Conclusions and reflections from my essay on Design and Neoliberalism.
It is colloquial wisdom that the best way to understand oneself is to travel around the world. It was probably more spurned by insatiable wanderlust than philosophical quest that lead me to pack my bags and say goodbye to my pleasant Austin, Texas living in 2014, but the profound widening of my understanding of the world and it’s values systems has addicted me nonetheless.
I always feel like an impostor writing about design. I grew up and went to school in the US midwest, so the design elite always seemed far away – New York, San Francisco, London, Berlin, Paris, Milan… These were places where cool people with lots of money did cool things that I’d never be a part of.
I never felt like an American either. I was surrounded by and grew up with a strong sense of neoliberal values – values that I hold to this day. These values are baked into the heart of every American – a country whose national story champions liberty over the oppressive forces that try to squash it – whether we recognize it or not. Whether the paternalistic evil force is the British government in 1776, the US government in the 1960’s, Obama mandating state healthcare or Trump doing… whatever it is Trump is doing, the same narrative always comes to the fore – we must stop the oppressive power from trampling our liberties. It is a feeling I understand, and even feel a certain resonance toward – but I always felt like an outsider in my own culture. I was never able to fully believe in anything my friends were into ((Left-wing politics, right-wing politics, religion, punk rock, feminism….)) fully – I was always a skeptic of everything.
This is part of the reason that strategic thinkers like Lee Kuan Yew have had such an effect on me. In a world where everyone seems bounded by certain styles and themes, the interesting conversation is not about what is “real” or who is “right” or what is “true,” but rather how trade-offs are negotiated between these varying constructed realities. The tribes and beliefs I’m most familiar with – American Libertarianism, Absurdism, etc… – have always emphasized tolerance in attempt to create worlds where the humans could play their human games without much comment on which games were more right and more wrong.
Over time, I got more interested in these games. Where do they come from? How to they emerge? Why are we all so willing to play them? Why doesn’t everyone else speak of them as games? In the pragmatics of the day to day, there are any number of truths that we don’t want to admit to ourselves in the service of maintaining the efficacy of the magic circle, which seems reasonable on its face but nobody seems to talk about it. These ideas are not new, and they are not particularly profound, yet they remain taboo in our daily work environments.
Design is one such game, and as it is the game I find myself in the most frequently, I figured I might as well comment on it. Maybe some of design’s practitioners will find this analysis to be of some value or, at least, of some interest. Maybe those outside the profession might as well. I have no idea. I can say that it remains an enjoyable pass-time for me, and hopefully, one day, I will be able to grow this little hobby into an actual career.
The Weaknesses of my Analysis
For starters, I’m an amateur. While I dream of one day going to graduate school to study sociology or psychology – or maybe organizational psychology in business – for the time being I’m left to my own experiences, anecdotal conversations, and embarrassing Amazon kindle bills. I hold a formal degree in design (BFA in Fine Arts with an emphasis on Industrial Design) which included a lot of art, design, and architecture history classes, and I supplemented them with a handful of classes on the intellectual history of Europe over a handful of semesters. Still, my professional career has been all pragmatic – working for one of the big design consultancies through some of it’s more existentially precarious years in it’s Austin, Texas office and for a brief time in Asia.
I’m inspired by anthropological masters and PhD theses that I read, and try my best to replicate these processes in coffee shops on nights and weekends as I alternate between reading books and updating this little handful of essays. My research is not rigorous – simply reflective.
A second weakness is my status as an outsider. At the time of this writing, I’ve never been to either silicon valley or the US east coast in a meaningful sense. It is easy as an outsider to read vapid Fast Company articles about this or that ivy league school or trending designer and assume that there is no real intellectual underpinning for this meme or – to the extent that it is – that the meme’s physical and sociological manifestations are being driven by forces other than the intellectual conversations. Still, as design conferences run in the thousands of dollars and graduate degree programs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, much of the drivers of memetic design are locked away in forums that I simply can’t afford to be apart of. That kind of money can buy a lot of ebooks, but books are by definition a degree of separation away from the subjects of this inquiry.
Perhaps, as my own life evolves, I’ll get a little more first-hand experience of these worlds as well, though at this point I retain my assumption that they will become less important over time.
Design as Meme
A big part of the reason it has taken so long for me to “finish” this essay is because it is so difficult to understand what “design” actually is. From a process perspective, I am a designer, so in working toward a definition of “design” I’ve written several iterations – constantly second-guessing myself and refining my definition.
The problem with a term as expansive as “design” is that it has a tremendous propensity to “yoyo” in a conversation. If we picture the definition of design as a yoyo string, with the philosophical and sociological perspectives at the top and the pragmatic day-to-day of writing CSS or measuring floor-plans at the bottom, and conversation becomes nearly impossible. One makes a statement about the philosophy that can be immediately contradicted by something pragmatic. One can, in turn, make a pragmatic statement that is immediately counter-minded by the philosophy. This problem is getting worse as what used to be a somewhat small and select group of humans doing some very specific tasks has expanded.
To the best of my understanding, therefore, at the time of this writing in 2019, “design” is a meme, “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture—often with the aim of conveying a particular phenomenon, theme, or meaning represented by the meme. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme.” ((Borrowed from Wikipedia because I haven’t read Dawkins’ book on the topic yet))
Defining the meme is nearly impossible because it evolves and changes – its actual definition is not shared between all of the individuals, so the word itself becomes a proxy for similar – but not synonymous – ideas. In this way, it has taken on a life of its own seeding very concrete manifestations such as firms, conferences, degree programs, books, and a host of other material attributes as well as more fluid concepts like ideas, processes, practices, and rituals. Everyone in this space has a tacit agreement on what “design” is up unto the point where they try to define it to one another (or even to themselves) and the whole thing falls apart.
This is exactly what happened to me as I sat down to write this essay. I couldn’t put a sentence down without finding myself mired in internal arguments which left me scratching for more historical sources and abstract frameworks of understanding. Like the idea of cultural difference, it is impossible to define differences and to break-apart, differentiate, and understand relationships without first analyzing one’s old worldview.
Luckily, Amazon Kindle books are still available here in my current abode of Yangon, Myanmar.
Whether or not “design” could be considered a meme might be an argument for another day. However, one must put a stake in the ground somewhere if we’re able to have a conversation at all, and to the best of my knowledge, “design as meme” is the most useful way to move forward.
Why is this conversation important?
I mean, in the strictest sense, it isn’t. It is just a little interesting.
The reality is – like most human systems and, for that matter, memes, Design will continue no matter what spectators like me think about it. Written commentaries and histories tend to bear minimal influence on these types of systems as a whole. The turning cogs of the design world at the moment are powered by capital – not philosophy, and certainly not history. As power shifts from capital to the next thing, so too will design shift, but it will not be intellectual discourse that changes things.
This may be why I tend to be so intrigued, yet cynical about design manifestos. They are always written in the active voice – a call to arms for whatever the new cause is. However, when we look at history, they tend to be considered more reflections of the time rather than drivers of change. The true drivers are much deeper.
I guess those who are “true believers” of “design thinking,” “disruptive innovation,” and a host of other buzzwords that drive the commercial and, increasingly public, sector may find some value in these reflections. The challenge of the “design” world is that it is a hyper-optimistic pragmatic applied activity that affords little ability for deep reflection. The process of design – at least through the 20th century – has been purposefully myopic and compartmentalized. The business reality of the situation – as well as the particularities of the current generation as a workforce – create certain timelines for activity and favor certain lenses through which design decisions will be made. It increasingly requires the language of sociology to understand how the environment of the design process has an effect on its outputs.
Design – as a pragmatic process – is always nested within a larger system and, thus, will always be bounded by the constraints of the project. These are the realities that we often ignore – and they are realities that make most design projects feel essentially empty by the end – there is always more, we feel, we could have done, if the timeline/budget/etc… would have just allowed.
For those of us on the more disillusioned-side of design, the analysis means we need to look outside of “design” if we want to have a meaningful effect on the world. It is strategy, systems thinking, management, and organizational theory, and a host of other topics that we should actually be spending our time understanding – design is never the leverage point.
A modest collection of passport stamps won’t teach you much, but it will make it extremely apparent that within the context of productive human activity, the reach of memetic design is extremely small. Most of human productive activity is better described as “metis” or, at least, channeled behaviors. The danger of “design” is that – in our rush to celebrate the clarity it makes us feel – that we overemphasize the leverage that the practice actually has on existing systems.
Still, these other areas are complex and will force us to remain humble as we try to understand them. It is easy to sink back into the world of “design” with its day-to-day mini discoveries and victories, but until we learn how to manipulate the larger structural forces to achieve our visionary outcomes, we will be perpetually trapped in myopic, disheartened navel-gazing.
In a sister-essay, I write about the end of design. What I mean by this concept is not that the human desire to plan productive activity will change, but rather that the design meme will start to fade. I believe a meme like this has to remain coherent, and to remain coherent it must remain small. As this term gets ever more expansive, it runs the risk that soon it will not mean anything at all.
When that happens, these processes and methods – to the extent that they are still relevant – will have to find new homes. So too with the people – people like me – who have taken on titles such as “designer.” I don’t think that we will be left homeless completely, just that our homes will change. If we are smart, we too will evolve.