Is design political? / by Dan Lockton

Over at Core77, the Design Council's Jennie Winhall has written a thought-provoking essay, "Is design political?", looking at the links between design and politics, and how design can be used to shape behaviour for political ends:

"Design is a very powerful tool. It elevates the likelihood of certain kinds of choices and shapes certain kinds of behaviours. Most designers balk at the idea that design is a form of social engineering, but Hilary Cottam, director of RED at the UK Design Council, maintains that "if you don't look at what any design is governing, then you are being governed by it.""

Jennie uses examples - ranging from political branding to prison design, neighbourhoods designed for cars rather than people to the treatment of pushchairs on public transport - to illustrate the point that designers can hardly avoid embedding politics (and control, in Foucault's definition) into the products and environments they create.

From my own experience as a designer, I would probably put more emphasis on commercial interests driving the politics of most design rather than any conscious decision on the part of the designer to use architectures of control (or other methods) to embody or reinforce an ideology; the following quote (whilst promoting a laudable prospect!) seems rather optimistic in the majority of design contexts:

"Crucially, good user-centred designers look at a problem from the point of view of the user, not the priorities of system, institution or organisation. You could say that user-centred design is a political standpoint in itself. Designers observe people in context to understand the complex experiences, needs and wishes of individuals, and are able to represent and champion those needs throughout the design process."

While there are exceptions - independent design intended to be socially beneficial, or done as part of a non-profit initiative - in reality I feel most designers are not easily able to ignore the "priorities of system, institution or organisation": those priorities are what they're paid to consider.

Apple's justifiably appreciated for its commitment to design, but how can DRM of any kind be considered user-centred design? Did observing "the complex experiences, needs and wishes of individuals" demonstrate customers' wishes to do less with their music and video? I doubt it. But someone gave the direction to develop the restrictive architecture.

As we've seen with the architectures of control on this site, there are a handful of examples where commercial benefit and social benefit (often contentious: that's the 'politics' aspect) intentions coincide to produce something which, by controlling or limiting the user's actions, is designed to improve the user experience as well as the financial return, but it really is just a handful.

Raising awareness of the political impact of product and industrial design (in addition to graphic design, which is fairly self-aware already) among designers and policy-makers may have interesting consequences: I hope we'll see more appreciation of this in future design education curricula, which could inspire some great thinking from future generations of designers, but there may also be the corollary that product design becomes seen as another tool in the propaganda arsenal for those who would wish to control us; in many cases, technology is already there...