Alix Rule recently penned an article titled The Revolution Will Not Be Designed for In These Times. The article centers around a criticism of Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design for their consideration that design – or more precisely, design thinking – is a “powerful corrective force” in addressing social problems. I invest considerable time, effort, and money in designing for social change, so when I first stumbled upon the article I was outraged. After a closer look, though, and after mulling over Alix’s arguments, I began to see that she may be right on some accounts.
Social justice inherently seeks systemic change to redress oppression. Rule’s objection to design thinking is that it serves as a”post-ideology” ideology, one which is stripped of considerations for “the long process by which consensus is built—a.k.a. politics.” Her case is that:
In particular, design metaphors obscure the ideological—and political—decisions involved in tackling societal issues. Depending on your perspective, “drunk driving” can be a symptom of some broader systemic failure (from un-walkable suburbs to deficient public education), a lapse of individual responsibility, or a right to be defended. The solution to the problem is inseparable from its conception. Conceiving of global ills as design challenges may sometimes be in order, but only when a consensus exists on goals, budgets and relevant values. Such is rarely the case.
From Alix’s perspective, the designer-cum-activist is taught to be pragmatic and innovative, rather than pensive and academic. Theoretically speaking, their role is to step in after social justice has been achieved, to ensure that utopia looks nice.
The death knell that Alix would ring on design thinking is sounded by the same thing that draws me to design as an activist tool in the first place. Design thinking neatly skirts the system and hands out tools. Consensus is rarely reached, so what can the concerned do in the meantime? The answer is be practical and innovative, rather than pensive and academic. As an activist of many years, I can personally attest that bringing radical ideas to the table, and trying to form consensus around them is a difficult task, even in the most hospitable environments. What inspires me about the new design thinking is its direct application. It is action that is deliberate and well thought out, and it doesn’t suffer from Ivory Tower vertigo.
Social justice hinges on changing an unjust system, so where Alix is right is not in blaming designer-activists for trying, but for not being holistic enough. Drunk driving can be seen from many perspectives, and in her example, designers are addressing it from only one. She cites a New York Times article (“Design That Solves the Problems of the World’s Poor”) that describes an efficiency-improving device for “peasant women fetching water.” No doubt the device will benefit their society considerably, as their work is central to survival, but what about addressing patriarchy? Writ large, design thinking could obscure wider solutions that get at the root of social issues.
Also, Alix is right for blaming designers for the strange company that they keep. All those seriously committed to social change know that the landed gentry have a singular interest – protecting their wealth and privilege. So, when BusinessWeek‘s Bruce Nussbaum trumpets d.school’s program for its “powerful methodology,” it should make the activist cringe. More, these are the interests represented when stakeholders come to the table, and a skeptic like myself has to question their motivations.
The question thus arises, do we need more design thinking, or less?