Both design and economics breed inequality.


Let’s explore this statement. 

In this Unconference, Design is understood as the activity of gathering, planning, asking and making. Yes, this implies that most human activity is in fact design. Not just buildings, logos and murals have design, but also laws, cultures and even markets. Economics is also a result of Design activity. It was created to fulfill a specific human purpose. Money, for example, is the design solution to a problem of trade – there needs to be an unlikely match between what person A and person B want to sell and need. This made exchanges tricky – enter the concept of money, where a middle ‘want’ is created (Roth, 2015). Some designs of economics include communism, community trading, the welfare state, and yes, capitalism.

This egotistical way of looking at the world has its pros – if everything is designed, it can be redesigned. We can look at our reality not as a universal, eternal and all-encompassing truth but as the result of historical and very human choices. It allows us to reimagine our current structures into something else (Hopkins, 2020)

The issue with design, however, is that it is not a unified practice as we understand it (Heskett, 2017). Architecture does not officially overlap with graphic design, design thinking does not speak with product design. Even to designers, the definition of the practice holds a subjective tone when looked at the bigger picture. 

Design as the human activity is found everywhere, in everyone, all the time. We design relationships, communities, we design beautiful pieces of art, we design what value means and with that, where we place our time, energy, finances. We are all designers of our own life, and therefore looking at the origins of the concept must include everyone. It is nevertheless relevant to point out that the practice is incredibly westernised. 

The ‘key’ literature on design from the last two centuries belongs to white America and white England, with occasional appearances from continental Europe. The Bauhaus, Tim Brown, Dieter Rams, Donald Norman, Frank Lloyd Wright, Joseph Schumpeter. One only has to look at the birthplace of technological advancements of our era – Silicon Valley, where diversity is as bleak as the CEO’s faces (Cawley, 2018). 

You may ask – why does that directly mean that Design (the practice) and Economics breed inequality? Not providing equal opportunity to each and all members of society already shows issues of inequality related to societal stigma. Nevertheless, stigma is but a consequence of a wider web of causes. Firstly, the positionality of these ‘key’ design writers, secondly, their purpose. 

Design as a practice, thanks to these and many more figures, made palpable our basic human activities and turned them into tools and methodologies. Design Thinking is the perfect example of this, a branch of design based purely on its new methodology that will liberate human creativity and enhance change (Brown, 2009). Emotional mapping, adding the ‘end user’, workshops with ‘multiple stakeholders’ suddenly take over design practices, with the simple philosophy of ‘whatever you make, make sure it’s for someone’. It is in the definition of ‘someone’ that one could argue inequality starts. Who is this ‘end user’? Empathy is meant to be the tool used to answer this question, but even our empathy has limits, for we do not know what we do not know. We will always be unaware of suffering that has not been exposed to us. Our current political system is designed for the majority, meaning if your experience deviates from a cultural norm, the system will not organically enhance it. Why should we then be surprised that we have created cities unfit for wheelchairs, or education systems that favour the favoured? Because Design the practice was also designed, the biases from the designers came hand in hand with the methodologies.  

Secondly, what was the purpose for these methodologies to appear? To bring products to market that will lock in high levels of consumerism. Hence, make the organisations that these designers work for, profitable – the proof of concept for Design Thinking is its assurance of revenue (Fatemi, 2019). Design thinking also assumes there is a problem to be solved and Design Thinkers are the solution to it, leaving the last word to the ever-knowing power of the unchecked designer. This culture of privilege and profit has taken over most activity in the 21st century (Michaels, 2019). Quality of life has increased throughout the world, yet what we understand as ‘happiness’ has actually stagnated since the 1950s in the western world (Layard, 2006). Design the practice no longer breathes outside of capitalism. Whilst we, people, designed capitalism, we no longer hold the upper hand, it is now designing us. 

It is at this point that we find the true relationship between Design practice and Economics. They are intertwined in a toxic ouroboros – Design creates economics, created capitalism, and now the Design practice perpetuates its toxic traits. The toxic traits of economics in turn perpetuate a Design discipline that is exclusionary in its origin, and will carry on being so if unchallenged. 

  1. There is a difference between design as a concept (which is basic human activity) and design as a practice (a black box even to designers).
  2. The economy is human-made, and our latest design is capitalism
  3. The positionality of the designer and the purpose of its practice leads to inequality. 

Do you agree? Which design practices would you recommend to avoid inequality? – social media conversation topic