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Just Unfuck It

As I began to make sense of the articles and discussions for design theory with Richard Anderson, With the Best Intentions, design is human, and design is political came to mind. As designers, we work with and among people to achieve a larger purpose.

Mark Manson, in his article Everything is Fucked and I’m Pretty Sure It’s the Internet’s Fault, reminded me that some of our most urgent work in social entrepreneurship is to redesign existing systems, processes, and to create behavior change that leads to a better world. Matson makes the case that technology has unintentionally formed divides which are at play today on a global scale.  

How might designers unfuck the current situations that we find ourselves? Perhaps said more often, how might we redesign or reimagine it? With ‘it’ as a placeholder for a broad number of wicked problems, such as civic engagement, poverty, and racism. An excellent place to start is to recognize the human and political nature of design.

I’m Only Human, Born to Make Mistakes

A simple statement but with a lot of meaning: design is human. Human-centered design is a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs (IDEO). And if design is human, it’s also subject to the frailties of human nature.

We read several articles about selfish altruism, which lead me to research selflessness and human nature. Many believe that there can be no such thing as an altruistic act that does not involve some element of self-interest. Whether it’s a sense of pride, or more direct compensation, self-interest is unavoidable. Despite best intentions to perform a selfless act, turns out there is no such thing.

 

Political Animals by Nature

Design is political. Also a simple loaded statement. Looking back on post-it notes as I read the articles, I see similar phrases written over and over as if it was a realization: design is political; design by definition is political; design and politics. Is design intentionally politically? Can we divorce the political from design?

Laura Bliss, The High Line’s Next Balancing Act, wrote that the “famed linear park may be a runaway success, but it’s also a symbol of Manhattan’s rising inequality.” The founders of the High Line shared several ideas for what they could have done differently to avoid the unintended consequences: asking better questions (such as “what can we do for you” vs. input on visual design, and working more closely with the government for zoning and land usage.

If design is human and political, then design is also a form of political activism. The problems we choose to focus on. The people that we work with. Who is the project really for? Design for good. Social entrepreneurship. And if we are redesigning something, then that gives rise to a changing tide. Our professor wrote that because of his experience with the healthcare system, today he’s working to redesign that system. Is he an activist?

In another post, Anderson posed a question that is on topic, Is it Ethical for Designers to Function as Activists When Practicing their Profession? If So, When? If So, How? The short answer (from my perspective): despite best intentions to be an ethical designer, we can’t divorce our humanity and political point of view from our work. Nor should we. Perhaps a new definition of what it means to be an ethical designer is needed.

Opportunity

Despite the hazard of best intentions, several areas of opportunity come to mind for designers:

  • What if we consistently ask ourselves, who is this project really for?
  • What if humanity, with all of its flaws, itself can be un-fucked?
  • What if we are less cynical? After all, design schools and design firms might sell activism the same way a big business sells a t-shirt.
  • How might we apply deep learning to our work?
  • How might we balance cynicism with what we know to be true?
  • How might we recognize the dignity of the people we endeavor to design for and develop a shared understanding of what it means to treat people with dignity?