What is a Design Culture?

  • The organization designer imagines a team as motivated by competition and incentives.
  • The recommender system designer imagines consumers searching for a perfect match for their individual tastes or preferences.
  • The OS designer imagines users getting out their phones with goals and tasks to perform in mind.
  1. Early computing was built on the first idea, and it still deeply shapes our operating systems: the idea of a tool-using, goal-driven person. Nowadays, if you still believe this—that serving people means addressing their individual goals and problems—you might build something like Google search.
  2. Facebook Newsfeed is built mostly on the second idea: that people are bundles of more-or-less fixed likes/preferences/tastes. If you believe serving people means satisfying their appetites, you’ll build something like Newsfeed or Netflix.
  3. Other social networks are more clearly influenced by the third idea. If you believe in a Darwinist competition for status, power, reproduction, or wealth, you might build more asymmetric, personality-driven networks like Tinder, Twitter, or Instagram.

An Example

The Culture You Live Inside

Do any of these questions puzzle you?

Why the Human Sciences aren’t Scientific

Design Cultures and Social Science Fields
What are People Good at?

Why Some Visions Go Viral

Why Cultures Form

What’s to be Done

  • Does consumerism satisfy our preferences, but not our values?
  • When people share news on Facebook, is it more about uncovering truth, about gaining status, or about gathering around values?
  • What’s wrong with thinking of environmentalism as an economic preference that some people have?
  • When voting isn’t about truth or even self-interest, what is it about?
  • When terrorists blow themselves up, what are they trying to express?


Further Reading

  • McCloskey (2010), Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World
  • McCloskey (2016), Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World
  • Taylor (1989), Sources of the Self
  • Taylor (1992), Ethics of Authenticity





Our 3 month program equips you to anticipate the social effect of designs, and their deeper impacts on users’ lives. Learn to design great products with that in mind. https://sfsd.io

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Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman

Building economies of meaning, and leading the School for Social Design sfsd.io

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