On the relationship between design and activism — Jon Kolko in conversation with Richard Anderson

Richard Anderson
12 min readSep 3, 2017


When Jon Kolko and I were the Editors-in-Chief of interactions magazine, we would end most issues with a “cafe” conversation on topics of relevance to that issue’s content. We thought we’d resurrect such conversations on topics of relevance to the world of design today.

This first piece might be a little heavy on the quotations — vastly moreso than one would expect of a conversation in an actual café, but I think all the quotations are pertinent and beneficial. Plus, we reserve the right to play fast and loose with the café metaphor, just as some of us might be playing fast and loose with the concept of activism (which Jon argues might not be a good thing).

Richard: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between design and activism, as reflected in a panel I assembled and moderated during San Francisco Design Week in June entitled, “Are designers becoming the new activists?”, the Medium post I wrote about the topic and that panel, and the SXSW 2018 panel I hope to moderate on the topic.

To me, human-centered design is, itself, a form of activism by definition, but there was considerable disagreement on the SF panel on the ethics of designers being activists in their role as designers. What is your take on this topic? You founded the Austin Center for Design (AC4D) where students learn design focusing on “humanitarian problems,” “problems that matter,” “to change human behavior and improve the world.” Is AC4D about activism? Is or should design be a form of activism?

Jon: There’s precedent of viewing design as a force for subversive cultural change. Carl DiSalvo’s Adversarial Design is a great text describing how design can be purposefully political, and the work of Dunne and Raby has explored design fictions that — described as speculative — are sometimes dark and politically-charged futures. Adversarial, discursive, speculative, design fiction: these are all design philosophies that overlap around the idea of provocation, or design intended to make us question and rethink the world around us.

But I think in many ways, all design can be a form of activism — a form of bringing about political change. Design proliferates into our lives. The results of design process are all around us in physical form, from chairs to computers to cars and trucks. The results are all around us in behavior change, too. People on trains staring at their phones instead of staring at newspapers, people ordering items delivered to their house instead of going to stores, people dating by swiping left or right. These were all designed and that design is a representative of an underlying design philosophy. The majority of this is driven by profit, which some may argue isn’t a political act. But, for better or worse, profit and politics are intertwined, and unleashing any designed artifact, service, or interaction into the world is to take and argue for a way that society should be.

I realize this isn’t what most people think of, when they think of activism: most probably imagine protests and picketing, fists in the air, signs and banners. Design shapes society in a quieter, or gradual manner, and that’s probably part of the problem with it. It’s silent, subtle, and we can ignore it until one day we realize our society has changed and we’ve changed with it.

I suppose in that way, the writing of Victor Papanek was some of the first “activism literature” for designers, recognizing the negative qualities of mass production and calling attention to these qualities. I’ll quote in full some of my favorite paragraphs from his writing:

“There are few professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers, comes a close second.

Never before in history have grown men [and women] sat down and seriously designed electric hairbrushes, rhinestone-covered shoehorns, and mink carpeting for bathrooms, and then drawn up elaborate plans to make and sell these gadgets to millions of people. Before, (“in the good old days”) if a person liked killing people, he had to become a general, purchase a coal mine, or else study nuclear physics. Today, industrial design has put murder on a mass production basis.

By designing criminally unsafe automobiles that kill or maim nearly one million people around the world each year, by creating a whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breath, designers have become a dangerous breed. And the skills needed in these activities are carefully taught to young people.”

For me, one of the biggest problems that faces design (and has faced it probably for as long as it was a profession — certainly as far back as Papanek was writing) is that the activism spawned from new products is not purposeful. Objectives of design do shift culture, and do take a political stance — but it’s frequently happenstantial. Political activism drives a purposeful agenda. I think design activism frequently delivers an agenda only by mistake.

It’s because most designers don’t have an opinion and don’t take a stance. They don’t see that their work is political; they view politics and designed culture as separate.

I don’t believe that. They are inextricably intertwined in a culture of capitalism.

Like me, you’ve worked with big brands and large organizations. How do you feel about them — are they political, and was your design work there a form of activism?

Richard: I see large, “traditional” brands increasingly recognizing that their responsibility to society extends beyond side “Corporate Social Responsibility” projects. Michael Porter and Mark Kramer advocated for this very strongly in their 2011 Harvard Business Review article, “Creating Shared Value”:

“the principle of shared value … involves creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges. Businesses must reconnect company success with social progress. Shared value is not social responsibility, philanthropy, or even sustainability, but a new way to achieve economic success. It is not on the margin of what companies do but at the center. We believe that it can give rise to the next major transformation of business thinking.

Capitalism is an unparalleled vehicle for meeting human needs, improving efficiency, creating jobs, and building wealth. But a narrow conception of capitalism has prevented business from harnessing its full potential to meet society’s broader challenges. The opportunities have been there all along but have been overlooked. Businesses acting as businesses, not as charitable donors, are the most powerful force for addressing the pressing issues we face. The moment for a new conception of capitalism is now; society’s needs are large and growing, while customers, employees, and a new generation of young people are asking business to step up.”

One business which appears to be stepping up is, to the surprise of many, Walmart (see “Business exists to serve society,” a recent interview of Walmart’s Chief Sustainability Officer), which is why I invited Dan Makoski, VP of Design at Walmart, to be on the “Are designers becoming the new activists?” panel during SF Design Week. But, as he revealed, his design organization is not driving most of the change at Walmart, but it is starting to play an important role. And I think that is typical. Earlier during SF Design Week, I asked Jesse James Garrett, co-founder and chief creative officer of Adaptive Path, whether Adaptive Path’s acquisition by Capital One had resulted in changes to Capital One’s service offerings that are consistent with the concept of activism. His answer was, “No, but we are setting the stage for that to happen.” Indeed, Kendra Shimmell, the Head of Service Design for Adaptive Path @ Capital One, was on my panel and spoke passionately about the activist role that design is only starting to play there.

Also, I see designers becoming increasingly aware of the gradual, subtle changes you reference — changes of questionable value to society — for which they are (partly) responsible. (See, for example, designer Lis Hubert’s poignant description of when she realized she wasn’t all that pleased with “The World that UX is Helping to Create.”) This is starting to prompt designers to change some of how they do their work and the attention they pay to its (possible) ultimate social impact.

Finally, as the people with the most power in large organizations participate in the design process (which is happening more and more, thanks to “design thinking”), design’s positive social impact via those organizations will increase. As described in a recent issue of the The New Yorker, what people typically think of as activism (as you mentioned) more clearly prompts actual change when intertwined with working meaningfully with and through people in power.

I think my work in years past with large brands/organizations has been a form of activism, but mostly by definition (as I suggested earlier). I think of my work with smaller brands/organizations as being a more impactful form of activism. But perhaps my most impactful form of activism to date has been my teaching, which better equips people to apply design in environments that are often still somewhat hostile to design and that are often not fully open to allowing design to help set an organization’s agenda.

I wonder if you feel similarly… Do you consider AC4D, your teaching, and your writing to have been your most impactful form of activism?

Jon: I don’t agree that big brands presently have a meaningful activism role, in the sense you are talking about — I think the reality for most of the companies claiming that “we do both profit and impact!” is that the impact is garbage. It’s PR. They certainly could have a more active, purposeful and positive role in shaping our world, and there are tools like the b-corp that enable them to take a more principled stance on social issues, but most that I know that are talking about social impact hold a hackathon or give their employees a day to work with habitat for humanity. It’s BS for them to claim that they are playing a positive role in the world, other than cheaper prices for pickles. They have the biggest megaphone for a message, but the message they choose to shout is that “you can have it for less.” It’s a message of blind consumption, and it’s irresponsible.

But we’re not getting at the real articulation of activism. I’ll go again back to Carl DiSalvo’s book Adversarial Design. He describes that “through designerly means and forms, adversarial design evokes and engages political issues. Adversarial design is a type of political design.”

Adversarial design is activism. This isn’t a new idea. It’s echoed in Citizen Designer, quoting Katherine McCoy (in 1993), as she said “We must stop inadvertently training our students to ignore their convictions and be passive economic servants. Instead, we must help them to clarify their personal values and to give them the tools to recognize when it is appropriate to act on them.”

It’s about articulating an ethical stance, and then being a vocal proponent of that stance. I believe the argument can be made from within a corporation; I think you do too. But the argument is often a subversive one, at odds with a corporate ethos or mandate. And that is where the problem arises. Individual designers may have a message, and may be motivated to rise up and communicate that message in their work. But they are often stifled by their employer, not because the employer says “do not do that” — but because they feel their voice has no role in the context of a big brand. They may be right. The Walmart brand isn’t a mouthpiece for the people that work there — if Dan Makoski (who you reference above) has a particular political view, he probably shouldn’t overtly drive the Walmart brand in that direction.

But designers have a unique opportunity to play a subversive role and communicate their message through less overt means than brand messaging. You reference Lis Hubert’s article; in it, she says “Can we decide to stop supporting UX tactics that are aimed at hijacking the end user’s brain?” That’s part of the problem — her attitude is exactly wrong, if we want to drive political activism. Political change comes from “hijacking the end user’s brain,” with all respect to both Lis and the end user; design is about manipulation, and it’s happening whether we intend it or not. You simply can’t create something without changing someone else’s worldview.

I feel like I’m all over the place. I’ll try to focus. You started by talking about activism, and if I’m teaching it to students. I don’t think so. I think I’m teaching my students to take a stand, backed by an ethical consideration of their role in the world. I hope they work on problems worth solving, rather than the next problem that happens to cross their desk. That’s not activism; it’s having enough of an articulated worldview that they can make selections from a morally consistent place.

I think where I’m arriving is that the word “activism” is special, like “design” or “innovation” — we need to be careful when we use it. I think I talked myself into disagreeing with myself (and disagreeing with you, too). Simply making things with a socially-minded intent in the corporate or governmental machines isn’t being a design activist. Design activism is about leveraging design’s scaling properties to drive a political agenda. As Cameron Tonkinwise describes, “being ethical, in order to avoid politics, is a political position, most definitely if you are trying to design (or redesign existing innovations in) non-government-based social services.”

The big question is: from what moral or ethical stance do you leverage design to pursue a political agenda? Most designers I’ve ever met cling to a liberal agenda. Is there room for design activism with a libertarian or conservative agenda?

Richard: I know that “Sex doesn’t sell any more, activism does, and don’t the big brands know it,” as Alex Holder titled an article in the Guardian earlier this year, but I do see brands increasingly “Competing on Social Purpose” (the title of a piece in the current issue of Harvard Business Review) beyond PR.

And that social purpose need not reflect a liberal agenda, as argued by Richard Eskow in “The sharing economy is a lie: Uber, Ayn Rand and the truth about tech and libertarians” (though, as in the case of Uber, the real political agenda might be in the disguise of a liberal agenda).

And though designers have become highly valued by big brands, the obstacles they face when attempting to do right by customers/users — though you might not think that (fully) reflects true “design activism” — are often strong. As stated by Ball and Dominguez in the July issue of Touchpoint (from the Service Design Network):

“Despite an emerging focus on the role of customer experience in creating and sustaining value, the view that firms exist to serve shareholders, profit and the bottom line remains at the heart of business education, research and practice today.”

And from less than a week ago in “Have Designers Lost Control of Design?”:

“More than ever before, designers are sitting on the C-suite of companies. Large corporations are investing in design because it makes good business sense, both through hiring and through “innovation labs” that have become a crucial part of how companies grow and adapt. But as design has become integrated into the heart of companies, [Matt] Webb believes there has been–ironically–an unintended consequence. Designers themselves, beholden to business interests that demand the most optimized, most persuasive version of something as opposed to the most useful and helpful for the user, have decreased agency.”

But in the follow-up two days later:

“Designers have always ceded control to client interests. Empathy has little relationship with who holds the power on making the final decision on an idea or product, strategy, or plan. The larger question is, has design ever been ethical? If one is to define ethical as prioritizing the user’s needs over the client interests of profit, then no. As a profession, we should be clear that at best we put community interests at parity with client interests. Until we remove the paying client it will never change. Design is inherently an unethical industry.” — E.M. Cioran

Interestingly, that was at the heart of the disagreement that arose on the SF Design Week panel.

I love the words you quote from more than two decades ago from Katherine McCoy (which I repeat here for emphasis):

“We must stop inadvertently training our students to ignore their convictions and be passive economic servants. Instead, we must help them to clarify their personal values and to give them the tools to recognize when it is appropriate to act on them.”

I think AC4D does this well, perhaps in no small part due to the theory courses you’ve included in the curriculum. I wonder whether most other design education programs do this nearly as well.



Richard Anderson

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