Economic systems 101 for designers


Ok, I got it. You decided to become a designer because you are a visual person, or you like to create images and objects and see how people interact with them. But you can also say you like to make those interactions simplers, easier… And you think economic systems are all related to numbers, and statistics, and money, blábláblá.

I have big news for you. We are all part of the economy. And as designers, we are at the starting point of this system. I believe it might make a huge difference in your work if you could understand it a little bit about some economic systems.

The Business Dictionary defines economic systems as “An organized way in which a state or nation allocates its resources and apportions goods and services in the national community.” There are many types of economic systems but they are all defined by the way goods are produced and distributed to people.

To illustrate this, let’s take a look in some types of economic systems and see how designers are part of that.

Mercantilism was the most important economic system from 1500 to 1800. About that time powerful countries like the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Portugal, and Italy were known as mother countries. The goal was to explore their colonies by extracting all their resources and forcing them to only trade with them. It was all based on domination. Design in this period is associated with luxury. Only rich people had access to that. If you look of the design history you’ll find interior design, garden design, and fashing design as references. Their goal was purely aesthetic.
World population: a really small amount of the population could have anything that was available at the time.

Typography and a living room from the 17th Century

Capitalism was invented during the 17th Century but it only starts to be the dominant economic system in most of the countries around the 19th Century and still on. At this economic system, the characteristics are private property, freedom, competitive market, and of course the capital — money, profit. One of the most well-known design movements was Bauhus (1920–1934). For them, and in other movements from that point on, the goal was aesthetic and functional working a perfect balance. Also, a good designer should be aware of how to scale to mass production.
World population: a large part of the population could have/buy almost anything — if they have the money.

Typography and an office created at the Bauhaus movement

But what is next?

According to Paul Manson, a writer and broadcaster on economics and social justice, we are now living the end of Capitalism and the beginning of the Post-Capitalism.

There is no precise way to say when one system ends and other starts but in an article at The Guardian, Paul Mason describes now as “At the heart of further change to come is information technology, new ways of working and the sharing economy. The old ways will take a long while to disappear, but it’s time to be utopian”.

As designers, even though we always have an aesthetic goal, more and more we are conscious of our role in the system. Every product starts at the design phase and all the features we create have a long tail impact in our society.
World population: We are now redefining the sense of ownership. Users don’t need to have goods. What they really need to make use of the goods.

If people are now saying “I don’t need the drill, just a way to put the frame on the wall.” How can we design goods in this new economic system?
The Fast Company wrote a list of key principles to keep in mind while we design in the sharing economy:






The sharing economy is one part of the post-capitalism, not the only one. As designers, we have to be one step further to shape our work to fit the market and users' needs.