Giving it All Away — How designers could lead the gift economy.

Arthur Grau IV
Mar 11, 2017 · 9 min read

There is a recognized need for good design strategy and good business insight combined to create innovation. There is a library of articles on the subject. From the DMI’s oft-cited Value of Design, to designer Joshua Taylor’s claim that designers should study business rather than code. There are plenty of points of view on how design will give us a better, more valuable world.

I cannot claim to write with expertise on business strategy, risk evaluation or estimated value. These methods and metrics are part of our MassArt MDes master’s learning and are well documented by people with far more experience. Our esteemed instructors draw on the best and most documented sources for their teaching. These are the beliefs of the day. They live inside the current economic paradigm and are products of it. Indeed one aim of this master’s program in design innovation is to develop the design and social skills to bring forth new innovation within current market and social frameworks. This is why I am here.

By contrast, in this short article, I question some assumptions about the ways we do business, and imagine alternative futures by curating evidence that there are many methods to make a living and to thrive. If you’re looking to get rich, navigate somewhere else. I am writing here about how to give it all away.

When presented with learning we often place blind trust in the hands of our teachers. I observe this in my own orientation and that of my learning-mates. We may forget to evaluate the teachings with a fully critical mind, or fail to investigate the teacher for bias or viewpoint. Not only do we need to do both, but we also should keep an eye toward total understanding by unpacking universal assumptions, even while we study by the playbook that those same assumptions dictate for us. Sort of looking out into the courtyard even though we’re stuck behind the gate. There is essential understanding to be had by looking under the hood, beyond the horizon, or through the looking glass to challenge systems and frameworks. This is why I write.

Design is no longer serving us if it’s only about designing the best way to park a car, fry an egg or clean the floor. Current innovation methodology is not moving our race into the directions we need it to. Not decisively enough, not quickly enough.

“There exists a realizable, evolutionary alternative to our being either atom-bombed into extinction or crowding ourselves off the planet. The alternative is the computer-persuadable veering of big business from its weaponry fixation to accommodation of all humanity at an aerospace level of technology, with the vastly larger, far more enduringly profitable for all, entirely new World Livingry Service Industry. It is statistically evident that the more advanced the living standard, the lower the birth rate.” ~ Buckminster Fuller in The Grunch of Giants 1983

Thousands and indeed millions occupy themselves with quarterly returns and speculating on value. They may indeed become very wealthy or very poor, even standing by unaware or unapologetic while our biome suffers, our conscience suffers, and our aspirations for humanity twist and warp.

Granted we do more now for more people on the planet than ever before. According to Hans Rosling, we are as a species, better off than ever. But we do so out of balance with the resources and relationships that our existence here is predicated on. I don’t believe in an endless economic growth; or that a leap in human consciousness is at hand. I don’t believe in the singularity. We haven’t earned any of it. Because we don’t know how to give.

The paradigm economics is based on the premise that because nature reproduces, humans are somehow able and bound to make predictions based on future reproduction and attribute value to it in the form of interest. While Diamond argues that germs guns and steel were the primary drivers of Eurasian domination, I would also propose that the concept of collecting compound interest on investment also played a crucial role.

David Graeber writing in Debt, the First 5000 Years, cites anthropological records globally, where lending at interest leads to unbalanced social wealth aggregation and ultimately to collapse.

“He searches for evidence of the myth of barter, is not able to produce it. A major argument of the book is that the imprecise, informal, community-building indebtedness of “human economies” is only replaced by mathematically precise, firmly enforced debts, through the introduction of violence, usually state-sponsored violence in some form of military or police.”

He describes the evolution of the current state-based, military-industrial-coinage model of operation. It assumes an unlimited potential for growth and yet at the same time professes a scarcity of natural resources. It feeds greed and rewards avarice. The model seems to be out of tune.

When observing the natural world it is nearly impossible to find analogous examples of this behavior in any form. Litters of animals, swarms of mayflies, or the millions of trees in a forest from a single acorn, do not withhold their fecundity if you fail to pay. They do it anyway. There has been growing concern throughout my lifetime and those of a couple of generations before mine that the current operating model may not work indefinitely.

According to R.B. Fuller, “Our survival won’t depend on political or economic systems. It’s going to depend on the courage of the individual to speak the truth, and to speak it lovingly and not destructively.” To support this statement here are a few examples existing within the current paradigm that seem to point to another way of being. A way of giving it away. These examples are the beginning of my growing collection of evidence that giving it away may be part of a successful design, business or operation strategy. They may sketch a framework for future work on gift economics.

As a designer, artist and individual who has come to enjoy the fruits of being brought up in the dominant ethnicity and gender in a wealthy country, I go out on a limb when envisioning outside the status quo. There is a big risk of giving something up. So how does giving it away work? How do we survive? Currently and at most times I’ve done so by taking a day job. By not having kids, by living with roommates, by renting and not ‘owning’.

“The illusion of ownership is expensive and time consuming. It’s substantial buy into a system of economics that for most of its users is not really about owning anything at all. The leases are just a bit longer than a lifetime. It seems to be made up of what we are led to consume so we can make a living and distract ourselves from true callings and true expression.” ~ From “The Money Illusion

This allows me time to give away time and services while still maintaining a healthy lifestyle for myself. I have been fortunate to to have the luxury of giving (within the current paradigm).

However, there are examples out there of models of business built on giving it away. One Vipassana meditation tradition, re-envisioned by former Burmese businessman S.N. Goenka, challenges the status quo in its very method of operation. New practitioners are not able to pay for, or donate to the program until after they have sat for the initial ten day training period. Only once a participant has completed, and fully understood the experience, are they then able to pay any amount they wish for the value they feel they have received for the program. This pay it forward, and this ‘pay with gratitude method’ seems to work. There are now 60 permanent education centers around the world and at least twice as many temporary gatherings that offer the training courses. All operations are supported by offerings that are given only after the training is attended, with no rule about minimum offerings. To found such an organization required plenty of personal courage and vision. It seems to point to another way of organizing production.

Currently, I manage a community of learners that participate in a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) through the edX platform. This work provides for my needs and grants insight into what I suspect is an emerging business model. Though there is a paid option and certificate granted by the courses, there is also a completely free option for learners. The knowledge is there, open to the world and for free. This is not a watered down version of the original, it is the same course. While the creators strive to sustain their work through the voluntary paid model, they still give it all away for free.

The existence of these courses and the insistence on a free option serve as another example of a few people taking great personal and professional risks to speak truth and act with courage.

The later half of the 20th century is full of examples of giving it away, especially with the advent of the internet and large scale software deployment. From Wikipedia and on, there appears to be a need for connecting and equity building that is bubbling up in societies throughout the world. In addition, business has built giving expensive things away directly into their business models to drive revenue to their paid offerings. So there too are examples of hybrid gift, pay models. Giving it away changes the relationship between producer and receiver.

By giving it away, you can make mistakes. There is no pocketbook padding your product or prodding your paddock. You are able to observe clearly, arrive at insights and design accordingly. Giving it away allows you to get immediate and large scale feedback from your user or your customer. As a designer, there may also be resources you never want to give away. But there are times when freely giving of your time and energy can lead to great results, more work, and unexpected design. I see that opportunities to do so are growing and people are being rewarded for doing so.

As designers we have a unique opportunity to carry the human centered approach all the way through the production into the sales cycle of our design work. It may be a great business practice to use empathetic, human centered design, to design new services, experiences or products. But how does that developed sense of human empathy play out when we get to the “billing” for our work. Are there pay it forward models that would sustain us as designers?

There are some fledgling experiments with the concept of giving it away, in addition to the ones cited above. Designer Marie Goodwin explains some of the difficulties in explaining the gift economics approach to a client.

“This is a very new way of doing things and most people won’t understand the concept of gift economics. They will hear “gift” and perhaps think “free.” They will get miffed when you ask them to check in with their own gratitude and come up with a number. They are likely to cry out in exasperation, “Just tell me a price already!” People are very used to not having to think deeply about gratitude, and it may cause some frustration. Be prepared with handouts and PDFs, as well as some links to essays and other online resources that explain gift culture and gift-based businesses.”

My intention for the coming year within the MDes program is to collect and study more instances of gift economics. My hope is to come to a better understanding of how it might work, and to propose new ways of doing business. So while enthralled with the hybrid practices of design and business, I will keep my finger on the pulse of what is happening on the fringes. It may lead to some valuable insight.

Arthur Grau is the Artist behind Type Bar, a free interactive letter writing service. He is a master’s candidate in the MassArt MDes Class of 2018, and serves as Communications Officer for the MITx MicroMasters in SCM MOOC. @attypebar on twitter

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