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We cannot design our way out of this crisis.


Design is supposed to solve the problems of pandemic and climate crisis. This is flawed thinking. The apostles of architecture, technology, and design confront crisis with what they call “design thinking.” They claim they can design our world out of crisis through new technologies: sustainable product packaging, vegetable-based meat substitutes, paper bags instead of plastic, wind and solar instead of coal and oil. Meanwhile, the global super rich build space ships that will allow them to one day escape the mess they made of our planet. “Design thinking” becomes a way of escaping this world entirely.
The techno-optimism of “design thinking” fails to recognize that “design thinking” is itself a poison. The problem is not with design per se. Rather, the problem is with the corporate power structures in which “design thinking” operates. They promise electric cars will replace fossil-fueled cars that pollute. They promise New-Orleans-style levees and elevated houses built on stilts will reduce property damage in flood zones. They promise improved artificial intelligence will stop the virus of online hate speech. They promise we are just one more consumer purchase away from happiness. But this techno-optimism does not address the deeper questions: Why are we not designing a society in which people do not need cars? Why are we building in flood zones in the first place? Why must the profit model of social media networks rely on users spending as must time as possible on their platforms, even when boosting engagement results in exposing users to hate speech? The limited palette of “design thinking” overlooks systemic solutions that require fundamental, but overdue, lifestyle changes.

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The entrenched powers that be insist on inserting themselves into whatever solution is presented, when the real medicine needed might be a society in which the powers that be do not exist. It should alarm us all that tech company executives, who resist government regulation and changes to their platforms, restrict their own children from using the very platforms they designed. Online retailers now sell devices to help addicts like us spend less time on our phones, which begs the question whether such anti-phone technologies would even be necessary had phones been designed as less addictive from the start. In a 2010 interview, Mark Zuckerberg described that designers must have empathy for the people who use their products. However, if designing products to be addictive to users makes the designer more profit, then a tension is created where the needs of the user and the desires of the designer work at cross-purposes. Unless “design thinking” is uncoupled from motives of pure profit, design alone will not fix a world in crisis.
Take the twisted logic of Shell Oil rebranding itself as a company specializing in “renewables” and “green energy.” This seems to be the equivalent of a drug dealer selling both the drugs that will kill and then cure the addict. Last year, the public relations team at Shell announced that, by 2050, their company will have net-zero emissions. Offshore oilrigs will be carbon neutral because they will be powered by solar panels and wind turbines. What this “design thinking” hides is the deeper reality that no oil rig, no matter how well designed, can be good for our planet’s health or our own.
“Design thinking” innovates within the existing railroad tracks of a consumer society. Why should a tire company design an affordable tire never runs flat? Why should a bottled water company advocate for clean water laws that make tap water safer to drink? Why should a shoe company design a mass-market shoe that never falls apart? The existing market structure rewards profitable behavior and profitable design, which is different from ethical design. The ethical designer is likely to create the very conditions of their unemployment. The shoemaker who sells a shoe that lasts forever has just lost herself a future customer. “Design thinking” is like a railroad track. Innovation is possible within set limits, but the train must move forward. The products of design – be they cars, houses, or phones – must sell and ideally resell to returning customers.
The world needs a design revolution, not more “design thinking.” Maybe a design revolution produces architecture as stable and as lasting as the monuments of ancient Rome. Maybe a design revolution restricts the sophistication of cell phone design to the way phones were in the 1990s, clunky so that we are not tempted to stare at them for endless hours. Maybe a design revolution makes technology so easy to repair and upgrade that users need only buy one device that lasts for life. Is the 1/16th inch reduction in iPhone width really worth the environmental cost of millions of tons of landfill waste? These changes require revolution, not reform. No institution – just as much as no person – can imagine a world in which they do not exist. But that is the way design needs to be. Designers should be like doctors, who treat the patient and send them on their merry way. The doctor who never needs to see their cancer patient again has done their job and done their job well. Maybe a design revolution creates a world with fewer designers and less “design thinking.” And maybe a world with less design will be better place.
It is a strange world indeed where we have the unbelievably complex technology to shoot Jeff Bezos on a rocket to outer space, but we do not have the technology to design Apple phone and laptop chargers that last more than a few months. I have gone through at least a dozen iPhone chargers, all in different colors, shapes, and sizes but none that could last. Designers a century ago predicted that, thanks to “design thinking” and technology improvements, people today would have lives of leisure “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, [and] rear cattle in the evening.” Why Americans are working as hard as ever and are as burdened as ever with debt from their consumer purchases is one of the miracles of modern society. A better world is possible, but that world requires nothing short of revolutionary thinking. The only limit to what is possible is what we think is possible.
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