Taking a walk in the sun*

*8 months of research and reflection
on what it means to be a good
designer today.

Is it possible to be a designer and be proud of the impact you're having on the world? A years research and I'm still not entirely sure. Through I haven't found an answer As I learn, work, and create more, I hope these thoughts will crystallize and consolidate, and I will end with something that makes a bit more sense. But for now, please take this: In its half formed, chaotic, state (like my desk has looked all year) this is my messy kaupapa and I truly believe in it. This is utterly subjective, it is my own critical take. There is no brand strategy, no campaign roll-out. This is self conscious and naïve but I’m saying it anyway because I’ve got nothing better to say, yet.

1. Do good.
2. Design is not neutral.
3. Ethics have biases.
4. Good words, not buzzwords.
5. Decolonise your design process.
6. Learn a new design lexicon.
7. Everything is connected.
8. Learn from others.
9. Designer as democratizer.

Written, designed and developed by Briar Lomas. Aotearoa, 2019.

1. Do good.

We’re living in a society of over consumption, device addicts, and pollution; It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the situation. It sometimes feels as though everything’s going to shit, and we designed it this way.

Can the designer do anything right anymore? In an attempt to create less waste one might think that a digital project is a better outcome - and it is, to an extent. True, no off cuts are going into landfill, and no physical elements have to be manufactured, but just looking at this website is generating about 20 milligrams of Co2 per second 1. ‘The internet’ creates 3% of emissions globally – the same amount as the entire airline industry. Huge data farms are taking up large swathes of land, with more being built every second. Everything which can be, is, becoming digitized and adding to the wave of data which threatens to use 1/3 of the energy on the planet by 2050 2. At the start of the year I thought the most political thing I could do as a designer would be to simply move to the middle of nowhere with a couple of bee hives. I soon realised that there‘s really very little point in that. A more useful response is to accept responsibility that our industry has helped to do this, and use the skills I have to try and do good from the inside, out – no matter how incrementally that may be.

1 The environmental impact of the internet
2 The data apocalypse

What is good?

So what do I mean when I talk about 'good' design? To fully understand we first need to reframe the descriptor. Good design is about using absolutely everything at your disposal to be part of the push to make our world a better place. It's about creating work which is self-aware, which respects the world it is born into, which is conscious of the implications it may have, which maximises the freedom of those affected by it. Good design is often about not making something. The luxury to create whenever/whatever we want is a privilege – we are swimming in excess and cannot afford to keep designing tote bags. It’s not really as easy as classifying something to be 'good', but more about asking good for who, and good for what? Is it better than it has to be? I think we should try that as a new benchmark – meeting a brief, and then making it better.

2. Design is not neutral.

Despite graphic design having roots in theory, philosophy and art movements, design now exists largely for the benefit of consumer capitalism. The dominant role of design today is to sell things to people who probably don’t need them; and not acknowledging this is to be complicit in the system. ‘Design’ is not an objective value, nor a filter which we can apply to problems, irrespective of context, to beautify them.

Even the so-called considered and fair decisions we make as designers are very much political acts, "Problem-solving is always messy and most solutions are shaped by political agendas and resource constraints. The solutions that win out are not necessarily the best — they are generally those that are favoured by the powerful or at least by the majority. Both rational experimentation and design thinking provide cover for this political calculus. They make a process that is deeply informed by social and economic structures seem merely technical or aesthetic."3 You can’t be neutral on a moving train 4 – and despite our best intentions, design is so enmeshed in the capitalist paradigm that we couldn’t get off this train if we tried. There’s talk of design as a transformative power for good, here to improve our lives, but if design is going to live up to that mantle then designers have to first front up to how that power’s used.

3 Design thinking preserves the status quo
4 Howard Zinn

3. Ethics have biases.

Ethics are the moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour and the choices they make. To put someone’s ethics into question is to challenge their perception of what they believe to be right. When talking about Ethics in a design school context we face a bit of confusion. We’ve been taught a very limited set of ethics: constrained to getting interviewees to sign talent release forms. My peers think of Ethics as a procedure which must be followed, and fail to see the real life implications of the word which extend beyond the surface. The way we think about ethics is based on the accepted design methodologies we have been taught.

Ethics are subjective, and change from person to person. Without acknowledging this fluidity we run the risk of believing that ‘ethics’ are a shared value, or a neutral word which can be applied to hide the sins of our designs. We already know that design is not neutral, so of course ethics aren’t going to be either. Let’s look at Human-Centred Design as a case study. This way of working centres the human psyche and human experience; meaning the ‘ethics’ we believe to be absolute are anthropocentric. We fail to realise a broad spectrum of ethics which concern other parts of our universe – and the universe itself.

In comparison a methodology which centres the environmental experience, rather than prioritising anthropocentric ethical stances, would force the designer to acknowledge the ripple effects an outcome will cause. This means that rather than concluding the ‘user journey’ at the user, we would realise the full set of implications our designs have.

“With the growing popularity of 'design thinking', 'service design', 'social innovation' and “social impact design”, the language of marketing and commerce are further naturalised and celebrated. Participation, diversity, and inclusion are subsumed into a managerial and mercantile logic with, at best, token gestures towards charity or incremental political reform. This narrative logic masks a vibrant counter-history of critical and activist design practices, rooted within struggles for social change and social justice. It marginalises the roles of contemporary politically engaged practitioners who are actively challenging the definitions of what design can be, what design can do, and whom it could serve." 5

4. Good words, not buzzwords.

Design thinking is a buzzword which tries to sum up the entire design process into something palatable for business people – boxes must be ticked, budgets met, and a process which is intuitive and creative, reduced to post-it notes and diagrams. But the conversation around the future of design, needs to take a few other things into account. There must be a shift from human-centred to human-friendly. We are entering a new phase of design where we need to stop looking in, and start looking out. We need to start asking what else our design is doing past meeting the needs of the user – what about their data? the environment? the people who won't or can't use the outcome but will still be affected by it. “If we can’t bake a consideration of the future into our designs we probably shouldn’t be designing for it.” 6

Buzzwords such as ‘Human-Centred Design’ seem to exist now to sell us things over and over. Which is ironic because that was the problem to begin with. Design had forgotten who it was meant to be for, and a Human-Centered approach offered a solution to that. It was a show of respect to the user. A bitter twist now that we’re designing to fuel consumption on a planet that is dying without considering the implications. I don’t think it’s very respectful if we’re designing without acknowledging and catering for EVERYTHING our designs will affect. Deeper than the user, we must consider the people who can never hope to use a product in their lifetime but who will be first affected by the rising sea levels the creation of that product contributes to, and the flora and fauna which will be devastated in the making of.

6 Not fucking people up - design for 2019

5. Decolonising design.

There is a disconnect between eastern and western models of progress, and as designers he have the priviledge of choosing which mode of progress we prioritise.“That short-sighted model of “progress”... hinges upon all of us, all of Hawaiʻi’s people, all of the Pacific’s people, all of the world’s people losing connection to land, to sea, to other human beings. The less you feel these connections, the easier it is for you to be convinced that unrestricted development is the highest and best use of land.” 7

An alternative is right in front of us, especially in Aotearoa, in the beliefs and value systems of te ao Māori. Stories of creation show our existence as being intrinsically linked with Papatūānuku and Ranginui; it is not a question of us vs. the earth, but us as the earth. Engaging with, and understanding, these indigenous frameworks is a way for designers to cultivate a more sustainable, understanding practice. By taking on the role of kaitiaki (guardian), we change our relationship with the earth and encourage ways of working which put an environmental consideration at the forefront. In Mexico, el tejido de la vida (the interconnected web of life) is a grounding belief system which again offers an alternative way of framing our relationship with the earth.

7 We live in the future – come join us.

Popular design methodologies prioritise a western worldview.

"The lack of racial diversity in graphic design is tied to the pedagogy of design itself. At design schools, foundation courses teach a clearly Western European approach rooted in Modernism. Design history, as it is taught in those settings, renders racial whiteness invisible through an erasure of social context. By isolating creative movements and individual creators, design pedagogy supports the myth of individual exceptionalism, while the Western-centric approach implies racial essentialism. Combined with validating its design aesthetic through theory, this results in a visual language that can exclude and invalidate the perspectives of non-whites. How can a profession hope to attract people of color when the requirements are to assimilate, internalize, and perpetuate white hegemony?" 8

8 The status quo of design

6. A better design lexicon.

Too long has human-centred design been taught as a pillar of design education; prioritising the human experience over anything else until the day the planet is dead and we've been lain in our ergonomic caskets. We need a new design language: one that will speak to the marginalised, the voice-less and the non-human. Google translate won't save us (it can barely understand te reo Māori), we need a responsible design lexicon.

“You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it. If you lack words for a phenomenon, an emotion, a situation, you can't talk about it which means you can't come together to address it let alone change it.” 9

9 Our words are our weapons

Words move and twist.

Words have a meaning which exist below the surface. It can help to visualise words as shapes– morphing and warping dependent on the context within which they exist, and on the spaces we use them. When we understand each of these possible forms a word can take, we realise its true potential. In this way learning becomes a way of reclaiming power. Shining light on the etymology of words, especially those in a design context, gives us, as designer, a better understanding of the agenda we are furthering. Neutrality doesn't exist, so true Design Awareness must be reached through an awareness of the terms we engage with.

7. Everything is connected.

In the same vein as decolonising our design practices, we need to embrace a total change in mindset which is based on remembering the difference between wants and needs; and why we need to want less. By embracing a new way of thinking about our relationship with the earth and everything existing on/in it we will approach design in a new way – drawing on the interconnectedness of life as a guiding principle.

‘The Great Chain of Being’, elevating the human as godly, is an outdated way of thinking. Humans are not greater than everything, nor do we add anything to the earth that is not primarily for our own benefit. It is damaging the way we, as humans, look at the world around us as our playground, and tool cupboard. But the way we operate as ‘human’ in the 21st century exists in a completely different way to the 18th century, therefore we need to change the methodologies which we are guided by.

"The Great Chain of Being is flawed, however. It is an inadequate basis for meaning in the modern world, for several reasons. It is hierarchical rather than truly organic. It is nonhistorical, failing to explain the real processes of history. As a philosophical idea it lacks a scientific foundation. The “chain” that holds all things together also serves as a chain of oppression, locking everything into a static structure. It really has no place for surprise. Its cultural implication is a social hierarchy where men dominate women, the rich rule the poor, and humans subdue and exploit all “inferior” beings, including Earth’s resources." 10

10 Does anything mean anything?

8. Keep learning.

Print these manifestos out and stick them to the wall by your desk to remind you why we're here, and what we have the power to do.

Bruce Mau's Incomplete Manifesto for Growth.
Allan Chochinov's 1000 words manifesto.
Ken Garland's First Things First

Or this oath, adapted from the Hippocratic oath – with the intention of, as a designer, doing no harm

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability, this oath:

I will respect the hard-won knowledge of the designers in whose steps I follow, and I will gladly share mine with those who are to follow me.

I will apply, for the benefit of all people, all measures that are eco-centric, and holistic, avoiding those twin traps of behavioral manipulation and pure profitability.

I will remember that there is responsibility in design as well as love, and that warmth, empathy, and understanding, outweigh hitting targets and meeting budgets.

I will not be ashamed to admit what I don’t know, or to call my colleagues when their skills are needed for matters which I am not qualified to answer.

I will be especially careful in matters of choosing who I work for, and choosing which problems to solve. It is my professional calling to create function and beauty, but it may also be within my power to relieve systematic suffering; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great numbness and awareness of my own shortcomings. Above all, I must not play at god.

I will remember that I do not design for a pattern or a platform, but a human being existing in the world – whose choices have flow on effects to everyone, and thing, around them. My responsibility includes these related problems if I am to design adequately for the universe. I will prevent apathy in design whenever I can; for prevention is preferable to reaction.

I will remember that I remain a member of a global society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those who commission my world as well as those whose experiences, decisions, and lives may be affected by it.

9. Designer as democratizer

“Design must shift from colonizer to democratizer. We must move away from the designer-savior industrial complex that tells us the designer can parachute into any problem and, with some design thinking, fix it, indicating change from the top-down.”

There is a pluriverse of potentials in design, and the way we learn to interact with it. The school doesn't have to be the institution, and design doesn't have to be a solution. If we reframe what we expect from design then we multiply tenfold the power we have as designers.11

11 Against Design

How to stop the planet from burning? I don’t know if it’s possible, and I wouldn’t have a fucking clue. All I’m saying is that design and designers have helped get us into this mess and now it is our responsibility to help get us out. Systemic change is the only thing that can save us, and a considered, creative, design approach is the only thing that can create systemic change on the scale we need. Yes this is my opinion, but if it’s not mine then who’s is it going to be. ☐