A history of design

By essay

The history and contexts for the mainstream practice of design put it at odds with ethics. Designers have had little historic relation to social good and are often perceived to be in opposition to it with their strong connection to advertising and stereotypical air of elitism. Designers were specifically not artists or craftspeople or DIYers. They aren’t local creatives just doin’ their thing or those working in indigenous or vernacular styles or people who primarily do other things and have to make visual decisions now and then. Design comes from a professionalization of those impulses brought on by the separation of aesthetics or planning from production. Any designer who has bristled at being called a graphic artist or scoffed at a secretary’s attempts at visual communication or has advocated for professional certification will tell you that design is something else.

Designers are hired by people to create plans for another set of workers or specialized machinery that executes the plans for a larger audience or scale. So the client or employer requires not just enough capital to pay for design, but for a whole team of people or production equipment. The professionalization of large-scale design has roots in work for wealthy institutions or patrons like church architecture or court fashion. Ambitious designers drawn to the scale and lavishness preferred by the ruling class were probably more likely to get these positions. “Sustainability” was for the poor. But design really came into its own with the printing press and the factories of the industrial revolution in order to prepare communication or products at scale.

Within the last century, designers enabled the rise of unsustainable consumerism through practices like planned obsolescence, fast fashion, and the entire advertising and packaging industries. Starting in the 1990s, we moved into user experience to aid mass adoption of new technologies. We reduced “friction” by easing security and increasing surveillance. We obfuscated access, control, “bad” content, and anything businesses didn’t want people to think about. We made “artificial inteligence” and “machine learning” sound futuristic and magical instead of acknowleging its dependence on stolen (often biased or garbage) data and underpaid mind-numbing human labor. Nielsen Norman Group, an authority on User Experience, define its field in strictly consumerist terms: “The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother.”
Our profession was born out of and remains consistently linked to capitalism. But as creative people, designers are also inextricably tied to culture. Consequently, our role is often to bridge the desires of our patrons, employers or clients to the desires, emotions and cultural language of the people to whom they want to sell their products or ideas.

> designers work for who pays them

Ideals and aspirations of “changing the world” aside, designers work for who pays them. Entrepreneurs and business owners work for clients who hire them or investors who fund them. You can start to see how this eventually works out. Individuals, companies and organizations with the most resources pay the most, provide infrastructure with the most support, teams with the most capacity, projects with the biggest budgets and roll outs to the biggest audiences. Who doesn’t want to work under those conditions? Those working to serve people most in need do not prioritize design. They may not appreciate designers’ contributions, need a lot of education about process, and may even work with us begrudgingly – finding us necessary to navigate the superficial hellscape we helped create. This leads to the perception that those with the most money need or value design the most. Design may be “the rendering of intent” or “problem solving”, but it is ultimately the intent of those who pay and the kinds of problems we’ve adapted to solving are theirs. We only work for audiences and users of interest to our funders and to the degree their desires aren’t at odds. Research is for how to better meet the business goals of leadership, not learn about or serve others’ needs. We all have our preferred clients and our moral limits and sometimes we have more wiggle room to expand ideas of what’s possible, but under personal pressure as an individual, or to support growth as a proprietor – designers follow the money.


In service jobs you are incentivized to identify with the desires of those you serve. It makes life easier and will take you farther. Without a critical framework or a strong moral foundation and desiring more pay or status, workers subconsciously espouse funders’ goals as smart, competitive, innovativegood business or even common sense. More money and better conditions start to feel like a necessity in a competitive, individualist society in the midst of economic uncertainty and massive debt. So we internalize and execute on the wishes of the wealthy and powerful for our own advancement or survival. This starts a drift towards stuff we eventually and clearly can identify as “bad”.
So what are the goals of our funders? Primary among them are increasing money and power. And there’s the rub. The concentration of power makes for more cohesive, consistent and all-encompassing experiences – from the finest of corporate gesamtkustwerken to “sustainable” closed loop systems. But that kind of practice cuts off access, autonomy and interoperability. It shuts out everyday people. It’s usually built on labor exploitation, private land enclosure, resource extraction – or all three. These practices get embedded by laws, policies, psychological or philosophical campaigns and brute force – all of which get stronger, more refined, and more obscured as money and power increase. But get too close to how it works and you’ll likely see it’s true face.


I think there’s this naive belief of many workers that the wealthy and powerful are just like them – essentially good people who just got a bit caught up. They just need the insight or push back that designers can provide. And a “good” world isn’t too far off, just a little nicer and more diverse. This conception doesn’t come out of nowhere. Whiteness, or neoliberalism or, as they said in the 70s “the system” or “the man”, is all about forcing an identification of lower classes with elites. And there’s definitely wishful thinking there – that one day the worker will be rich and powerful and they will be still be that same good person. I don’t think the upwardly mobile (at least those not predisposed to evil) always realize the chasm in mentalities between their modest upbringings and immense willful brutality of people driving harmful systems – the character and drive they’re up against and the deep work and potential sacrifice involved in change. As economist Jeffrey Sachs says about Wall Street in Bullshit Jobs, “They are tough, greedy, aggressive, and feel absolutely out of control in a quite literal sense, and they have gamed the system to a remarkable extent. They genuinely believe they have a God-given right to take as much money as they possibly can in any way that they can get it, legal or otherwise.” 


design for “good”
Perhaps sensing moral peril where rewards are highest (say fintech or advertising), some practitioners might gravitate towards more neutral sectors like education or culture. Or some turn to government, academia and nonprofits. However, it’s hard to get away from an entire system built on ruling class interests. In the former it’s exercised through lobbyists and campaign funders while the latter are often established by or dependent on wealthy philanthropists. These sectors’ roots trace back to Gilded Age tycoons looking to deflect public attention from their worst sins (cf. Norman Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Leland Stanford, J.P. Getty). You see it today with the Sacklers. The very existence of these sectors is often dependent on the negative externalities of capitalism. If not for exploitation or tax dodging, no one would be able to accrue that much surplus to give away. This also allows them to define the focus and limits of social good, ensuring it’s not put towards anything that challenges their wealth hoarding. So the root is still there, just obscured and filtered, with money being rerouted in convoluted ways until it slows to a trickle as it nears the people doing the work.


Perhaps this sounds like an overly critical downer, but it’s kind of a moot point since design looks so different in these spaces that it’s rarely called such. Instead, it’s often a secondary part of another job like a communications director or a webmaster or analyst. Or if it is specialized and highly positioned, it may offer lower pay while also being highly competitive to get into requires extensive unpaid prestige positions or first ascending the ranks in the corporate world, internalizing it’s sensibilities.


But a lot of times, there are no paid positions at all. Up until a decade or so ago, design for social good has mostly been pro bono, volunteer, personal work or competitive contests. If you searched “nonprofit design” in the early 2000s you would only see advice on how to negotiate for total creative control in order to maximize value for what was assumed to primarily be portfolio padding. Today this work can still attract ego-driven professionals looking to brand themselves as more socially conscious but also include experienced burn-outs looking to work on anything with some meaning, classrooms indulging students in “social practice” work for 60k+ a year in tuition, to the truly desperate hoping it might eventually lead to some paid work down the line. Practitioners have long fought against these conditions in the professional world. The fact that this is the standard in “design for good” might show how little design in work not centered on consumerism. That can be particularly painful to think about if you’re passionate about both design and “good”. 


Not only is there very little paid demand for “design for good”, there’s dwindling opportunities for visual design in general, especially in western countries. As design as morphed it’s meaning into more complicated and weighty things,  researchers with advanced degrees in social sciences (whose opportunities are also dwindling) have started getting in to the applicant pools.
So what next?

Perhaps designers as humans with similar drives, interests, mindsets and skills can better understand the economic and power structures we work under and shift. What is designers just identified as workers, no better or worse than other jobs, no specialty better or worse than another. People could  study the role closest to what they want to do and work in that role and still get their needs met, whether it be graphic designer, ux designer, researcher, teacher or even crafters person artist just doing their thing. What if we didn’t have to be on top or on bottom but could just be? Not a slave to the market, or trends, or “the future” or whatever art schools we’re selling this year
I believe at this point there is a professionalized role for designers given the complexity and scale we have now. But not everyone has to be into it

Even if a designer prefers business as usual, I think it would valuable to have a clearer understanding of economics, power, history and labor, along with other perspectives on sustainable or ethical practices and production. I’d have much preferred learning labor history than that “professional practice” class where I designed a sample invoice sheet with my own made-up branding and equally made-up bill rates I was supposed to figure out myself. The best public intellectuals that could help designers frame their work are non-designers. though still needs to be translated to design contexts. 


I don’t think designers are really creators or researchers. I think they’re translators and curators. They need someone to work for. So the questions is who? And what do we get in return?

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