Design Activism

Over the past few years, I’ve been sitting in audiences and on the occasional stage hearing two common criticisms of design activism. In this article I hope to convince you that these criticisms are misguided. You should not accept their implication that designers should shy away from or be afraid of activism. My goal is to help you see design activism in a profoundly positive light. Finally, I want to leave you with a sense of why design activism, relative to conventional forms of activism, is so important to transformation.
Here, design means architecture, product design, landscape architecture and related design disciplines that have spatial and material manifestations, such as fashion design or interior design.

Activist design, for the purposes of this article, frames or reveals a problematic or challenging issue, and publicly calls for change to resolve that issue. It typically acts on behalf of a “deprived, excluded, or wronged population” to which we might add “issue” in the case of the environment [16].

Design activism, for the purposes of this article, addresses largely progressive social and environmental issues, and although this might happen through for-profit undertakings, there is a primary or equal focus on social change.

Misunderstanding Design Activism

Perhaps you’ve heard the critique: activism is fundamentally negative. It is about stopping or preventing things. This idea harks back to traditional protest methods of boycotts and blockades — activists throwing themselves in front of road crews to prevent a highway being built, thereby manufacturing vulnerability that dramatizes power relations [8].

A second critique suggests that, whether or not activism resists or protests, most of it is really just raising awareness and doesn’t accomplish anything. While an activist project may alert more people that driving cars contributes to climate change, even with that awareness, few people change their behaviour.

Let’s examine these critiques relative to design activism. First, unlike protesters, architects can’t throw their buildings in front of highway builders in order to stop road building. Clothing designers can’t throw zero-waste clothing in front of farmers to stop them from putting toxic chemicals on fibers like cotton or sheep wool.

Designers work with things and spaces more than they do events. Even if we could throw buildings and products in front of people to influence their behaviour, those artifacts probably wouldn’t be ready on the timeline required; design is generally much slower and more lasting than typical activist events.

Instead, design activists practice a different form of activism. They most often try to bring about change by generating positive alternatives to the status quo. Rather than being resistant, design activism is mostly “generative” [7].

Design activists practice a different form of activism… Rather than being resistant, design activism is mostly “generative.”

By the time they are hugging trees or lying in a bulldozer’s path, activists have typically already diagnosed the problem and decided what should be done about it (e.g. stop the road) [2]. To put their lives on the line, in this example, activists have to be 100% confident that the road is wrong.

By contrast, to the extent that design is an experimental, inventive, project-based undertaking, few designers would claim 100% confidence in their solutions. Most see their work in a continuum of experimentation and refinement, both within any given design project and outside of it. Each new project — their own and others’ — informs them about what works and what doesn’t.

Ultimately, most design activism is about better understanding the problem, rather than acting with certainty towards a single right answer. Instead of arguing to stop the road, a designer is more likely to explore the question to which “a road” has been offered as the right answer. Where are people going? How else can we move the people who would otherwise use this proposed road? Could we put the road underground? What about a multimodal boulevard that accommodates bicycles and pedestrians as prominently as cars? Could the road be designed to “biodegrade” into a public greenway after 15 years, when it will no longer be needed? You get the idea.

This diagnosing of the problem is as important as promoting solutions in which we are confident. Both of these steps contribute towards building power for making change.

Harnessing the Power to Bring About Change

In focusing on generating alternatives, do designers over-focus on what should be, without putting enough effort into building power to bring about change? Many activists do [6], and designers are no different. This section offers a brief view of the power of design activism. (Note that power is a huge topic and this is a highly distilled presentation of this author’s view).

Power is meaningful in terms of being able to make choices and influence decisions that affect us. There are several common means of power, including organized money, organized people, or, for our purposes, organized materials, representations and spaces [6]. There are also some common forms of power that, for simplicity’s sake, we can identify as the stick (force), the carrot (bargaining or exchange) and the hug (persuasion) [4]. For example, organized people can form an army to force their decisions on others, form a research group to produce evidence that helps them bargain for change, or form a social group with a charismatic leader who inspires people to believe in a cause.

In terms of architecture and the built environment, architect Kim Dovey highlights sticks, carrots and hugs in material terms. For example, prisons and fortresses “strip the subject of any choice of non-compliance” such that they align with destructive force [5].

In terms of exchange or bargaining power, most spaces constitute a sort of spatial offer concerning how a space may be seen, used or accessed. A public plaza makes a different spatial offer than an office building or a private residence, yet these offers serve as constant points of bargaining or negotiation. In terms of persuasion, spaces often work to seduce or authorize; they might uphold conventions, as where formal or classic architectural forms reinforce a sense of authority.

Working more in the area of product design, Dan Lockton and Tracy Bahmra, and their respective teams, uncover these same forms of power in terms of material objects [9, 3]. For example, material objects may require compliance through forcing functions that require a condition to be met (such as the electricity being switched off) before a function is enabled (the opening of the maintenance panel). Rationing on the part of material objects is an example of exchange power. Rationing may occur in terms of portions, where only a certain amount of time, material, or energy is enabled; washing powder tablets create an ideal portion.

The idea of rationing is tied to product or structural affordances — the functions or actions that the user perceives. For example, a dial with 10 temperature settings has a different affordance than an on/off button. In terms of persuasion, material objects use seduction and authority, as mentioned earlier, but also often include guidance. For example, a kettle marked with cup measurements informs users how much water to use.

A key question for design activists who want to build power to bring about change is, “what capacity do I have to build power, whether it’s in the form of the stick, the carrot or the hug?” Since in our case activists are concerned with causes that are typically poorly funded, the endgame is building power on a budget.

The good news is that designers have good capacity to build power. A key tool for bargaining is disruption, and not simply in the form of negative disruptions such as the blockades mentioned earlier. In negative disruptions, activists typically create undesirable obstructions, and then agree to remove obstructions in exchange for getting changes they want [11]. Using positive disruptions, activists create alternative offers that are more
appealing than the status quo. This is generative activism. Both negative and positive disruptions represent exchange power through deal making. As tools for communication, disruptions are also persuasive.

Given how design projects unfold over time, it is useful to consider how disruptions are located in different places through the design life cycle — from commissioning, design, fabrication, use, to end-of-life. Some disruptions live only in one or two phases, and are not carried through the whole life cycle. For example, a dress that results from fashion hacking disrupts the fabrication process, but when worn may not look different from other dresses. In the case of an affordable housing ideas competition, which may be conceptually disruptive, nothing is ever fabricated or used.

An important element of disruption is the way it frames, or focuses attention, on one area instead of another. Thinking back to the road-building example, while a frame of “stop the road” focuses our attention on the bad attributes of the road, a frame of “biodegradable road” shifts our attention to purposes the road serves now and in the future. It also gives us something completely different to bargain for. Framing is the way that a structure, object or material/spatial process works to focus attention on one area instead of another.

Here are some examples of design activist framings for typical causes. In of the field of education, Bruce Mau and colleagues launched an initiative called “the third teacher” premised on the idea that kids learn from relationships with parents first, teachers second, and their physical environment (particularly in the classroom) third. A number of other initiatives, such as the Open Architecture Network’s classroom of the future competition, have also brought a design activist framing to education. Recently, there have been initiatives to anchor public places with a theme of literacy in projects such as the pop-up reading room by The UNI Project, designed by Howeler + Yoon Architecture. Similarly, John Locke of The Living installed bookshelves and books in phone booths around New York City. He framed these phone booths (over 13,000 citywide) as an opportunity for something new, given the presence of cell phones (17 million in the city).

Generative activism is powerful both as physical things and ideas. When an idea spreads, by being featured in publications, presented at conferences and experienced by visitors, it has reach. And even if, as a thing, it exists in only one town or neighbourhood, its presence can affect spatial norms on a much bigger scale. For example, the US Green Building Council used a relatively small sample of green buildings to develop a rating system that has become a norm for many public agency building codes. Similarly, the success of Rebar’s pocket parks in parking spaces has led several cities to create pocket park policies.

So when you look at design activism or do your own projects, consider power. You’ll most likely create positive disruptions that help people bargain for something better. How can you frame your offer for the right target audiences? Where in the design process, or lifecycle, should you look for an opportunity to disrupt norms? Can your power have reach? What can you do to give people the best bargaining chip?

Transformative vs Reformative Approaches

As generative activists, designers have a hugely important role to play in transforming our current systems into those that would support a sustainable world. That’s because designers’ experimental and innovative approaches help us cope with new and complex situations.

Historically, activists have proposed reformist solutions. Many major movements of the last century have sought to expand rights to marginalized groups, extending to women the right to vote and gay people the right to marry [12]. These changes do not involve inventing new solutions, but rather reforming our existing approach. We are now dealing, however, with complex systems and new connections among issues where frequently there is no basis for reform.

For example, suburban development patterns, blamed for increasing our automobile dependence and thus damaging the environment (through carbon emissions, loss of habitat, etcetera), are now also empirically linked to a wide range of health issues such as obesity, depression and high blood pressure [14; 10]. Similarly, research increasingly shows links between climate change, food production and diet [1].

Although in the past, diet and food may have been seen as human health issues and suburban sprawl may have been seen as an environmental issue, these two areas now share a lot of common ground. They are both environmental and human health issues. For tackling health, suburban development and climate issues together, we have no specific basis for reform, since no existing laws or infrastructure address these linkages

Activists act on the idea of shaping a better society, and designers can have a strong role in shaping our visions for that better society, particularly in cases where there is no basis for reform. These cases require innovation and invention to create appealing visual and experiential bargaining chips. Only with bargaining chips like these can people support and enact transformational ideas.

To Generate!

Generative activism is a constructive way to understand design activism and its power to bring about change. In creating new ideas for new kinds of problems, generative activism builds power by providing compelling visions of a better society that people are then able to bargain for. With generative activism, designers are relieved of the negative connotations of protesting or resisting, while the process of materially and spatially framing the debate plays to designers’ strengths.


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