How Design is Politics.

Or why designers need to get political.

Occupy Wall Street protesters gather to listen to speakers in Zuccotti Park (Nov. 15, 2011) Photo by Henny Ray Abrams (Source)

About a year ago I published a personal take on strategic design and its futures (original Spanish version here). In the third part, I half-jokingly proposed the term ‘superdesign’ to designate a three-dimensional evolution of the practice: from objects to systems, from the present to futures, from affirmative to critical practices. The evolution over the first dimension refers to the growth of fields that most clearly engage with social (as well as sociotechnical and socionatural) systems, i.e. experience design, organizational design, service design and, most importantly, three fields that explicitly deploy design for the purpose of social transformation, namely: systemic design, design for social innovation and transition design. These latter advocate for the use of design methods to lead social change in areas such as health, transportation, energy and food systems as well as “the reconception of entire lifestyles” toward sustainable futures. Last year, at Uncommon, we started to explore these approaches for Transición19s, a toolkit for driving recovery and transformation efforts after the earthquake that affected Mexico on September 19, 2017.

Over the year, one of the concerns that have been on the back of my mind is this: as we, (strategic) designers, reclaim for ourselves the right to lead (or, at any rate, participate in) the transformation of social systems, we need to develop a sophisticated political literacy that, for the most part, we currently lack. This means that we’ll have to borrow and develop concepts, frameworks, tools and, most importantly, a new sensibility to deal as designers with the political dimension of the social field. This is similar to the way in which, for example, designers have developed a whole new vocabulary to deal with unique aspects of services (e.g. customer journeys, touchpoints, lines of interaction, etc.) that were not really relevant for previously established fields such as graphic and product design. I recently made an attempt by proposing a modified service blueprint intended to make explicit the power relations that exist in service provision settings (in Spanish here).

Two political challenges for design.

The statement that design is political is almost uncontroversial. Many authors have provided explicit accounts of this fact: from Langdon Winner’s famous account of the discriminatory effects of Robert Moses’ bridges in Long Island, NY to the many examples provided by Robert Pater of the politics of visual communication. Closer to the issues at hand, the two most recent, explicit and important contributions come from Australian design scholar Tony Fry in his book Design as Politics, the second volume of his trilogy about the role of design in the face of global unsustainability, and, building on Fry’s work (among many others), the book Autonomía y Diseño by Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar (to be published in English later this year as Designs for the Pluriverse). The following notes can be read as an attempt to work my way up to (and around) those works building from where I left in my previous writings.

In that article on strategic design, I used Charles Eames’ definition of design to develop an outline of design strategy and strategic design. Here, I want to build on Herbert A. Simon’s definition which may be more useful for understanding design practice in the context of social systems. In a well-known passage of The Sciences of the Artificial, Simon writes:

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state.

The second sentence points to the universal character of design: industrial design, medicine (!), business design and the design of government services all belong, according to Simon, to the same kind of intellectual activity. Moreover, those examples testify for the capacity of the design mindset to tackle challenges in a whole range between bounded material objects and unbounded social systems.

The first and most famous sentence identifies design with everything that we humans (?) do to reduce or eliminate the difference between the world as it is and what we want it to be. Here lies the first political challenge for design in the social field: at any moment in any social system there are multiple, competing and even incompatible interests and thus visions of what is the preferred situation. In fact, it may be the case that for some actors in the social system the existing situation is indeed the preferred situation (or something close to it). If that is the case, any attempt to design the system may be perceived by those actors as an attempt to undesign the system. And thus, a political conflict ensues.

Source: La Caña de Azúcar.

One of the most important contributions of Escobar in Autonomía y Diseño is that, by looking at transition design theories and practices from the point of view of Latin American social movements, he makes the political dimension of transition design thoroughly explicit. Any transition project — but most dramatically those that could be undertaken in Latin America and other ‘post-colonial’ regions—could be perceived as antagonistic and thus resisted by the groups of social actors that benefit the most from the existing situation. The best example is Escobar’s overview of the environmentally extractive and socially exploitative configuration around sugar cane production in the Cauca Valley region in Colombia.

As (systemic, transition and social innovation) designers venture purposefully into social systems, they have to face the inescapably political nature of the social field. This means that they’ll have to incorporate notions of political theory into their practice.

Belgian theorist Chantal Mouffe has developed what is perhaps the most useful framework about politics in the kind of contested field that designers may encounter (see, most recently, her book Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically). In contrast to both mainstream liberal (i.e. rationalist and individualist) and Marxist (or communist) views, she believes in an antagonistic dimension inherent to all human societies that will never be escaped nor resolved through rational consensus or revolution — a reality that she calls ‘the political’. As such, ‘politics’, i.e “the ensemble of practices, discourses and institutions that seeks to establish a certain order and to organize human coexistence”, will always have to deal with the antagonism that characterizes ‘the political.’ For Mouffe, a well-functioning democracy (i.e. a pluralist or agonistic democracy) is one which provides an institutional platform for social actors to settle their conflicts as adversaries (not enemies), that is, recognizing each other’s right to fight for the victory of their position. How could designers incorporate this political framework and develop appropriate design tools as they participate in projects for social transformation?

Carl DiSalvo in Adversarial Design and Tony Fry in Design as Politics draw explicit lessons from Mouffe’s ideas for the theory and practice of design. DiSalvo explores practices such as critical design and tactical media where design artifacts are deployed as forms of political expression and action. “Through designerly means and forms, adversarial design evokes and engages political issues.”

Fry’s work is perhaps more closely relevant to the argument that I’m presenting here. There are times, he writes,

when the political, politics and the designed all meet in very visible ways: a river is proposed to be dammed; a new road is proposed that will require demolishing scores of homes; a city council proposes to add another runway to the local airport; a historic building is levelled by an unscrupulous developer.

These kinds of projects are only becoming more common. “In the face of this situation,” Fry continues, “design has to be made overtly and proactively political. Design has to become a politics.”

At this point, any participant of a political struggle such as those in Fry’s examples or the Latin American context that Escobar describes, could point to an important issue: namely, power. In that issue lies the second political challenge for design in the social field: at any moment in any social system there is a differential distribution of power among social actors. This means that some of them will have the capacity to: a) maintain the existing situation, or, b) establish what the preferred situation is according to their interests, and, c) realize such preferred situation (or, at least, increase the probability of its realization).

As Mouffe (along with her late co-author Ernesto Laclau) would say: “Any order is always the expression of a particular configuration of power relations.” This is what they called the ‘hegemonic nature’ of society where any order is a temporary and contingent outcome of a power struggle. This means that no design project that takes aim at social systems occurs in a vacuum of power. From this perspective, systemic, transition and social innovation design projects can be recognized as what Laclau and Mouffe called hegemonic (and counter-hegemonic) practices, i.e. they attempt to establish a new order, however circumscribed, in the social field.

It is at this level that design and politics become indistinguishable. In fact, we could paraphrase Simon’s definition to say that

Everyone who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing (social) situations into preferred ones is engaged in politics.
Community workers tending an urban food garden in Flint, Michigan. (Source)

The issue of power.

Perhaps, then, the central concept of a new political design literacy ought to be power. However, as George Aye has rightly argued, an understanding of the role of power in human relations is one of the biggest gaps in current design education — or education in general, one could say. Such gap may have serious consequences for design practice. As he writes:

Whatever the reason, a poor understanding of power will leave an emerging designer unprepared for the complexity of social issues where power has played a key role.

In a previous article, I borrowed Keith Dowding definition of power as

the ability to achieve desired outcomes.

This notion can be easily ‘plugged’ into Simon’s definition in order to illuminate the conceptualization of design as politics (i.e. hegemonic practice) advanced in the previous section. However, if we want to go deeper into an understanding of the nature of power it becomes necessary to ask: Where does power, as an ability to achieve desired outcomes, come from?

An interesting, if somewhat obscure, framework for understanding the configuration of social power can be found in the work of American sociologist James S. Coleman. In his Foundations of Social Theory, he provides a formal understanding of social systems based on two basic components:

  1. Actors: any individual or group participating in the system.
  2. Resources: material or immaterial components of the system.

And two kinds of relationships between actors and resources:

  1. The interest that actors have on each resource.
  2. The control (e.g. ownership rights, etc.) that actors have over resources.

In every system there is an initial distribution among actors of control over resources which Coleman calls the constitution of the system. For example, he provides a simple account of a high-school dating system with boys and girls as actors, their attention to each other as the main resource, and the initial distribution of interest in the attention of each other as the constitution. Such a system would result in a particular kind of dating patterns.

In the same way, this basic framework can be used to understand a variety of social arrangements such as markets, corporations, collective actions, etc. Most importantly, as Coleman writes

It becomes possible in such a system to speak of the power of each actor, for power is a measure of the value within a system of the resources with which each actor begins (with that value itself deriving from the interests of other actors in these resources) and thus of the weight that the system applies to that actor’s interest in the aggregate satisfaction that is realized.

Value and power are, then, system-level properties of resources and actors within a system. Power, as the ability to achieve desired outcomes, depends on the control that each actor enjoys over valuable resources.

As argued elsewhere, power is to society what gravity is for physics. Such is the inescapably hegemonic nature of the social. Even if designers cannot get rid of it, we are surely responsible for understanding and intervening in the relationships of interest and control over resources that give rise to structures of power.

How to get political.

As design moves “up” from objects to systems thus opening whole new fields of practice, a new set of increasingly ‘abstract’ tools become important: maps, blueprints, matrices and even those much-abused canvases. These are tools that help us interrogate existing situations and formulate visions of preferred ones. Moreover, these tools support the side of our work related to what Ezio Manzini (in Design, When Everybody Designs), following Richard Sennet, calls ‘dialogic cooperation’:

a conversation in which listening is as important as speaking (because it enables interlocutors to understand and empathize with a different point of view and, on this basis, search for solutions).

As I argued above, a whole new set of tools, frameworks and sensibilities (i.e. skills for dialogic cooperation) are required for designers to better deal specifically with the political challenges of the social field. In this article I’ve tried to bring attention to only two, albeit central, of those challenges: the multiplicity of competing interests regarding preferred situations and the unequal distribution among actors of the ability to bring about their preferred situations. We could at least start by formulating a set of questions that could help us make those challenges explicit for particular projects:

  • Who are the different social actors (i.e. stakeholders) involved in the project?
  • Who are you working for? Are the other actors aware of this relationship?
  • What are the different or perhaps competing preferences of actors regarding the situation?
  • Are all the actors involved aware of each others’ preferences?
  • Can these different or competing preferences be articulated somehow?
  • What is the distribution of power in the system that you’re trying to affect?

And perhaps the most important one:

  • Is your work helping to further concentrate or better redistribute power among those whose lives you’re trying to change?

Asking these kinds of questions — and, of course, acting on them — may help designers to become more like political activists. It may be necessary to build complete the bridge from the other side, that is, helping political activists to think and act more like designers. Another world is possible and preferable. Let’s make it probable.