Moral Design, Part 4

Design that is honest about its limitations

Designers love constraints: material constraints, schedule constraints, budget constraints. Far from holding us back, these quickly lend form to any desired function. They fence the field of possibility. They frame our work. We are far less fond of the mopey cousin of constraints: limitations. Rather, we meticulously avoid the edges of our expertise. But if we are to soberly contend with design as a framework for understanding human advancement, we must be honest about ways in which the very practice of design is inept.

And by design limitations, I do not simply mean bad design. Every discrete application of design has its own means of evaluating success. Poor typography yields a confusing sign. A lack of alt attributes yields a less accessible website. A brittle component reveals short-sighted industrial design. These are good examples of bad design, but where does design itself fail?

“For most of us, design is invisible. Until it fails.”

—Bruce Mau

If we accept the thesis that design is the best method for improving our condition in an ever-expanding universe of disparate data, then we would do well to quickly identify and disclose the shortcomings of this method. And as with everything, balance is key.

What desires limit our affection and attention? Which blindspots prevent us from pursuing moral design as practice? I would suggest two overlapping and paradoxical lenses through which to consider limitations: intimacy and progress.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Age, our culture has presumed that progress is incompatible with intimacy. We move between projects, clients and jobs quickly. We relocate. We take on more and do it faster. Our very lives are increasingly autonomous and mediated—virtual, even. We don’t take time to know ourselves, much less our families and neighbors. But design, in the end, consists of making decisions for other people. And intimate knowledge of those people should be the first job of the designer.

Here, I think we return to the idea of subsidiarity — to a sort of obstinate localism. Within a design context, this is the obvious, yet elusive, idea that perhaps the people best equipped to solve any given problem in a durable way are those most familiar with the full complexity of the problem, and those who will (or will not) enact and sustain the designed solution.

We sanitize this messy business, labeling it “inclusion,” “stakeholder management,” “governance” and “change management,” but what we mean is: we really need real humans. And individual humans and the communities they inhabit are very different from one another.

It is antithetical to moral design that a preponderance of design still happens in California, New York and Washington, D.C. It is also problematic that designers are often among the first to decamp when the going gets tough. Our current fixation on finding “creative community”—homogenous collectives of orthodox designer-friends—belies this need. Here again, I believe our idealism undermines our effectiveness.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

— John Muir

In the introduction to a recent excoriation titled “Design Thinking Is Fundamentally Conservative and Preserves the Status Quo,” Natasha Iskander declares that “[design thinking] is, at its core, a strategy to preserve and defend the status-quo — and an old strategy at that. Design thinking privileges the designer above the people she serves, and in doing so limits participation in the design process.”

Now, I’m no great fan of the sorts of design thinking she finds so distasteful. This caricature strongly resembles thinly veiled paternalism wearing pricey consultant’s clothing. Iskander’s alternative—what she calls “interpretive engagement”—is essentially an open-ended cycle of broad ownership and practical, accountable innovation. I think that’s exactly right, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The label is fine; it’s the singularity that’s problematic.

Iskander seems to think there is but one status-quo and that it should be altered as quickly as possible by way of something called design. This is a miscalculation, I believe, predicated on a lack of intimacy. It may be the case that there are actually hundreds of thousands of local realities. Myriad nuanced, interdependent problems that design can, and should, solve. But what is required (as a starting point) is a deep, personal and abiding respect for the implicated humans and the systems they’ve developed.

Furthermore, those various status-quo (even with their flaws) are the products of millennia of distilled human experience. Lots of hunger. Lots of war. Lots of chaos. Only the most effective human ideas have made it to us. Conservative, a word Iskander gags on, might also be understood as conservation. Moral design is slower and smaller than the markets want it to be. It is more careful and plodding than the universities and the politicians want it to be. Sadly, we are not without case studies.

With the benefit of hindsight, I would have much preferred a vigorous defense of traditional agricultural methods around the middle of the last century. Ironically, it was academics and entrepreneurs even then who clamored for faster adoption of new technologies. The same brilliant minds that helped the Allies defeat the Axis turned their energies toward winning the war on hunger.

The enormous design failure we are only now beginning to comprehend is that those brilliant central planners, by and large, had no knowledge of particular places, their ecologies or economies. As researchers and designers, they were well-versed in the art of innovation, but not the humans they purported to serve. Techniques developed at universities and in laboratories were assumed to be applicable to the single status-quo.

Turning their attention from the battlefield to the cornfield, so-called experts engineered new chemicals and machinery and exchanged future productivity for exponential growth in production. Yield skyrocketed. Backs were slapped. Kudos were given. And now we have a dead zone the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico.

Acknowledging that a lack of intimacy paired with a desire for progress can lead to devastating side effects, a moral design practice retains a strong bias toward conservation. Our ancestors were right about some of this stuff. 👌

Anyone who’s worked in the design industry will be quick to raise a reasonable counterpoint. Well, what about objectivity? What about perspective gained through distance? I think this question points us to a bit of a paradox. Design is certainly limited by a lack of intimacy, but also by too much.

I doubt design teams working at Amazon, Google and Facebook have much time to seriously contend with what functional consumerism, data mining and mass objectification mean for humanity. They are so familiar with and so personally invested in the features that they cannot perceive the bugs. Similarly, a designer working at Dow Chemical Company in the 1930s—with a unique mastery of the characteristics of specific compounds and potential applications—could not have been aware of the irreparable costs of their innovations.

All designers wish to be responsible, but responsible to whom? Customers? Employees? Shareholders? Investors? It’s very easy to leap straight into working out of a deep familiarity with the tools, clients and brands without ever pausing to reflect on all that we don’t know. When we let the creative brief define the scope of our concern, we’ve abdicated our truest role within the companies and institutions we serve.

Designers should recommit themselves to being faithful skeptics dedicated to thoughtful probing and self-directed research. And they should be embedded as agents of thoughtful advancement everywhere.

“We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”

— C.S. Lewis

Moral design is also inhibited by our own ideas of progress. I don’t think we’re looking for shortcuts, but designers do have a strong bias toward action and a deep need to show something that looks like progress. That impulse can get us into trouble. Here, I think designers can learn from the scientific community. We must be reminded that when an idea doesn’t work, it is not a failure, it is information. Emphasis on formation.

The scientific method is, at root, a process for inquiry into the natural world using empirical evidence to slow down human hubris (in the form of hypothesis) through a series of tests and proofs.

Similarly, we might think of design method as a process for inquiry into the purposes, plans and intentions behind what humans make and do. We are actively shaping tomorrow’s anthropologies. But problematically, I think, we tend to rush on to the next thing without ever allowing for something like our equivalent of peer-review.

If something appears to be trending it quickly becomes ubiquitous. We often operate strictly within the sphere of markets, conveniently ignoring the sphere of morality. Designers of all sorts, including those designing science experiments, must balance the two.

We get so caught up in “making progress” that we adopt increasingly standardized workflows, tools, and techniques without doing the work of evaluating appropriateness for our local context. Many of us don’t feel that we even have a local context. We’re more at home on our laptop or at some faraway conference than we are with our own neighbors and colleagues.

“Once conform, once do what other people do because they do it, and a lethargy steals over all the finer nerves and faculties of the soul. She becomes all outer show and inward emptiness; dull, callous, and indifferent.”

― Virginia Woolf

For an idealistic person, say a 30-something graphic designer working in a large public institution, all of this is utterly exhausting. She desires for things to be better. She is finding, absorbing and implementing new ideas all the time, yet nothing changes. She is being formed by a global design community obsessed with progress yet incapable of defining what it would look like in her work. We’ve become absurdly impractical.

For all the good our digital tools have wrought, they’re on their way to obliterating anything resembling vernacular design. And our insistence on vague and fleeting notions of progress leave actual designers sitting in actual offices in actual towns thoughtfully improving life for actual humans feeling as if their work is meaningless.

Again, somewhat paradoxically, design seems to be limited by our lack of progress, too. Contemporary designers have seen time and again how quickly the landscape can and will shift beneath our sketchbooks.

If you are designing consumer goods or digital applications, you’re keenly aware of limitations like planned obsolescence and progressive enhancement. Automotive designers would rightly point to rapid advances in sensors, computers, fuel economy, lightbulbs, emissions and airbags as just a few of the reasons they design 10-year, 100,000-mile cars. Anything that lasts longer could be considered irresponsible.

“The most essential prerequisite to understanding is to be able to admit when you don’t understand something.”

― Richard Saul Wurman

To state the obvious: design is always limited by what we know right now. And we (perhaps now more than ever) know that there’s far more change to come. We must cultivate a sort of curiosity that isn’t afraid to be limited. Intimacy, but not blind devotion. Progress, but not hubris. Moral design conserves more than it disrupts. It is careful, not clever. It is cultural, not viral.

Unlike the caricature Natasha Iskander dismantles, moral design thinking has roots and a soul. Its practitioner might lack the sophisticated snark and lux accoutrements of design celebrities from Los Angeles and New York. But, she knows and is known by real people. And she’s helping them overcome their challenges.

She is as skilled at place-making as she is at sketching. She deals in stories as often as schematics. She is honest about the limitations of her chosen craft. And, yet, she remains convinced that thoughtful, accountable and inclusive design is our best path to positive and lasting change.

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