Who is a design activist
In this article, I define an activist as a person who participates in some form of action for social change.
Social and political activists are typically energized by a sense of rebellion. Their approach to change is often confrontational. Often they have greater clarity and alignment on what they want to dismantle than on what they want to rebuild. They invest little time and attention in defining the roadmap for getting to their desired outcomes. Most disruptive movements succeed in mobilizing dissent but fail at putting in place and nurturing constructive and sustainable alternatives.
To understand how designers can contribute to society as activists, we must first understand the distinct ways in which designers think. In my previous article, ‘Why Design Thinking’ I wrote,
“While scientists are largely focused on “what is?” (The truth), designers are focused on “what if?” (The possibilities). Scientists help bring clarity to ambiguity, turn superstitions into rational ways of interpreting the mysteries of nature and bring order to chaos. On the other hand, designers help cultivate curiosity and tolerance for ambiguity and chaos, expand imagination, encourage exploration, recognize patterns, and serve as sherpas in discovering alternate paths to the future. Designers help create elegant and delightful solutions to the lingering, wicked and complex problems. For those stuck in the past, designers provide a provocation for an individual’s mind and for organizations’ culture so that they can dare to entertain possibilities without being constrained by their comfort for the status quo. Designers provide reconnaissance to the future.”
Designers specialize in creating visions to unify disparate groups. Designers use tools such as the dialogue between groups to discover and showcase commonalities. A dialogue between stakeholders, even between those holding opposing (or warring) ideas can lead to the thawing of dogmas and preconceived notions. Dialogue can uncover common ground from which a design activist can help generate a shared vision and cultivate commitment by different parties to achieve common goals.
Activists involved in social reforms could use designerly ways of thinking to come up with creative solutions to lingering problems by uniting distinct groups and working towards common goals.
Designers have trained their appetite and aptitude for disrupting the status quo and revolutionizing how people live. If we look beyond our traditional client relationship, we will find opportunities to be more audacious in driving change.
Design Activism in a Corporate Context
Many companies are discovering that their actions have ethical consequences and that considering (or failing to consider) these implications can have a huge impact on their brand and their bottom line.
Yet corporate practices are structured around maximizing profits. They do not have the mental space or time to understand and solve the social problems that are not directly related to their products and services.
There is a growing realization that designers can serve as the conscience of a corporation. They can work across silos to forewarn the organization about possible consequences of the company’s actions, not only helping avoid costly mistakes but also proactively generating social value.
“More and more investors and consumers are factoring in a company’s commitment to socially responsible practices prior to making an investment or purchase. As such, embracing social responsibility can actually benefit the prime directive — maximization of shareholder value. There is a moral imperative as well. Actions, or lack thereof, will have an effect on future generations. Put simply, being socially responsible is just good business practice and a failure to do so can have a deleterious effect on the balance sheet.” — Akhilesh Ghanti 2019
Still, many corporations have not seen the importance of investing in a conscience.
Designers working in these corporations have an opportunity to become Design Activists simply by embracing their role as the people in an organization who provide reconnaissance into the future. Designers can take as part of their job the responsibility of thinking through the ethical implications of the company’s actions.
In his foreword to the book The Design Activists’ Handbook: How to Change the World (Or at Least Your Part of It) with Socially Conscious Design, David Berman says
“Will designers bring our best skills out to support goodness and truth? Or will we prop up the greed disorder of a minority by using our cleverness to help convince more and more people that they are not tall enough, white enough, curly enough, cool enough?….We live in an age where everyone is a designer, and the future of civilization is our common design project. Imagine what is possible if designers do not participate in the export of overconsumption…. No one understands the powerful mechanism behind these manipulations better than design professionals, and we have the creativity and persuasiveness to make a positive change. We must act, be heard, and sometimes simply say no by designing a better yes.”
Mahatma Gandhi: A perfect design activist
I consider Mahatma Gandhi a perfect design activist.
Before he became a design activist, Gandhi was an accomplished lawyer in South Africa. He suffered racist treatment, however, and this opened his eyes to the racial discrimination ordinary people faced in South Africa.
The design activist in Gandhi began to emerge after his mentor encouraged him to travel as an ordinary citizen around India. Per his mentor’s advice, Gandhi travelled all over India in the ordinary class of train, immersing himself in the realities of India. He recognized a huge problem, a need for change, and saw it as a huge opportunity. That was his moment of truth.
Through various experiments, the designer in Gandhi allowed him to find creative solutions to lingering problems. He designed the Charkha (spinning wheel) as a symbol and instrument of a grassroots economic model that empowered the rural poor and brought them dignity.
He conceptualized the Gandhi cap that millions of freedom fighters wore to express their identity with great pride.
He wrote a Thesis Hind Swaraj (Self Rule) at the core of which was his vision of participatory democracy.
Gandhi believed that it would be futile to fight injustice with injustice, violence with violence, or hate with hate. He introduced a revolutionary idea that anger against injustice needs to be harnessed and transformed into a positive force, showcasing injustice and championing alternatives through non-violent means.
Gandhi’s vision and roadmap to achieve it created a template that inspired other social movements all over the world, and he has been credited as inspiring the actions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela to name just a couple.
Interpreting Gandhi in the design context
Gandhi’s curiosities, concerns, and creativity serve as an inspiration to those of us who want to have an impact on the future of humanity through our role as designers. Gandhi’s example clarifies a need to shift our focus as designers from the material attributes of design to the social and ethical implications of design.
This opens up opportunities to design contemporary rituals that nurture the innate human need for peace, harmony, wellness, and justice. It allows us to come up with solutions to lingering problems that are bogged down in the issues that we differ on than on the values we agree on. The Gandhian design will lead to a more inclusive, ecological, participatory, compassionate, and empathic way of life.
In his book “Tools for Conviviality,” Ivan Illich provides a perfect translation of Gandhi’s designerly vision for the future;
“People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others… I believe that society must be reconstructed to enlarge the contribution of autonomous individuals and primary groups to the total effectiveness of a new system of production designed to satisfy the human needs which it also determines. In fact, the institutions of industrial society do just the opposite. As the power of machines increases, the role of persons more and more decreases to that of mere consumers.” (Illich 1978)
A model for Design as Activism
After graduating from design school, I spent the first 13 years of my professional life designing beautiful products with a focus on affecting consumer perceptions, creating ergonomic convenience, and provoking purchase impulse.
The turning point in my career was my graduate education at The Ohio State University. In my graduate studies, I met Dr. Elizabeth Sanders, an accomplished design researcher who had a Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology with a minor in Anthropology. During this period I developed an intellectual curiosity for social sciences and their relevance to design. Working with Liz helped me recognize the immense potential of the participatory design approach. Since that time, I have been hungry to grow my awareness of the world through conversations with strangers and through learning theories, methods, and tools from various social sciences disciplines, particularly Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, and Communication.
This article draws on my curiosity of the past 44 years, discussions with friends from a wide range of knowledge domains on the topic of design concerns intersecting with human concerns. I hope to continue my dialogue with people who have an interest in design activism to sharpen my understanding of this space.
I have prepared a model of design activism with the purpose of applying the wisdom I have gained from serving my clients to the benefit of not-for-profit projects that could serve humanity and ecology.
Clifford Geertz is one of my favorite anthropologists. He has done exemplary work studying people and culture of Indonesia. One of his seminal essays is Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.
Geertz describes in the article how closed off and cold the Balinese were to outsiders, including him, and what a struggle he faced in gaining rapport enough to get anything more than politeness from them. That is until he attended an illegal cockfight which was raided by the police, and instead of claiming the authority to be there as a curious outsider, he and his wife ran from the police with the rest of the Balinese attendees. He writes,
“Getting caught, or almost caught, in a vice raid is perhaps not a very generalizable recipe for achieving that mysterious necessity of anthropological fieldwork, rapport, but for me, it worked very well. It led to a sudden and unusually complete acceptance into a society extremely difficult for outsiders to penetrate. It gave me the kind of immediate, inside-view grasp of an aspect of peasant mentality that anthropologists not fortunate enough to flee had long with their subjects from armed authorities normally do not get.”
Designers must strive to get closer to the life experiences of those whose lives they want to transform; this also puts us in the best possible position to become activists. Just as Gandhi gained empathy for real India through participant observation and through it conceptualized the instrument of non-violence, an activist must commit to designing from amidst people and with people.
Quoting Geertz again,
“The culture of a people is an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong… Whatever the level at which one operates, the guiding principle is the same: societies, like lives, contain their own interpretations. One has only to learn how to gain access to them.”
Design activists must assume responsibility for making the world a better place, by first being grounded in the reality of the world.
The tools available for discovery include but are not limited to: Dialogue, Participant observation, Reading, and Writing
A couple of years ago, the team at SonicRim was commissioned by Genentech to conduct a co-creation project for their social responsibility initiative, to find, “How might we motivate patients with terminal, chronic and acute illnesses to stay in treatment?”
The first phase of the project was discovery. Over a period of three to four months, our team visited 100 patients and their caregivers. This immersion generated a rich collection of stories, artifacts, and images, and above all provided us enough exposure to be able to truly understand their reality.
The process of synthesis in a corporate-sponsored, profit-centered project is different from synthesis for a not-for-profit, socially relevant project. For a typical for-profit project, we often look for opportunities for improving the “User Experience” that will through some chain of events generate more profits or brand loyalty.
On the other hand, the synthesis process in a socially relevant project must help the participants in the synthesis produce a purposeful roadmap to influencing and impacting people’s lives. While the lens in a commercial synthesis is opportunistic, the lens for synthesis in a socially relevant project is compassionate.
The tools available for synthesis are Pattern finding, Building frameworks, Developing a narrative, Compiling multiple perspectives, and Developing metaphors that will give people a way to understand, relate to, and navigate through complex problems.
What separates design from many other domains of knowledge and practice is its focus on action. As Karl Marx said,
“Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it”
What role can design activists play in changing the world?
- We can help replace cynicism about lingering problems with optimism
- We can shape the discourse around what is possible to inspire constructive approaches
- We can help groups think critically about the future implications of current actions
- We can generate shared momentum and ownership that can be directed towards disrupting status quo and building a better world
The action phase involves taking insights and the vision to the key stakeholders and getting them to collectively internalize, own and use them to drive change.
SonicRim conducted an empathy workshop at Genentech with the Access solutions group. The idea was to bring those involved in providing assistance to the patients to gain empathy for the patient and caregiver experience and generate solutions to their problems. In the words of our client, Nadyne Richmond, the empathy workshop helped the organization realize that,
“To have meaningful impact we should not just focus on the alleviating the medical condition but on improving the patient’s and caregiver’s life with the condition.” (Nadyne Richmond, 2019)
The tools available for the action phase are Mobilizing participation in communities, Campaigning, Blogging, organizing Resistance, Building networks, Lobbying, and Legislating.
Gandhi often said that a true revolutionary distributes her time between resistance or disruption and constructive activities. The construction phase of design activism involves building frameworks and tools to support sustainable actions and outcomes. This could include the building of institutions, processes, rituals, communication channels, communities, networks of communities, etc.
At Genentech, our project helped develop a process for building empathy. Empathy workshops became institutionalized as a feature of their design process.
At SonicRim, part of our commitment to change involves a commitment to stay in dialogue with the community about what is necessary and what is possible. To that end, we have built a network of design activists from the wider community who care to address complex problems. We regularly hold Whiteboard sessions where social scientists, designers, design researchers, teachers, and corporate executives come together to develop and visualize a common understanding of socially relevant issues.
SonicRim’s Director of Research, Arvind Venkataramani, has built a Secular Ritual Design toolkit to help people to design meaningful rituals that can help them process emotionally difficult subjects, navigate tough situations, and build community and kinship. At the most recent Burning Man, Adam Menter and Arvind Venkataramani set up an installation and invited burners to design rituals. The initiative received an overwhelming response. (Learn more at https://ritualdesign.net) The initiative is currently collaborating with other communities and organizations, including the Harvard Divinity School.
Historically design education has trained designers to have an awareness of the social consequences of their work. Most conscientious designers want to serve positive social change. Yet getting stuck in the “rat race” of trying to produce outcomes with the biggest ROI often distracts designers from their power to actually participate in driving change for the good of the world.
We can reclaim our power to have this kind of impact simply by remembering that our work already positions us to think critically about the long-term and ethical implications of group actions; to deeply understand people and what could benefit them; and to construct systems for our clients and others that will set them up to continue to make grounded and considered decisions into the future.
If we only remember these aspects of our role, the search for truth and our inherent craving to contribute to society will lead the next generation of designers to naturally function as activists.
Any designer can take steps towards becoming a design activist by answering three key questions:
What’s my purpose?
(A personal motivation)
What’s my cause?
(A problem to solve)
What am I going to do about it?
This article was prepared as a follow up of my keynote presentation at the DMI Leadership Conference in Boston on September 16th, 2019. I would like to thank Ash Anderson, a Lead Anthropologist at SonicRim for her help in writing this article.