly encourages designers to reframe their careers to be activists (see a slide from her talk below).

And what of various reframings of human-centered and interaction design that are increasing in popularity? For example, “co-design” greatly increases the role played during the design process by the humans to be affected, arguing that such increased involvement improves the outcomes of the process and empowers those affected to help shape their own future. Much the same can be said of many implementations of “design thinking” and is extended via additional reframings such as “design through collective action / collective action through design.”

And there is “purpose-driven design” and “inclusive design” and…

…and, of course, (overlapping with all of the above) “social impact design.” According to designer Ana Marques:
For instance, facilitating and improving the channels on how expats can vote online; changing the way citizens experience their daily commutes with up-to-date information in the transportation hubs; or even brainstorming with local communities to increase and improve accessibility for disabled citizens during major events, is the ultimate activism. By being involved within the (re)design of services, designers can in fact make a difference in the lives of people, creating the space for engaged citizens and a more aware, intelligent and sustainable society. 
Designers are increasingly drawn to work on projects intended to have a positive social impact. And there are an increasing number of firms entirely focused on such work or that have found ways to participate in or support at least some of this type of work.

And there is Code for America

…and 18F and USDS and…

…and on an increasing number of college campuses, Design for America, and…

“Design activism” is even a category of activism now. According to Design Indaba:
Design activism uses design thinking to create products, environments, solutions or services that enhance quality of life for the other 99%.
But all design has social impact, and an increase in calls for design ethics reflects acknowledgement of that. Mike Monteiro’s recently published “A designer’s code of ethics” includes, “A designer is responsible for the work they put into the world,” “A designer values impact over form,” and “A designer owes the people who hire them not just their labor, but their counsel.” (See also Monteiro’s “Ethics can’t be a side hustle.”)

Lis Hubert wrote:
One day, while on the New York City Subway I looked around and counted. Six of the ten people in my line of sight were on some kind of device. I mentally scoffed, annoyed at their inability to resist the call of their digital worlds. 
That’s when I realised that I was—we all are— part of a problem. As an information architect, I play a major part in leveraging the motivations and creating the systems that suck these people into the digital realm. 
I’d not ever seriously considered my own UX work having a negative impact on my fellow human end users. After all, I was there in the meeting rooms each day, fighting the good fight, ensuring that the products and services my teams were creating supported users as best they could. How could my work result in this digital zombie world? 
Then I reminded myself of all the projects I’ve worked on where the goal was to increase clickthroughs, to get the user to stay on the site for longer, to gamify a process and bring the user back into the app again and again. Oh, I had absolutely played a part in creating the scene before me. The question was, did I like the world I was helping create?
The birth of an activist, no?

I like these trends, though Ian Bogost adds some words of caution:
…contemporary designers believe they are reformers. Agents of change. It could be social or political change. It could be aesthetic or cultural change. It could be the selfish change of professional aspiration and its related station. It could be the change associated with progress. Designers are ambitious sorts of folk—arrogant, even—and none would want to be associated with stasis, or even with mere cyclicality. What a waste, just to mow lawns or brown bread every day! Let us instead reinvent lawn care! Let us reinvent breakfast!
But wait! Isn’t design SUPPOSED to be neutral? No, cried designer Ethan Marcotte (and others) in response to designers’ justification for designing a beautiful, sustainable border wall:

(See also Marcotte’s “The bricks we lay.”)

So, the panelists — remember that panel I mentioned at the start of this post? — must have all agreed that designers are becoming the new activists, yes? A tweet later that evening from panelist Sarah Fathallah suggests otherwise:

Let’s look at the perspectives of each of the 5 panelists.

I’ll start with perhaps the most controversial panelist, Dan Makoski, VP of Design at Walmart (who appeared via Skype from Bentonville Arkansas). Indeed, Dan’s inclusion raised a few eyebrows before the session; for example:

But Walmart is dramatically changing the way it does business (see, for example, “Business exists to serve society”), and I wanted to learn how or whether designers are contributing to that change.

According to Dan, when Dan was interviewing for the VP role, the Walmart board agreed to his insistence that his design goals would include measures of customers living better as part of an effort to transform the way the world saves money. With an unparalleled commitment to co-design and “creating a culture of bold risk-taking for good,” Dan agreed that designers are becoming the new activists and said to look for more evidence of that being true at Walmart in the future.

Panelist Kendra Shimmell, Head of Service Design at Adaptive Path @ Capital One, spoke passionately about the designers’ role in helping “the voice of the people” to be heard, “changing the system from the inside out,” and “turning problems into causes.” Though designers are still laying the groundwork for significantly impacting the nature of services provided by Capital One, Kendra spoke proudly of a new service they’ve designed called “money coaching” (see Kendra’s slide below)…

… and of their efforts via BarnRaise to “harness design methods to tackle local social problems.” Kendra believes that designers are activists.

Panelist Shane Zhao, Product Manager for OpenIDEO, described IDEO’s open innovation platform that was created “to put the power of human-centered design into the hands of many, harnessing the diverse skills of people from all over the world to spark innovation where it’s needed most.” (See Shane’s slide below.)

Shane agreed that designers are becoming the new activists.

However, panelists Jazmyn Latimer and Sarah Fathallah (referenced earlier) voiced a difference perspective.

Jazmyn is Lead Designer & Researcher on the Safety and Justice Team of Code for America. Her work there has included starting up the project “Clear My Record” that helps people apply online to clear their criminal record in select California counties, so that they can qualify for employment, housing, and other opportunities where having a criminal record is a restriction.

Sarah is a freelance designer and researcher passionate about applying human-centered design to tough social and development challenges. She has worked with Fortune 500 clients, government entities, and non-profits such as Internews, Bread for the City, Safe Horizon, and Democracy Works on topics ranging from financial inclusion and consumer protection, to healthcare, and civil and human rights. With Mollie Ruskin, Sarah recently started a job board for those looking for “design gigs for good.”

Jazmyn and Sarah both argued that it isn’t the job of designers to be activists. Activists have committed to a solution to a problem and engage in a variety of activities to see that that solution is implemented. Designers, on the other hand, (are supposed to) approach a problem with no solution in mind, and, ultimately, (should) only advocate for whatever solution emerges from a design process influenced by a multitude of constraints.

According to Jazmyn, when you think of activists, you think of Martin Luther King, Black Lives Matter, …; you don’t think of designers. Again, according to both Jazmyn and Sarah, it isn’t the job of designers to be activists. And according to Jazmyn, everyone with whom she discussed this issue at Code for America agreed.


Their position seems to be consistent with good design ethics, no?


But… But…

So what is answer? Is it better to ask in what ways and when should designers be activists, and in what ways and when should they not? Should we (additionally) be asking how or whether activists are designers and how we might or need to learn from them?

I believe that the answers to such questions have significant implications for good design practice and good design education, particularly in view of the trends I outlined earlier.

I’ve discussed these issues with others since the panel and will be doing so with additional people, including a large group of new UX designers in San Francisco tomorrow. I also hope to discuss these issues at SXSW 2018, to which I submitted a proposal for an extension of the panel described above.
I ask two things of you, the reader of this post:

1) vote for the panel at and encourage others to do so as well;

[Part of the process of selecting panels from among the many hundreds of submitted proposals is a public voting process that runs through August 25; the SXSW panel (which is constrained by rules to fewer participants) will feature myself, Sarah, and Kendra from the SF Design Week panel along with Ruby Ku, Director of the Austin Center for Design, an educational program via which “students learn to recontextualize design in the space of large-scale wicked problems.”]

2) share your views by sending them to me or by authoring comments below about this post.

I hope to hear from you and/or see you to discuss or debate these issues in person at SXSW 2018 or elsewhere.