Does design require an economic revolution?

As we consider the future of design and our role in it for the last two weeks, e have been reading several perspectives on the role of design in society. Although the perspectives of authors we have read have spanned beyond the field of design to include educational psychologists, propagandists, and media theorists, all have something to say about the transmission of culture and the responsibility that people have towards future generations. Whether products or services, technological or aesthetic, designers are creating the future through the things they design. The academic perspectives on this challenge range from the acutely naive to the obsessively fastidious, from myopic focus to universal theories. To varying degrees, each is concerned with the current trajectory of society, from Bernays’ opening rumination about the tendency of widely held opinions to be slow to change and reactionary to Postman’s near panic about the ravages of technology on modern life.

A brief overview of some of the theorists we have read:

Dewey (1938): Societal transmission of knowledge is achieved through the accumulation of experiences at the level of the individual. Experiences and their context are foundational to the development of humans. Through a thoughtful understanding of the component parts and mechanisms of experience, we can design more impactful ways of teaching.

Vitta (1984): Design tells us who we are, and as the communicative purpose of objects increases, the functional purpose of those objects declines. The things one creates are an expression of values, preferences, and identity. The things one consumes tell that person more about themselves and signal those attributes to others. This theory of design is in dialogue with a theory of the practice of design.

Papanek (1971): Design has the potential to change the world by solving meaningful problems, and designers have an ethical responsibility to design for the needs of people. Learned preferences and aversions limit designers’ scope of practice and ability to solve problems creatively. Irrational beliefs and values shape the preferences of consumers, manufacturers, and investors.

Bernays (1928): People with the means and inclination to influence the public can have an outsized role in determining the path society takes. Simple tactics can have an enormous effect on public opinion and behavior. People who chose to manipulate public sentiment are preventing people from being culturally stagnant and will usually not misuse their influence.

Postman (1990): We have become overconfident in the ability of technology to solve problems while underestimating its negative consequences. Solutions are more likely to come from other disciplines. The existential challenges of human experience are not meaningfully addressed by technological innovation.

While juxtaposing any article against any other leads to interesting insights, I am considering all five articles for what they tell us as a disparate but thematically connected body of work.

I first considered the scale at which each writer is operating. Dewey is concerned with the minutia. He develops a whole vocabulary to define the ways that the internal, external, past, present, positive, negative come together to create human experience and identity as the product of their interactions and their environment. Vitta is reflecting on people at the scale of their relationship to individual objects, and the qualities of that relationship. Like Dewey’s, his theory of the relationship between humans and designed objects is individualized. This perspective is foundational to understanding a societal perspective.

Papanek, Bernays, and Postman each move further away from an individualist perspective towards a societal one. While Papanek is concerned with the individual responsibility of designers to society, his focus is largely on the profession of design as a whole and the opportunities and missteps of designers collectively. Bernays’ focus is on large segments of a society that have opinions that can be shaped, cultivated or redirected. Postman’s view is the farthest removed of them all looking at the global effect of technology on humans.


While this view may make for tidy categories and organize the information neatly, it didn’t help me find new insights about these writers. In particular, the cluster of Bernays, Papanek, and Postman on the right side seemed problematic. Could I picture a tidy discourse happening between the three given their coming framing of the relevance of design at a societal level? I could not. I pictured Papanek berating Bernays for promoting consumption for consumption’s sake as Postman chided him for his shortsightedness in not being able to see the negative possibilities of social manipulation. I could see Papanek and Postman getting along as they lamented the growing Pacific trash gyre and proliferation of redundant technical products in homes across the world while homelessness, hunger, and war went unaddressed. Could I find an organizational system that honors these similarities between Papanek and Postman and acknowledges the gap that existed between them and Bernays? As I went back to my notes and marginalia, I found a word that appeared often in my notes, but only once in the texts we were reading, “capitalism.”

Each of the five writers is writing from the perspective of someone living within a capitalistic economy and many indirectly address the interplay of market forces on design choices. While each author engages with the idea of capitalism to varying degrees, we can still consider how compatible their theories are with a capitalist system as opposed to a system that might incentivize work, production, and design differently.

Postman, the only one to directly speak about capitalism, mentions capitalism in a negative light in a harried parable about misuse of technology that blames the existence of capitalism on monks who invented clocks as a means of timekeeping (ignoring the fact that commerce, accounting, taxation, and labor markets all preceded the clock). The crux of Postman’s argument is that “the computer and its information cannot answer any of the fundamental questions we need to address to make our lives more meaningful and humane. The computer cannot provide an organizing moral framework. It cannot tell us what questions are worth asking. It cannot provide a means of understanding why we are here or why we fight each other or why decency eludes us so often, especially when we need it the most.” One imagines that one could substitute “money” for “computers” in this passage and still elicit Postman’s agreement. He calls out overpaid software engineers and imagines “what might be accomplished if this talent and energy were turned to philosophy, to theology, to the arts, to imaginative literature or to education? Who knows what we could learn from such people – perhaps why there are wars, and hunger, and homelessness and mental illness and anger.” While technology bears the blame in his critique the system of capitalism that rewards these technological pursuits cannot be considered compatible with his worldview.

While not directly engaging with the role of capitalism in influencing design, Papanek harshly criticizes advertisers for “persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care.” Papanek, also scolds designers for choosing the wrong problems to solve, for “sex[ing] up objects…making things more attractive to mythical consumers” (or a Vitta might say, increasing the “signification and communication value” of objects). Instead, Papanek wants designers to improve conditions for humanity and the environment. Yet, he stops short of implicating our economic system as a force that results in design work being allocated to solve aesthetic problems rather than making changes that would positively affect lives. He details the experience of trying to design a better toilet that would require less water as an environmental boon, but unquestioningly embeds this the observation that his innovation is going to allow a toilet manufacturer to make more money by selling toilets to people who don’t actually need to have their old toilet replaced (as the environmental effects can be replicated by putting a brick or two in the tank).

Vitta has a similarly complicated relationship with capitalism. He quotes Karl Marx, including the voice of capitalism’s ideological opposition in his writing, lamenting how “the character of commodities…takes on the phantasmagorical form of a relation between things is only the already determined social relations which exist between the same men.” Basically saying the reason a rich man’s Rolex is judged to be better than a poorer man’s Timex is because we already value the rich man for his ability to accumulate wealth, the watch just echoes that sentiment. The positionality was never about the objects, but about the men. He also says that we need a “different, more balanced relationship with things” and worries about the “knot of economic interest that closes around use objects.” However, he states, “It does not seem that attempts to escape the market’s logic…have been very useful.”

Postman, Papanek, and Vitta’s theories could fairly be characterized as capitalist critiques or varying degrees.

On the other hand, Bernays describes groups (hat sellers and margarine producers) that have a vested interest in transforming public opinion to the benefit of their own industries but conspicuously doesn’t address the financial incentives for these groups to advance a positive narrative about their products. In fact, he moralizes the changes in public opinion advanced by these groups saying “the women in this country [when changing their hat preferences and purchasing habits] quite rightly accepted the leadership of the fashion groups.” For Bernays, like many of his era, the successful capitalist was virtuous. His conviction that “the privilege of attempting to sway public opinion is…one of the manifestations of democracy.” Reminds me of the anti-democratic, capitalistic arguments at the heart of the Citizens United Supreme Court case: that money is speech, and that having monied interests influencing political discourse is an expression of democratic ideals. Bernays is no socialist.

Dewey was the most difficult to pin down. The connections between his philosophy and capitalism are in largely in the subtext. He does say about the social order: “Is it not the reason for our preference that we believe that mutual consultation and convictions reached through persuasion, make possible a better quality of experience than can otherwise be provided on any wide scale?” This quotation is in the context of providing our society’s general preference for democratic systems that are participatory and humane, over forceful and coercive ones as a justification for a progressive perspective on education. In the subtext, I came to the conclusion that Dewey’s theory of individualized education for the personal fulfillment of each child exists in contrast to the “traditional education” that he opposes. That system was designed largely for the benefit of providing the proletariat with an obedient workforce. I came to infer that although Dewey seemed to not oppose the democratic capitalism of his day, that he would not approve of the vast inequities of late-stage capitalism that deprives so many of a relevant education that empowers them to pursue their own interests personally and professionally.

This allowed me to create a new representation of these writers’ perspectives.


As these theorists debate the role of design in society, I can’t help but feel a more self-aware acknowledgment of the debate actually being about the role of design in a capitalist society is important. As we move into an era of increasing inequality and consolidation of wealth and power into fewer hands, how can we update our ideas about design? Will voices like Bernays dominate–those who mistrust the populace to arrive at reasonable conclusions in a marketplace of ideas, but still somehow trusts the public to “learn to overthrow tyranny of every sort” as a result of being exposed to ever more sophisticated manipulations by people in power? Or will we answer a more progressive call like Papanek’s–to integrate “insights of the social sciences, biology, anthropology, politics, engineering, and technology, the behavioural sciences, and much else, [into] the design process…responsive to the true needs of men” that doesn’t “defile the earth”? Surely the latter will require a rethinking of the benefits and constraints of capitalism as we are currently practicing it.