Are designers becoming the new activists?

Richard Anderson
9 min readAug 10, 2017

“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?

Consider the mission of IxDA (the Interaction Design Association):

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. There are entire design education programs focused on doing such work. And there are an increasing number of design 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 27; 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.



Richard Anderson

A human-centered design practice, management, & organizational strategy leader/consultant/teacher/commentator, largely focused on social innovation.