Crisis of identity and agency

In art, the myth of the auteur died with Roland Barthes. Post-Barthes, the artist is no longer considered a godlike being who channels otherwordly messages, nor are they the sole dictator of the meaning of their piece. Instead, the artist is responsible for playing by the current rules, for example not plagiarising other artists or colonizing other cultures. Failing to do so actually damages the artist’s reputation and not knowing is not an acceptable explanation.

In the world of design, the myth of the designer auteur is strong because Jony Ive type figureheads help translate the black box of the design machine into marketable stories, but at the same time there is less ownership of individual designs. Plagiarism is fuzzy as best adopted form factors and conventions rule, and colonisation of other cultures is a smaller concern than the covert Westernisation of our value system.

As auteurism in design is reserved for a select few, the design profession, specifically in the realm of user experience or service design, needs narratives to defend its position. What started as making things or facilitating human-computer interaction, has expanded to Design of Everything (DoE), where design thinking can be seen (or sold) as a method for solving any problem.

It is natural for a new profession, especially one that is difficult to define, to justify and make space for itself by creating a narrative where their profession is central to the success of a given endeavour. This is exactly what psychologists and psychiatrists did successfully in the 1900s (if in doubt, see Michel Foucault). With DoE, we are attempting to gain ground in all steps of the product or service creation process, which in turn risks being too wide to have meaning.

When psychiatry created a narrative for itself, Freud’s concept of trauma was turned around from being a permanent human condition to being treatable by regular psychotherapy. If we go by Freud and believe that trauma makes space for another trauma to surface, the psychotherapist is guaranteed work for life. In the same way, designers are seeking ownership of the everyday problem, which is empirically proven to always exist because regardless of how well we live, we can always live better, right?

For us, the ownership is more difficult to gain as we are still a colourful bunch: in titles, education and methods. The reality of the everyday work can vary from strategy videos to UI detail, and being user-centered manifests in many different ways because as a part of the narrative, designers need to come up with more to brand themselves. Some things stay the same though. We seek to find and streamline the jobs people need done, remove pain points and make people’s lives better (for an example of this, see here). We hang on to Maslow’s hierarchy for dear life and come up with solutions with the best intentions, but in most cases success is a number.

For me, design is mediated social action (a definition which really does not help you in the reality of everyday work). As Peter-Paul Verbeek argues, not only the products of design activity, but also the activity of designing should be approached as a mediator: design thinking is not a functional tool to solve a problem, but a mediator in our very understanding of what a problem can be and how we could deal with it. Like marketing professionals, designers shape how things are perceived and regardless of method applied, the individual designer is not an innocent, blank slate, but an agent of change.

Despite figureheads and narratives, we (designers) don’t really talk about agency a lot, especially in the corporate world. In fact, it seems like the agency is conveniently dimmed down by the decision-making process and we rarely reflect on the values we communicate through the designs and products we create. Because it is all teamwork and framed by several layers of strategy, the individual’s decisions (and thus accountability) become muddied and we rarely stop to think about whether this is really a problem to solve or just a part of our business, or whether our idea of an optimized everything is really more about engaging with our application and making money than good life.

Lo and behold, the crisis.

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