I think about the purpose of design a lot. I studied Graphic Design at university and loved it. Five years of learning about creative and artistic techniques, theories, making things... Such joy! I didn’t want it to end. But it did, and then my bubble burst as I entered the world of work. The prospect of spending my life making people want to buy products I didn’t think should exist, made me sick to my stomach.
With so many problems in the world, how could I justify this job to myself? The answer is that I couldn’t. I was lucky enough to have the support of my parents, the Venezuelan government, and a scholarship, to be able to come to the UK to do an MA in Design and Environment, that allowed me to have the time and space to start exploring how to use design as a force for good. A decade later, I continue to be on that quest, and have since devoted my design practice to collaborating with organisations, projects and people working for social and environmental change.
This has been my way to distance myself from the mainstream of a discipline that though supposedly focused on problem-solving, seems to have been fuelling ‘imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’1 for centuries. But I still worry about our collective impact, and about designers who have not had the choices I’ve had. How are they justifying the long hours in front of a computer screen, cracking a client’s ‘design problem’, while others try to find a COVID-19 vaccine or are exposing themselves to the virus by doing what is now understood as ‘essential work’? I wonder about our relevance and purpose as designers, and what we could yet become.
I am certainly not the only one who feels this way. Concerns about the purpose of design in relation to capitalism are not new. Even here in the UK home to the Industrial Revolution, William Morris, renowned designer, writer, political activist and pioneer of the Arts and Crafts Movement was organising in the mid 1800s for a practice concerned not with ‘competitive commerce’ but with beauty, usefulness and justice2. A century later in 1967 Victor Papanek wrote the still relevant book “Design for the Real World” where he stated: “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don't need, with money they don't have, in order to impress others who don't care”3.
Sadly, despite designers grappling with these questions for such a long time, contemporary design practice continues to serve the ‘phony’ capitalist pattern identified by Papanek, reinforcing a global system of domination and exploitation, where a minority accumulates riches, at the expense of the global majority and the planet. What is a designer to do though if ‘the client is always right’? Especially if working within an agency. When presented with a brief, do they challenge whatever feels wrong about it, even if that likely means upsetting their boss (usually a man) or losing the commission, and the client simply going somewhere else to get what they want? In response to the climate crisis—and the increasing awareness generated in no small part by the Youth Strikers and Extinction Rebellion—some people are saying yes4, this is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing, and when enough of us do it, change will come. Similarly, this summer, after the killing of George Floyd and the wave of protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement, UK ‘ad bosses’ took another pledge, this time to support ‘Black talent’5. Though well-meaning, I can’t help but feel sceptical about the potential for this opt-in incremental change approach to uproot the white-supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy out of design.