Can designers fix the mess we created?

Picture a game of monopoly on the coffee table. Then picture me, two days into said game, raising my voice at my partner telling him his game strategy directly represented how he managed his economic affairs in real life. Recklessly, relying on luck. With the added thrill of consumption. Ouch. Not my finest moment. I detest what monopoly teaches you. But monopoly wasn’t always designed to be like this.

The original game Monopoly evolved from was actually designed by a woman – Elizabeth Magie – patented in 1904. It was called The Landlords Game and came with two sets of rules; the first which later turned into Monopoly (or rather the idea was stolen and capitalized on). The second set of rules was decidedly anti-monopolist. Designed to illustrate the consequences of land grabbing, rent was paid into a public treasury, there were no taxes on utilities and the game ended without a declared winner after five rounds. Theoretically, everyone was a winner. This original game had two rule sets to teach two competing principles and highlight the pitfalls of the former; making some people very rich whilst bankrupting others. Designers chose to proceed only with this state of play and the world outside the board game followed suit.

Monopoly is a small peg in a broader scheme of how we got here. Of how designers with competing interests, and a public ready to follow them, twisted our way down this path.

Design is visual but more than that it’s not. It’s behavioral economics. It’s systems. It’s policies. It’s processes. It’s language. It’s marketing. It’s manipulation. It’s persuasion. And though many claim human centred design exists to enhance our world, indeed to design our lives, it has often been used against what is truly human and what is a better outcome for humanity.

Design is the reason we were able to convince billions of people that they needed single-use convenience plastics in their lives when we were entirely capable of thriving without them.

It raises the issue of public, democratic control of production decisions. In other words, does society really need plastic bags? – Dr. Barry Commoner, 1989

Design is the reason we think it’s completely normal to head into a fast-fashion outlet and see new styles every week.

Design is the reason we buy the worst processed food for us, when we have access to better (for those whom have economic, geographic and education access).

Design is the reason our recycling systems – and lack thereof – are failing.

Design is the reason we can know the terrible consequences our luxurious choices are having (those beyond the essential needs of a modern world), but choose to ignore them and do it anyway. Whether that’s insight into how easy it is to manipulate our greed, our ego, our individualism or narcissism, or whether that’s an indication of how good the design is, is debatable, but the result is the same.

Design is the reason kids who watch commercial television will suddenly lust after toys they’ve never seen before and throw a tantrum if they don’t get it.

Design is why we have a global system of food transportation, deforestation, land-use change and food waste (30 – 50 percent in industrialized countries).

Design sold us the nightmare of suburban sprawl.

There are professions more harmful than design, but only a few. – Designer Victor Papanek, 1970

Designers have long be funnelled into a tunnel where the constant desire to solve a specific problem causes plenty of consequential problems that are explicitly ignored. We’re taught to consistently define our boundaries in order to get to the heart of the problem we’re resolving. It reminds me somewhat of the problem with the missing dataset for women. In enormous swaths of data, women are simply overlooked as including them meant we had to take into account other factors such as a different set of hormones to men or a different body shape. It was easier to ignore the dataset – albeit being half the world – altogether. This has obviously created a great many problems. As society has grown more and more complex this has evolved into wicked problems. One solution tends to lead to more problems. A number of these we aren’t even be able to foresee.

A mantra I find myself repeating in environmentalism a lot the past few years is that we need to choose better problems. I’m a long retired optimist of ideas that will magically resolve our problems. In the environment, pretty much everything at scale will cause us issues with seven to ten billion people, regardless of how good the solution is. What we need to do is ensure this becomes part of the public discourse, that most people are aware of it, and that we come together as groups in society to select the somewhat less problematic and fairer problem (overall, not for ourselves) and work on ways which we can make it more just.

I think the same needs to be happening far more in design. Designers have an enormous responsibility and we are – at the general level – rarely thinking about the implications well beyond our sphere of change. But that’s the problem. We’re not necessarily designing a solution, we’re designing change. And change, in a complex web of systems & processes, has interdependencies, consequences and unknown unknowns. This requires a change in the way in which we work, how others value this work and the scope we receive for incorporating it, but it’s something we need to be pushing for.

Some designers might think this is too abstract or only applicable to larger issues but that’s not the case. If we move a button, if we enhance it slightly, if we change the copy of that button a little, if we split test those and land on the one that converts more users we’ve solved a problem for the company. Did we really solve one for the users? If they would not have bought this item without our manipulation, was it necessary? We have done our job by increasing sales but we have also just contributed to the emotional rollercoaster of consumption, the resources that have been expended to create the item and the system that relies on economic growth. If the company sells more, and they have more money to play with, what will they do next?

Hard to love a design industry that monopolizes the privilege of a solution whilst structurally rejecting responsibility for the problem. – David Rudnick

Design is often not inherently evil. Most designers are people with full hearts who genuinely want to make a mark and solve problems. But, in a world structured entirely around hypercapitalism, design is often manipulated and in turn manipulates those – all of us – that interact with it.

Even the circular economy & circular design, though I claim to be party to it, stings with privilege. Before designers came along and changed the system, the world was already largely circular. Ask any First Nations person. We humans had an impact to be sure, but we lived much closer to a natural balance. After having created all the problems, we’re now claiming we have a new answer (one that certainly doesn’t solve for all of the issues nor address the business models they stem from). And in a complex system, we now have more problems to address from solving these ones. Not least of all, why aren’t we deciding what shouldn’t be in existence in the first place? Why are we never changing the framework?

I am at heart a designer. Many of us – knowingly or not – are. Design has given us a great many things. We have much improved services and more products than we will ever know what to do with. But we have limits. A lot of them. Designers need more surface area for systems thinking. We need far more collaboration and open sourced solutions that we can collectively use our brains on. In many instances we actually need less competition and more collaboration. With a fuller scope of problem and eyes wide open, those same techniques can be used to create the society we want to sustainably live in.

To use the ploys for better.
To warp our heuristics for better.
To unwind the damage.

Ideally, we need a better system to work within. That’s not the fault of designers, but it is one we contribute to, grow and reinforce. It is one we can analyze and question. It is one that we are in the ideal position to help redesign.

My job is no longer really to solve a problem.
It’s to create better ones.

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Developed by Lis Dingjan

Lis is the founder of Nowhere & Everywhere. With a background in law, international development & service design, she is a passionate advocate of human rights, climate justice, eating from the ground, exploring deeper, giving back a little more than you take and designing better systems. Lis spends a significant portion of time in the field in rural Cambodia.