Design – When is it Activism?

All Design is Activism
I’ve heard some people argue that if activism is simply of form of action intended to create change, then all design is activism. Randolph Hester, at UC Berkeley, makes this argument adding, “there is no such thing as passive design” [1]. And it’s true that a great deal of writing about design either records, celebrates or critiques the active nature of design that Hester calls out. A particular strand of the literature focuses on the stories of individual designers, for example product designers such as James Dyson or Philipe Starck, or architects such as Frank Gehry or Norman Foster. These stories, filled with the intentions of the designers, their sketches, models, prototypes, and ultimately, finished products and buildings, highlight just how typical “intentional action” is in almost any design process.

stories abound of “intentional action” by designers such as Gehry and Foster



Adding to this view, Buchanan has suggested that every product is an argument for how to live [2]. And indeed, studies of finished products and buildings demonstrate this notion, since the results of design carry on affecting the actions of those who use the design, sometimes for decades. Among countless examples is Brand’s review of the design results for two research buildings [3]. One, MIT’s media lab by I.M.Pei was too vaguely programmed yet at the same time over-specified, so that purpose built rooms were no longer useful by the time the building actually opened, leaving the Media lab with ill-suited spaces that were adapted to poor offices and poor lecture halls. The other building, Lewis Thomas Molecular Biology building at Princeton by Robert Venturi, designed for conviviality, sharing and flexibility, has exceeded expectations on all counts. In these cases the architecture potentially enhances or limits the dynamics of the research that takes place within the building.

But many professions are in the business of taking actions to create change, for example, lawyers, doctors, bankers, nutritionists and many others. Change is life, in a sense. A key question concerning activism for social change, or social transformation is, as Hester also asks, “Activism for whom?” In many cases professional activism, whether by designers or lawyers, is on behalf of well financed, powerful entities, typically businesses or financially secure individuals, who are striving to preserve or extend their power base. Hester notes that currently design actions are largely on behalf of the powers that be, “form makers follow political function and order it, whether the designer leads social transformations or celebrates corporate and military authority.” A good deal of the rest of professional activism is, we could argue, set in place to defend against “transformation,” by taking actions that preserve the status quo. Ironically we act to produce change that averts transformative change.

We see this clearly in the fast changing realm of digital technologies. Companies rush to lobby for new laws, but laws that extend and strengthen their existing control over intellectual property [4]. Pundits act to quickly set up blogs and websites, but these are merely to maintain their position as pundits.

Activism in these terms is generic. We could argue that terrorism is activism in a regressive form. But in these discussions I am interested in activism that advocates change on behalf of a wronged, excluded or deprived group – such as nature (or the climate), women in the workplace (such as women’s wages), or victims of war, to name a few examples. Yet this kind of activism, a progressive advocating kind of activism, has largely seemed inappropriate or unworkable for designers. Why is this so?

Design as servant
The professionalizing of designers as “servant problem solvers” prevents most within the discipline from characterizing themselves as “activists” or advocates, even if that is what they are [1, 5]. Hester suggests a typology of designers as a way of characterizing their general “postures” towards activism. Of the five types–blissfully naïve, savvy naïve, servants, contextualist, and catalysts–he notes that the bulk of designers fall into the category of “servants”, serving clients and their needs while conveniently disconnecting their work from the context that surrounds it. While the naïve designers do not see connections to context, the servants and contextualists do, but the catalysts are the true activists.

And there is a great deal of evidence that designers and others see design as a servant to commerce and commercial clients. Numerous scholars of design and design history agree that at its core design is a professional service with largely commercial purposes. For example, Dormer comments, “Design was seen to have two separate but related functions: it could be used strategically by a corporation to help plan its manufacturing and shape its marketing; and it had a more obvious role in making individual products attractive to consumers” [6]. Similarly, Heskett writes, “Apart from private experiment and exploration for their own interest, a necessary function in sustaining creative motivation, most designers rarely work for or by themselves: they work for clients or employers, and the context of business and commerce must therefore be viewed as the primary arena of design activity” [7].

A review of the codes of practice from a variety of professional design associations also shows that, with minor recent exceptions, these codes cover only business aspects of design work. The codes concentrate on business practices, client responsibilities and the treatment of peers and colleagues. Even the few codes that, in general terms, mention the environment or non-discrimination, only enforce the parts of the code that deal with business issues [8].

Further evidence of the view that design is a servant to commerce can be found in government policies on design. As Heskett notes, “many governments around the world have evolved what can be termed macro-design policies for the development and promotion of design as an important factor in national economic planning for industrial competitiveness” [7].

governments view design as a tool for competitiveness


Given this economic truth about design as it is taught and practiced today, I disagree with Hester’s assessment that most designers conveniently disconnect their work from context. Hester, like others, seems to suggest that most designers are in a position to simply take up activism, if only they would. But it’s not so simple. Designers are typically enmeshed in private sector commerce, which is ill equipped to make social or environmental claims that do not aid the financial bottom line–claims concerning ecological abundance or community coherence, for example. Disconnecting from these broader concerns then becomes largely a requirement of commercial design work, not a convenience.

Within the professional design framework there is little space for activism. At best, designers can legitimize activism by finding “win-win” solutions that meet client profit-making needs while also addressing social concerns. At worst, designers might find themselves using the activism associated with current social trends (eg concern over climate change) merely as a guide to enhancing consumer appeal for buildings, clothing, products and the like. “Greenwashing” is a classic example, where ecological concerns are addressed superficially (eg stating that “the package is recyclable” although no facilities actually exist to recycle the material) with the main aim of enhancing a product’s competitiveness and profitability.

For many, this limited space for activism is not satisfying. It is fair to say that there is an increasing level of discontent among the ranks of design scholars and practitioners at the results of commercial design and its limited opportunities to “do good.” Yet as far as I see, most designers who would like to pursue activism continue to use the “service for hire” model. Societal transformation is likely to involve economic and political shifts that will be seen as threatening or risky –in other words they’ll involve struggle. To what extent will these moral struggles be “hired out”?

This leads us to one of the key questions for design activism. How does design reconcile its conventional role as servant to commercial clients and their users with its potential role as transformative change agent and societal leader (read public service/not-for-profit sectors of the economy)? Does it have to? Will it remain primarily a ‘change agent for hire’?

Design education is gradually incorporating more activist notions–steadily directing design students to consider what is the right thing to do, rather than simply accepting that making money and complying with rules is enough (see post on activism and the economy). But students generally aren’t being presented with any models of practice that go beyond the conventional service-for-hire (see also how to find a sustainable design job). They are not equipped with a strategy for how to position themselves within the economy so that they can actually apply activist design .

1. Hester, R., Design Activism…For Whom? Frameworks, 2005. 1(1): p. 8-15.
2. Buchanan, R., Declaration by Design: Rhetoric, Argument, and Demonstration in Design Practice, in Design Discourse, V. Margolin, Editor. 1989, University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
3. Brand, S., How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built. 1994, New York: Penguin.
4. Koman, R. “Remixing Culture: An Interview with Lawrence Lessig”. Policy Devcenter 2005 1 June 2007 [cited 2007 1 June]; Available from:–lessig.html.
5. Walker, S., Sustainable by Design. 2006, London: Earthscan.
6. Dormer, P., Design Since 1945. 1993, London: Thames and Hudson.
7. Heskett, J., Toothpicks and Logos: Design in Everyday Life. 2002, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
8. Thorpe, A., The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability. 2007, Washington D. C.: Island Press.

4 Responses to Design – When is it Activism?

  1. I just stopped by your blog and thought I would say hello. I like your site design. Looking forward to reading more down the road.

    Robert Michel

  2. […] about a word or a topic, it starts popping up everywhere?  Found this great discussion over at Ann Thorpe’s blog: Within the professional design framework there is little space for activism. At best, designers […]

  3. steven says:

    Is there a follow up to this article? I’m trying to figure this out myself…

  4. Ann Thorpe says:

    I haven’t yet written a follow-up, although I have come to feel that it makes sense to try to outline a framework for design as an activist practice. It’s something I continue to work on and hope to post more about it soon. What’s your thinking on it so far?

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