Politics are a design constraint.

Designers’ professional responsibility is also political responsibility.

For SF Design Week, I joined 11 other designers for a panel debate hosted by The OutCast Agency. My question: do designers have a political responsibility? My answer: fuck yes.

Source: Giphy

Designers can’t separate their work from politics because both politics and design are about creating systems that affect people’s lives, hopefully for the better.

Politics can’t be quarantined to the White House and Congress any more than design is limited to who’s pushing the pixels. Both permeate the lives of individuals, shape communities, and play into larger societal dynamics.

To argue that you can design without political responsibility is to misunderstand design, politics, or both.

You can’t separate your work as a designer from politics because both are about creating systems that affect people’s lives, hopefully for the better.

Designers have a professional responsibility to consider what impact their work has—whether the project is explicitly “political” or not. Design can empower or disenfranchise people through the layout of ballots or UX of social network privacy settings.

Whose voices are amplified or excluded by the platforms we build, who profits from or is exploited by the service apps we code, whether we have created space for self-expression or avenues for abuse: these are all political design considerations because they decide who is represented, who can participate and at what cost, and who has power.

Does the photo app you’re designing recognize black faces? Do the filters you’re illustrating perpetuate racist caricatures? Does your product’s identity verification system make space for trans people whose identities aren’t reflected in their legal documentation? Will the sharing UX you are optimizing be used to spread fake news? Are you coding software specifically meant to help your product evade local authorities charged with public safety?

Psssst…This poster design is political.

Designers’ political responsibilities don’t just lie in what they make, it’s also in where they work. Do you work for a company that sponsors the national convention of either major political party? Do you work on a product that relies on public infrastructure like oh, say, roads? Are your bosses collaborating with the current administration? Are they lobbying governments for more worker visas, fewer taxes, or more lenient regulations?

It doesn’t matter how “woke” your CEO thinks he is if you’re designing a platform for nazis. Source

When you consider how your role as a designer supports the broader activities of your company beyond the deliverables you create, the connection between design and politics comes into even sharper focus.

If you’re a socially conscious designer, you don’t need to quit your job; you need to do it. That means designing solutions that benefit people without marginalizing or harming others. When your boss or client asks you to do something that might do harm, you have to say no. And if you see unethical behavior happening in other areas of your company, fight for something better. If you find a problem, you have a problem. Good thing solving problems is your job.

Designers’ work is potentially very powerful. Designers have a professional responsibility to consider the political impact of what they make and where they work has on people — as individuals and as a society.

The professional is political. We can’t deny the impact our work has on real people, so we have to take responsibility for it. Make politics a design constraint and the human impact of your work the most important measure of success on every project. If designers can do this, maybe politicians will catch up.

John Warren Hanawalt

Written by

Designer with a heart of gold and mouth like a sailor. Cares about how the work we do impacts others. Also talks fitness and feelings. www.hanawa.lt

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