Power in Design: A New Framework

We were introduced to Dahlia Lithwick’s muppet theory in our Theory of Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship course at AC4D a few weeks ago, as a framework for understanding ourselves and the true nature of others.  The theory is that either you’re essentially a chaos muppet (Animal, Cookie Monster, Grover) or you’re an order muppet (Scooter, Kermit, Sam Eagle). I’m firmly in the latter category. Although extremely reductive, this theoretical framework has proven both useful and downright fun. Every few days, you’ll hear someone in the studio say, “He’s doing that because he’s a chaos muppet.” Or – “We’re having trouble in our team because I’m a chaos muppet and she’s an order muppet.” This framework, which taps into a fictional, but pervasive cultural understanding, has given us a lens with which to clarify and classify ourselves and our behaviors.

More recently in our theory course, we’ve been discussing the roles of power and ethics in design. For example, Richard Anderson’s article Are Designers Becoming the New Activists? and Ann Thorpe’s Defining Design as Activism, have led us to both informal discussions and formal, structured debates about whether designers are (and should be) activists. The crux of these debates rests on the definition of what an activist is and does. How you understand and define activism informs how you think about design as activism.

Because power is complex and discussions of the connection between power and design require a lot of similar definition-setting, I think it might be useful to introduce another fictional, but well-known framework through which we can interpret the role of power and ethics in design – a construct, like the muppet universe, that is so woven into the fabric of our contemporary collective consciousness that I believe it will bring clarity to the discussion.

I want to examine the role of power and ethics through the framework of Star Wars. More specifically, I ask – ARE DESIGNERS JEDI?

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I believe asking this question can be helpful for a discussion about the role of power and ethics in design. As I mentioned, the story is familiar to most of us thanks to its popularity, and with the continuation of the movie epic via new films over the past few years, it’s well-known to a range of age groups and continues to be relevant source.

Star Wars is an unambiguous morality tale. As George Lucas said in this interview with Charlie Rose in 2014, “It’s about good and evil, but heroes – what makes a hero…what’s the idea of sacrificing yourself for something larger?” These are questions that have come up in our theory discussions lately, if not in so many words. Because the Star Wars films so clearly lay out who and what is good vs. evil, I believe it can be useful as a lens through which to examine the role of power in design, and our individual power as designers. If, as film viewers, we can so clearly identify with the side of Good, then perhaps we can also bring clarity to our roles as designers. Jon Kolko says in his essay, Manipulation, “Many [design] practitioners seem to have no consistent set of values that they automatically fall to when doing their job.” Maybe this new Star Wars framework can help us define those values.

So, how are designers like Jedi? First and foremost, Jedi control the Force. And the Force is power. Some Jedi use that power for good. Some Jedi use that power for evil. In the Star Wars films, there’s a struggle between one and the other, but the sides are really clear. The Dark Side and the Empire (or the First Order, if you like) are extremely manipulative, and prey on the fears and desires of young Jedi to tempt them to join the side of evil and harm. The Dark Side and the Empire also seek to increase power for themselves, and to dominate the galaxy.

Sound familiar?

Who can we identify in our own galaxy that has the qualities of the Empire? Consider a few possibilities that come to mind –

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In this framework, I would propose that Jedi designers working for the Empire are the ones who create and deploy the dark patterns that we encounter in our digital interactions. Someone has to be responsible for unleashing these manipulative tricks for the benefit of (our real-world versions of) the Empire, and the sheer deviousness of some of these dark patterns could only have come from deeply sinister minds.

rainert tweet

When Marc Rainert, Head of Product & Design at the New York Times,  references the Jedi in this tweet, he inherently emphasizes our cultural understanding of the Jedi as powerful wizards, and compares real-life evil designs to the fictional workings of Jedi working for the Dark Side. If we can use this framework to identify the Dark Side in our own world, then can we, as designers, choose to fight it?

The Jedi that work for Good seek to create (or restore) balance and harmony to the galaxy. In Design Ethics, Richard Buchanan writes,

“Designers whose ethical position is grounded on a natural foundation typically argue that the products of design should be good, in the sense that they affirm the proper place of human beings in the spiritual and natural order of the world…they argue that products should be appropriate and just, in the sense that they are appropriate for human nature and the physical and cultural environment within which people live, and that they support fair and equitable relationships among all human beings.”

This, to me, sounds like the same code of ethics that the (good) Jedi live by.

And aren’t the Jedi heroes? How does that fit into our understanding of the role of power in design? Marc Retting, in conversation with Richard Anderson, states, “In my classroom experiences, the biggest challenge for designers is to let go of their engrained sense of themselves as expert problem-solvers who will be the source of the good ideas and the shapers of the resulting forms. Design practice is full of hero mentality.” It seems, unsurprisingly, that designers often view themselves as heroes.

George Aye of Greater Good Studio says, “When designers work on complex social sector issues, they often enter situations with power inherently given to them (even if they don’t realize it). They’re seen as the ones with the newest knowledge, the ones with solutions, the innovators.” We see similar power bestowed upon the Jedi in the Star Wars films. In fact, this hero mentality is exploited by the Dark Side. The ego is appealed to, both from the forces of the Dark Side and from the side of good – even the Resistance believes that Luke Skywalker can save them all. It’s very easy to see how, as designers, we would start to believe that we have all the answers. In fact, Luke quit and got out of the Jedi business. In The Last Jedi we learn that he turned away from the hero worship because he doesn’t believe that the Force belongs to him alone. Luke has the following exchange with Rey, which I’ve amended to reflect the framework of designers as Jedi:

Luke: What do you know about [design]?

Rey: It’s a power that [designers] have that lets them control people and… make things.

Luke: That Force does not belong to [designers]. To say that if [designers] die, [design] dies, is vanity.

Designers, like the Jedi, are not heroes, although they are often thought of as having all the answers (both by others and themselves). Instead, the role of the designer is to teach others about the design process, and to set up systems for those we work with that empower them to take over the iterative design process when we leave. Like the Jedi, designers have a more robust, nuanced design Force than your average person, but it’s our responsibility not to keep that Force for ourselves. Teaching and giving others the power of design doesn’t diminish that Force within us. As George Aye said in his 2018 SXSW talk, “When given away, power generates power.”

Through using this fictional Star Wars framework, it’s easy to see ourselves, both as humans and as designers, working on the side of Good. With that clarity, along with an understanding of the Design Force as power to be wielded with responsibility, we can see how to use our power for Good and not for Evil.

I implore you, designers, don’t go to the Dark Side. Don’t take a job that reflects the qualities of the Empire. Take a stand for the Resistance, even when it seems hopeless. Deny the belief that you have all the solutions, and learn to give away your power by teaching others to use the Force that is design. And may the Force be with you.

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