Design is Culture, Not Greed

Pablo A. Medina
3 min readMar 2, 2023
Kenji Ekuan, GK Design Group, Soy Sauce Dispenser, 1961.

Culture is each individual thread that shapes the exquisite tapestry that is human society. Culture is the behavior, artifacts and communication that defines identity and invites human beings to become members of communities. For design to be successful, it must be free from the greed and corruption that dominates so much of today’s design thinking and it must prioritize culture over other agendas.

The most valuable achievement of all great design is how it invites us to become participants in the collective ritual of seeing, touching, hearing, smelling and most importantly feeling a spiritual connection with others. When we interact with successful design artifacts, we connect with other, like-minded individuals who enact similar behaviors and achieve common goals of togetherness. The soy sauce dispenser designed by Kenji Ekuan, and De La Soul’s album cover art for Three Feet High and Rising, designed by Steven Migilo are two examples of design artifacts that have had meaningful effects of bringing individuals together.

This prioritizing of community means that the best design is free from making profit the most important agenda. Successful design places far greater importance on the more trustworthy results of function, emotion, feeling connected to others, and freedom. In the case of Ekuan’s soy sauce dispenser, its sensual qualities and unfailing function calls upon the user to engage in these rituals. This then makes them emotionally present in the act of eating and socializing with all other participants, maximizing spiritual connections between all involved. Aesthetics play an important role in this cultural facilitation as the bottle’s bright red cap and sensual, curvilinear shape reminiscent of the human body call attention to itself with its un-ignorable beauty. This makes the call to use the object irresistible.

The De La Soul album cover was also an essential cultural element during the early days of hip hop. By exhibiting a counterpoint to the other more macho rap album covers of the time, it broadened the vocabulary of hip hop, inviting a new, more inclusive persona into the community.

De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising album cover on Tommy Boy Records designed by Steven Migilo.

Not all design is as pure as my two examples. Because design has so often been co-opted by capitalist greed, it in many ways has lost this higher purpose of connecting us. UX agendas of manipulating users by using tactics of misinformation, addiction and FOMO, all cloaked in “design thinking” have proven to have hidden motives of ignorance and racism. Darin Buzon’s illuminating article titled “Design Thinking is a Rebrand for White Supremacy” comes to mind. These failed, myopic agendas are the enemies of design as culture.

If we allow capitalism to be the primary entity that defines design, we become complicit in the exclusionary cycle that has kept the field from evolving. Instead, if we go beyond the limitations and failures of Design Thinking and it’s older sibling modernism and own our responsibility of prioritizing communities over profits, and of placing more importance on customs and behaviors of all people from all cultures, we might have a chance at engaging in the so-called empathy so evangelized by today’s design leaders. Then and only then will the design artifacts, interfaces, and experiences that we all use every day, deserve your trust.

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