Design through transitions

by | Sep 20, 2020 | Meta Design

In 2019 a photo was uploaded on a Reddit community that depicted a graffiti on a wall that read in Chinese characters: “We can’t return to normal because the normal we had was precisely the problem”. That message was written presumably during the Hong Kong unrests but it echoes to my mind in a broader context ever since.

With the pandemic disrupting our daily routines, many parts of our lives changed overnight. Actions and experiences once performed without much thought, now invoke fear in people’s minds as social distancing became a norm. Kissing a friend, hugging a relative, doing the early morning commute to work, attending that ridiculously popular festival, traveling…

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

– Arundhati Roy (The pandemic is a portal)

The effects of the pandemic have shown us the importance of a work-life balance through remote work, especially when both of them take place in the same location. It forced us to re-evaluate and strengthen closeness that we often took for granted. It put us in a liminal space where the old clashed with the new in an amplified notion.

The Oppenheimer moment

With the painful realization that in 2020 we still have to fight for basic human rights, and a healthy environment, is there a more inclusive future to seek for? Does design as a profession have a historical duty to do good? This could very well be our Oppenheimer moment.

My gut feeling tells me that if we want to continue calling our practice human-centered, humane, or something similar that is trying to portray design as “good”, we have to radically change the way we as designers, and the companies we work with, operate. As Cameron Tonkinwise put it elegantly; “Human-Centred Design is always only ever These-Humans-Centred Design”. This statement keeps me up some nights. Human-, society-, or planet-centered design cannot be true when it operates in an organization that its true aim is the accumulation of capital.

How could design perform as a positive and changing force in organizations, beyond the tactical and strategic level? We need to establish basic pillars between business (think profit) and society (where your customers, humans, belong), in the context of a large scale system (the planet, the space where all interactions take place).

Purpose – Moving away from mindless consumerism and focusing on building better products and services that really serve societies and the planet. How might we redesign the business plan so that we can define prosperity and equity for hard work, equally, inclusively, and ethically?

Interconnectedness – The symbiotic nature of our species in connection with the rest of the ecosystem. How might we evolve our ways of working so that businesses can be redesigned holistically, and from the ground up, in order to provide a positive impact on profit, people, and the planet?

Resilience – Strengthen what is meaningful. How might we build our basic building blocks of societies’ prosperity through research, sustainability, and cutting edge technology in order to preserve truth, transparency, and quality of life for all?

Learning – Define true learning that is evidence-based. Not irresponsible education and information gathering that lacks judgment and the eagerness to question. How might we design an education system for true learning so that we can build intelligent and compassionate human beings?

The holistic design lens

Beyond the reoccurring navel-gazing in design, in social media, we have a lot of design debt. That is our responsibility towards society. We need to evolve design to a more holistic approach in order to do better.

As Leah Zaidi (Futurist, researcher, & systems-thinking advocate) points out: “It is entirely possible to colonize the future. It’s why no one should insist their vision is the correct one, why the privileged shouldn’t claim to know the struggles of the marginalized, and why the future should be designed by the many, not the few”. Therefore holistic design is not designed by me, or you. It is open-sourced, distributed, and mutated based on the situation of each society while holding a few principles in mind.

In a piece I wrote previously, I explained that a holistic design approach oughts to be inclusive by default. It has to be ethical and diverse and most of all it has to be planet-centric. With well-researched and design-oriented approaches, profit is assured because it always identifies a need and then solves it. Impact equals profit, the opposite, however, is not true (Towards a holistic design approach).

The basic principles of holistic design

  • Accountable – Designers must take full responsibility for the products and services they create.
  • Strategic – Designers help businesses transform, become humane, and prosper.
  • Inclusive and diverse – Holistic means everyone, everywhere.
  • Impactful – Creating positive change on profit, people, planet.
  • Integrated – Holistic design works only when it is an equal and indispensable part of an organization. Not in isolation.
  • Intentional – Defining the purpose of the outcomes designers create
  • Epistemic – Using data and research as evidence to uncover knowledge and understand
  • Respectful – First, do no harm

Epilogue

Organizations need to align profit with impact for design to be good (beyond human-centered). Holistic design requires situational awareness because the context of ‘good’ can change. If good design would be led by western white people, for everyone else that design would not be good. It would not be holistic if it was not led equally by people who were not typically represented, or were simply being erased. For that, organizations need to define their purpose and move away from the arbitrary capitalistic notion that above all we gotta maximize shareholder profit (which is made up).

This article does not serve as a manifesto but hopefully a gathering of thoughts that can start a conversation about holistic design and how to move forward. I am keen to read your thoughts on the subject so reach out to @angelosarnis. Also, feel free to reach out if you want access to our Joint Frontiers slack community.

(This article first appears in my personal Substack on August 2020)