We are but mere cogs in the wheel?

The struggle of becoming responsible designers

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

What is our responsibility as members of the design community? As researchers, designers, design strategists, design managers, do we even have a responsibility other than to service the aspirations and objectives of clients?

As entrepreneurs, corporates, designers, marketers, innovators, we see ourselves as change agents — challenging the status quo and defining the zeitgeist — well, at least, that is what a cursory look at your LinkedIn feed would have you believe. Do we really have the power to influence what we help create or are we merely drifting along together on this unceasing tide of design and technology-enabled transformation with merely an illusion of control?

How often do we ask ourselves what might truly be the real impact of the products and services and experiences and interfaces we help create on the people and the planet? Or more simplistically, do we even need this purported solution? A manager told me not so long ago, ‘We are not at liberty to have a moral compass!’. Moral conundrums aside, the question is really about ethics and responsibility.

To propound my point, I present a few brief examples:

Inclusivity and breaking stereotypes
When we create products and experiences for young millennials and GenZ — an increasingly unmistakable number of whom identify themselves as being outside the conforms of the gender and sexuality binary — why should we still hold on to the legacy of (stereotypically) gendered and heteronormative design approaches from the past two or more decades?

Especially when that legacy is mostly represented and developed by GenXers and older millennials? Or do we continue to dismiss them as ‘only a trend’ prevalent on social media? We have to be careful as to not tokenise this only via personas. But shouldn’t we evolve our design research considerations and design requirements to be more inclusive and pragmatic — as much as we evolve ourselves and our views?

Representation and gaze
The unceasing debate on India’s design aesthetic or rather if it even has one, is one for posterity. Nevertheless, it is without doubt that the gaze with which we often represent the Indian design aesthetic, manifested through colours, symbols, iconography and metaphors, is deeply influenced by either a colonial gaze of exoticism and orientalism or interpreted through the gaze of the dominant castes’ conditioning that much dominates the design community across institutions and organisations. Representation is best done through active participation, isn’t it time we questioned our gaze and developed a new visual vocabulary?

Data privacy and digital surveillance
In the rush towards digitalisation, nations, corporations and tech giants are creating an AI-driven surveillance state, often abetted by the current pandemic and the absence of stringent data protection laws. As we strive to create connected digital experiences that are more seamless and intuitive, do we continue to see individual data privacy and personal liberty as the non-negotiable trade-off for always-on connectivity?

These are not nearly exhaustive nor comprehensive, but merely conversation starters. But any question of responsibility eventually comes down to two key considerations:

  1. Whose interests are we serving — the client or the user?
  2. Who are we really designing for — users or people?

The first question seems rather rhetorical in philosophical terms, although, if you have been a design professional even briefly, you would agree that there could more than meets the eye here, but we shall leave that for another day.

Users vs people
There has been a lot of conversation over recent years about designing for users as against designing for people. Replacing ‘user’ with ‘human’ or ‘people’ definitely takes the edge off. But is that enough?

In a world of late-stage capitalism we still largely design for consumption, with overt consumerist design vocabulary sometimes replaced by the now popular green washing and green capitalism variants. Brands and corporations want to seen as caring for the environment — sustainability is the new innovation — especially today, in the midst of the pandemic, conveniently rebranded as ‘building back better’ and ‘the new normal’. Unsurprisingly, the last one year has seen billionaires become wealthier, with many more added to the lists whilst a significant part of the world has regressed further into the struggles of the new normal.

Designing for consumption therefore seems to have been normalised as the acceptable cost of progress. Dismantling the systems that perpetuate incessant consumption and the status quo of incremental change is never going to be a client-commissioned project. It is the equivalent of the long paeans that eulogise Indian jugaad on LinkedIn posts as a celebration of Indian ingenuity whilst not acknowledging, rather normalising, the abysmal lack of basic amenities among much of its people. As designers, it is imperative for us to first challenge our own biases and conditioning and create new design objectives, methodologies and frameworks and then take our clients with us to what lies on the other side. We may probably still design to make things better. But what good is designing better (experiences, products, brands, services, systems, or interfaces) without challenging or evolving the existing inefficient power structures and frameworks that they’ve been built upon?

People and planet
In an earlier piece, I had written about the quest for unending linear growth and the costs we may pay for it. Eventually, it is not nearly enough to question if our responsibility is to clients or users or people. The underlying layer is not that of people versus planet but rather of people AND planet. So long as we view our responsibility purely to people without considering the impact on the planet we will only be winding ourselves further in this quagmire. Innovation without responsibility is not enough. Solving our clients’ needs without questioning its impact on all stakeholders — including vulnerable groups and the ecology — does not make us responsible designers.

In the polarised world we inhabit, our responsibility as designers is not a left-right issue. It is not just the personal that is political, every decision we take at every step of the design process every single day is political. And it affects us all personally.

To ask these questions of ourselves, our organisations and our clients requires us to examine and challenge not just our established design processes and methodologies or the business intent and expected outcomes, but more importantly (or rather more uncomfortably), question our own conditioning and biases. This could well be seen as being the trouble-maker or the one person who always brings up ‘those’ questions. The only way to normalise this is for more of us to start asking these questions more often. We must exercise our responsibility muscle as designers. Because it is a muscle that will only strengthen with mindful, systematic and consistent use.

We are enablers for sure, the question we should ask ourselves, is of what?

Designer | Researcher | Design Strategist | It’s never too late to ask the right questions