Design Can Be Wonderful, But it Won’t Save Us from Ourselves

By Jonathan Jenner

Design, when it’s not packaged in insufferable smugness, is really cool. Houses have always been fun for me, and I can easily get lost thinking about my plans for Earthships, Dymaxion houses, Bag End, Ecocapsules, and all kinds of other domiciles. And I still get pretty excited when I hear about some new design that will accomplish x: Tesla’s Powerwall™ could change the game,   THINX panties could change societies squeamishness around menstruation and disrupt the $15 Billion feminine hygiene market,   graphene could do everything, and these magnificent shoes could help me win friends and influence people.

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But all too often, we fetishize design.  We tell ourselves that design can solve our problems. We make grand sweeping statements – like the 2006 documentary Future by Design or in every other TED talk – and we soak it in in our daily lives, from the corner Prius evangelists to our barroom conversations.  And while design may effectively solve some problems, our seemingly growing faith in its ability to deliver us from all of our problems is misplaced at best, and dangerous at worst.

This is because the big problems we face as a society today are not just design problems – they are fundamentally problems of power.  Climate change is problem of capitalism, not a design problem. The technical means to solve the climate problem have already been largely available. We haven’t been able to implement them because of the entrenched power of capitalists. This doesn’t mean we oppose cap-and-dividend or oppose technical fixes, or oppose design. It’s just not the big problem. The shaming and marginalization of women and their bodies across the world is not because we haven’t designed products for women well enough, but because patriarchy exists.  The U.S. locks up more of its population and millions of black and brown people  because of centuries of deep, institutionalized racism, and designing better prisons does little to confront the structure of power that lies behind such a terrible inheritance.

Don’t get me wrong – design can, and should, be helpful.  People can: drink cleaner water, irrigate crops more effectively, work around oppressive structures, contribute less to global CO2 emissions, look fly, avoid disease, sleep better, and so on. (This happens when design works and complements the social structures it’s in.  But stories of design failure, particularly when combined with white saviorism, are almost a dime a dozen these days).  Obviously, design and technological change do shape society and power structures (see: barbed wire and white people in the American West, Australia), but this is often an unpredictable interaction that happens across wide time horizons.  So when we target design to try and fix the malcontents of the world we see around us, we must understand what it can do (help people survive easier in the world we’ve inherited) and cannot do (straightforwardly supersede the power relations of the world we’ve inherited).

So, keep designing folks! Shoes, especially.  But in our struggles to make a world that is free and equal, we must recognize that we struggle against the power of capital, of racism, of patriarchy, of colonialism, not against a bad mousetrap.  Let’s get rid of the idea that design will cure us of our maladies, and struggle, openly and directly, against power.