The politics of design: Why design is political. Why designers, developers, and engineers should care.

This summer, I’ve set aside time to investigate a topic that has long interested me: the politics of design.

What do I mean by ‘the politics of design’?

If you are a designer, developer, or engineer who has worked in an organization of any size, you’ve experienced “politics”. First, there are workplace politics: the dynamics of power, relationships, goals, incentives, alliances, trust, knowledge, emotions, and personalities that affect everyday work. Second, the design process itself is uniquely political. Design and engineering involve many stakeholders with different interests and different forms of influence, sometimes agreeing with each other and sometimes conflicting, sometimes engaging in productive debate and sometimes pulling rank or exercising stubbornness.

You’ve also likely discovered that unless you have a competent and savvy manager who is insulating you from these politics, you are forced to engage in politics in some way. Depending on your personality, you might enjoy it. Or perhaps you avoid it; your ideal job is the one where you don’t have to do politics at all. But no matter who you are, it is helpful to learn a little about working the politics of your organization. You’ll get your way more often, and you’ll be (or at least, be perceived as being) more successful in your job.

One of my initial research question was: Do traditional politics — that is, government, and the political process — offer lessons and techniques that we can apply in the practice of design?

Stepping back to a broader context, though, this is part of a broader set of themes in which “design” and “political” come together:

  • Do the products and systems we create have political implications?
  • Do politics within the design process affect the products we develop?
  • Does our political system (government, laws, regulation, etc.) affect design and technology?
  • Can we apply design to our politics and political systems?

Each of these questions are substantive topics in their own right, but they are also interrelated. As it turns out, the politics of the world we live in have fundamental implications for how we work as design and technology professionals.

I will unpack this claim in future articles, but for now, I’ll keep moving.

Why should we care?

Because we, as design and technology professionals, are so much more involved in this world than we tend to realize. We live and work in a time characterized by incomprehensible degrees of inequality and unsustainability, reinforced by entrenched political and economic structures. It is a world where the poor and disadvantaged have less access to the information, tools, and institutions that would otherwise give them a say in the issues that affect their lives. The products and systems we create — the ones you create — are the ones that establish this environment, from city plans to smartphone apps. We create the world that we, and others, live in.

This too must be unpacked, but for now, let me assert that the small things matter as well as the big ones. Even if you think the work you do now is so small or neutral that it is inconsequential, you as an individual professional are more important than you realize. Your work does affects people, and it plays a role in a larger system. And even if you think it’s the business who owns the product and makes decisions that you only implement, it is worth considering how your work serves the economic and political interests of that business and how you might safeguard the interests of the populations who might be affected, directly or indirectly.

Even if your main concern is that you simply need to make a living, and you don’t have energy for much else, it behooves you to understand the politics of design as it relates to your work and the people you work with. You’ll be more successful in your office, and you’ll be that much closer to the salary, rate, or position you want.

But if you practice user-centered design, or if you believe that the purpose of your work in technology is to solve problems, or if you care about designing solutions that improve people’s lives, it is imperative to consider politics at three levels:

  • How do the products and systems we design exert power in people’s lives, often in spite of our best intentions?
  • How do the politics in a business or organization shape the way we practice design and, in turn, shape the products?
  • How do the structural conditions of our work (economic, political, cultural, and institutional) shape the organizations we work in, in turn shaping the way we practice design?

Of course, the ultimate question at each level is: How can we influence these circumstances in order to achieve better outcomes? The proposition is that by understanding these questions, you (and I) will be better able to:

  • Work effectively and successfully in your organization.
  • Practice ethical and socially responsible design.
  • Effect change to improve your organization and, more importantly, the world.

Making it actionable

These topics are broad and daunting. However, they can be broken down, explained, and made actionable for practitioners like you and me.

These are not new questions, either. The social sciences have been studying these issues for a long time, while the design and technology professions have already developed strategies we can use in many areas. This is enough to give us traction. From these areas, we can draw concepts and tools that we, as designers, developers, and engineers, can use to shape our everyday politics of design.

I see an opportunity to pull this knowledge together and organize it for a practitioner audience. I think that many people in the design and technology are ready for these conversations — alongside the ethics of technology and design — but we need channels for productive conversation and action towards the political challenges in our work. This is one motivation for my research.

In future articles, I’ll go deeper into the statements made above. Meanwhile, I invite all those who are interested in this topic to join me in discussion and experimentation. If you have ideas, feedback, suggestions, or additional resources to share, please comment on this article or email me at dan [at] danzollman.com.