Radical Design Activism

Radical Design Activism. I’ve had these three words bouncing around inside my head for months now. I’m trying to figure out what they mean, what they don’t mean, what the act of radical design activism looks and feels like. How do we conceptualize design work as activism? How do we cast ourselves as radical design activists and virtuously fulfill that role?

I still feel very fuzzy on the concept, but I recently ran into some content that made me point my finger at my screen and shout “that’s it!!” or, at least, that’s part of it.

Bret Victor: Inventing on Principle

This talk went big in the comp-sci/software community, I’m told. The whole video is worth watching, especially the second half, but if you only have a few minutes, jump to 36:50. Thanks to Timothy Snyder and Tim Disney for sharing this with me.

Bret Victor – Inventing on Principle from CUSEC on Vimeo.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have had people throughout history who recognize social wrongs, and saw it as their responsibility to address them. And so there’s this activist lifestyle where a person dedicates themselves to fighting for a cause that they believe in.

And the purpose of this talk is to tell you that this activist lifestyle isn’t just for social activism. As a technologist, you can recognize a wrong in the world, you can have a vision for what a better world can be, and you can dedicate yourself to fighting for principle. Social activists typically fight by organizing, you can fight by inventing.”

Jason McLennan: How hard is it to say “No more cancer in buildings”?

The video is from Jason McLennan‘s Living Future 2010 keynote address.

Again, the entire speech is pure gold, but for the quote start at 22:30.

So the question is, do you have the guts? You have the influence, but do you have the guts?

We need to grow up about the fact that we have an uncontrolled amount of toxic chemicals in the building industry, we have no idea what the hell’s in our products, I don’t care how expert you are in green materials, you have no frikin clue what’s in our materials… and this is a real problem, and we have a right in order to protect human health and safety in the environment. As designers we have an obligation to change how we make things and what’s in our products, do we not?

We know that the materials we are specifying are filled with carcinogens, mutagens, endocrine disruptors, teratogens, you can go down the list of big names, and they’re a problem, and we have this lag time, because we are not an effective quire, but people wanting things to stay exactly the same are an effective choir…

It’s no longer acceptable to have cancer underfoot.

Tell your clients why you won’t specify PVC backed carpet ever again.

(True story: a few months ago I saw Jason McLennan wandering around our office, and I only barely restrained myself from bolting out of my seat and asking for his autograph. I am not even close to kidding.)

More Thoughts

Activism “consists of intentional efforts to promote, impede or direct social, political, economic, or environmental change.”

The design activist is not designing for money, fame, just because she can, or for the mere technical challenge of the problem. That word up there is huge and I’ve been thinking about it, too, a lot: intentional.

A design activist will do what Bret Victor said:

  • Recognize a wrong (note that he used the word wrong, not problem. There is a difference.)
  • Have a vision
  • Fight for it

The path of the radical design activist requires the virtues of courage, boldness, and vision. We’re not restricted to the prescriptive path that has been set before us. In fact, doing the same thing as those who have gone before is a pretty good indicator that you’re not doing what you should be, I think. If you’re not all out in uncharted territory, scared and doubtful, being told that you’re doomed to failure, then you’re probably doing it wrong. Everything must change. Everything.

It doesn’t matter if what you’re doing doesn’t wind up being part of the solution, just so long as it’s not the same damn thing we’ve been doing all along. We’ll observe your failure and know not to follow you and that is vitally important. If no one tries new things, how will we know what works and what doesn’t?

So. How do you think about your design work as activism?



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