The Paradox of Designing

In creating objects, spaces and interactions, designers shape and influence everyday life on all its many stages. Even though that is sometimes hard to admit.

 

 
“The future never arrives, but the present is always there.”

– Architect Jan Benthem

 

 

A fly in a men’s urinal, the Facebook timeline, a bizarre airport layout: all these things are interconnected in the aim to trigger a desired behavior. Desired by the people who drafted this specific object, software or architectural landmark. That there is a design in everything is not a cutting-edge insight. What may actually be thought-provoking is the impact this observation could have on our daily actions.

The desire to influence other peoples’ behavior is as old as mankind itself. Frankly, it is what the advertising industry lives on. Yet the degree of obviousness has changed over time. After centuries of oppression in which kings and aristocracy determined the life of innumerable people, the Industrial Revolution released men and women from serfdom. The looms and machines enabled a self-determined lifestyle, if only to a limited extent. But life was now driven by the beat of the engine. It was during this period, at the end of the 19th century, that the idea of social engineering arose.

 
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French fries made from sponges, latex ketchup: in this editorial, nothing is as it seems. Through irony and abstraction sports & snacks takes a pot at our world of fast food and slow fashion. When the real and the artificial collide, when sportswear and casual form a liaison, our esthetic sense is put to the test. And the results are truly something to relish. A thought experiment masterminded by Helene Deisenhammer, who took over the creative direction, set and prop design as well as the production and organizational process. Captured in photos by Robert Maybach.

Troubled by the concern that the consequences of the Modern Age might destabilize and disintegrate society, academics from various disciplines devoted themselves to this matter. One of them was the Austrian philosopher Karl R. Popper. In his treatise on “The Open Society and Its Enemies” he divided the idea of social engineering into “piecemeal social engineering”, a rational and reflected approach to reduce social evils, and “utopian social engineering”, a dogmatic approach to realize ideological concepts. A clear distinction, but who should judge and tell them apart?

Yet designers from all disciplines are confronted with this distinction on a daily basis: Is this work going to diminish or reinforce a social evil? Is this idea relevant to society as a whole, or is it merely a product of my own tangled thought processes? The relevance of these thoughts becomes clearer when we look at the role of the Facebook news feed in last year's US elections. Facebook was not only reproached for creating social bubbles (i.e. in this context reinforcing a social evil) but also for being too vulnerable to interference (i.e. enabling the spreading of ideology). In return, Mark Zuckerberg published a letter in which he underlined Facebook’s primary mission: To make the world more open and connected. Interestingly enough, this is both the same goal as the social engineering movement had one hundred years ago, and at the same time its exact opposite.

It is the same because both the movement and Facebook are focused on re-connecting a somehow divided society. It is the opposite in that the proponents of social engineering wanted to form separate “organic” societies instead of a connected collective one. Yet in contrast to the thinkers of the early 20th century, Mark Zuckerberg has not yet publicly admitted that his and his team’s work is in fact influencing the life of nearly two billion people with every written line of code. And it does not even matter whether the aim is diminishing social evils or realizing an ideological idea, as we are still in that inevitable state where no one can decide what’s “right or wrong”. This may be paralyzing. But it can be liberating as well.

First, we should admit that we don’t want to stand aside, simply noting and accepting what happens. We want to design, influence and change behavior! It could be a small change in our personal surroundings, or it could be a weighty business decision with a far-reaching impact. Our actions always intend a specific outcome.

Second, as every decision is shaped by a subjective view of the world, we need to bring the intended outcome to a personal level. This is especially crucial in big companies, where responsibility is swiftly shifted to other levels of the hierarchy. Being confronted (even just mentally) with the impact of one's own decision can be frightening and overwhelming. But we can relativize this by insisting that every decision needs to be approached with empathy. We just need to ask ourselves: Would I like to be personally affected by the outcome of my idea? Given that our future decisions will become the actual present of someone else, this future should always be present in the decision-making process.

But the question remains: How can it be liberating if I bind myself to a decision? Well, since I accept my own decision, it follows that it is something I can stand up for, care about and engage in debate about. What’s more, influencing others would lose its bitter taste, as I can truly say that if this decision affected me personally, I would appreciate it.

This may not entirely erase the dark, selfish side of decision-making, but it is a first step towards an open culture of debate in which we have no fear of openly saying: Yes, I want this to happen! And yes, I want to design this!