Design is an Act of Liberation

So why are we using it to forge the chains of our own oppression?

Watching the many protests of the past few years — Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, March for Our Lives — I’m struck by the depth of design embedded throughout these phenomena. At its core, the act of protest requires the capacity to imagine that change is possible, that we are the architects of change, that collective action is possible and that liberation is essential to our conception of what it means to be human.

Protests following a school shooting, February 2017

Protest is design. Like any design, it has a stated outcome, unintended consequences, process, goals, the activation of targeted skills, stakeholders and myriad choices that either define its success or presage its failure.

The not-at-all-simple act of organizing individuals around an idea and bringing them to a starting point to walk alongside one another: that is design as improvisational choreography, embodying, at best, a communally accepted code of conduct alongside the inevitability of spontaneous activity. The chants that give voice to pain and hope: that is design as lyrical language — lyrics to be literally chanted, call-and-response, to bring everyone together within a cloud of collective sound.

Handmade signs employ language and symbol, color and pattern to express complex ideas in minimal words: the design of metaphorical and visual language as a living, highly adaptable form of communication.Those same signs, their object-hood, produced on paper and cardboard: temporary forms, meant to be shown and shared, meant to convey meaning and solidarity, but also intended to be discarded. These are not campaign signs, political convention signs whose perfect composition and uniformity, whose meticulous curation speaks to an edict from on high. This is not a person defining what words will be allowed, what is most important to convey. These signs are choices. They are personal, intimate and embodying. Design as personal preference, as a right, as a million individual acts of liberation.

Those signs are held aloft for all to see or worn close to the body, protective, emanating: the object itself is intentionally flimsy, lightweight and discardable. The now ubiquitous hashtag: design intended to share protest beyond the geographical specificity of any particular movement. The hashtag draws people into the circle of solidarity and dialogue.

From our earliest history, design liberated humankind. It liberated our bodies in ways that seem both obvious and essential. The design of footwear liberated us from walking on inhospitable terrain and, in so doing, liberated us to travel farther than we ever could have on fragile, human soles. As we traveled further, in our technologically-advancing shoes, we developed the capacity to imagine where else we might go. The design of the object facilitated the liberation of human imagination, enabling our minds to conceptualize our own potential for life, anywhere and everywhere. We saw our ability to harness the natural world to serve those new desires to travel further and faster than before. To that extent, the design of footwear foretold the design of mobility devices — from carrying litters to wheeled transport to the space program — by enabling us to imagine that all terrain and beyond was available for our frail footsteps.

Design liberated us from eating with our hands. In so doing, it liberated us to eat new foods, in new ways, and ultimately to develop entire systems for the production, distribution and preparation of food. The earliest spoon foretold the 10-course meal, the blue plate special, Blue Apron and cloned meat. It enabled us to imagine that we could create the nutrients we need by choice and not be limited to the bounty, or lack thereof, that nature provides.

The design of ritualized belief systems — religion, governments, economic systems, marriage — liberated us to concoct the rules and behaviors that guide the relationships we desire for ourselves, our families and our communities, building within those systems the need for stability and the possibilities for change.

The design of language and belief systems forms the foundation for the development of civilization and even allows us to ask the questions that plague us, eternally: Why are we here? What does it mean? Who am I? It gives us the capacity to imagine Utopia and, hopefully, the wisdom to know that it is not attainable.

Design forms the architecture of our liberation but it can also forge the chains of our own oppression. We can design systems that bring us closer to our humanity or closer to apocalypse. We can focus on the material object of design as the ultimate determinant of our worth, or we can design as a means to connect us to something more enduring and liberating than a phone, a gun, a car, or any object that ties us to it as a means of self-oppression.

“I need my object.” “I can’t live without it.” “You’ll have to pry it out of my cold dead hands.” “I need more likes.” These are the words of a people who have become oppressed by design and have been stripped of choice.

When we need our objects of design, when we cede agency to them — the objects, the services, the systems that no longer complement but control us — design has forged the chains of our self-perpetuating bondage rather than permitting us to serve as the architects of our liberation. When we say that we cannot eat without a spoon, sleep without a pillow, love without a contract, believe without a script, then design has divorced us from humanity, not served its evolution. Design may make more things possible but it should not render everything without it impossible.

Liberation is the expansion of opportunities not the depletion of choice.

The design of protests encapsulates our capacity for liberation. Here, design liberates us individually and communally to speak up against the societal ills that harm not one, but all. As a platform for acts of liberation, design establishes common boundaries and behaviors while allowing each individual to be the architect of their own will. But design is a choice, in fact, a series of choices that require not only the making of objects but the imagination to conjure something better. When we ask what choices we will make next, I hope we can choose those act of liberation that bring us closer to our common humanity and further from the need for the object itself.

There are many competing requests made of designers at this moment: design for social impact, design for diversity, design for inclusivity, design for maximum profit. But above all is the mandate to design a thing that people will need. Instead, I would ask designers to design for access, agency and choice, above all else. Know that each person who touches your design should still have the right to make choices. They may have preferences for their newest devices, but those preferences are not needs for nothing but that object. Knowing that we have options and that we control the choices we make for the objects we use, reminds us of our responsibility to keep imagining the world that we would like to create. Our collective imaginations have this choice: more agency or less, more addiction or more choice. As designers, we should all be the architects of our own liberation.