Design is Dangerous

The design professions have exploded onto the world scene over the past decade, ushering in a new trans-disciplinarity which is increasingly applied in many contexts. And yet, design is dangerous. Designing in an unconscious way, without understanding or challenging our own design assumptions or biases, or exploring the potential consequences of design decisions, means that we can create legacy systems that create more harm than good and that can be hard to undo. Think of the design of (some) urban infrastructure, cities like Los Angeles that have been perpetually locked into unsustainable transport models, or the farm chemicals industry, which has been complicit in the degradation of natural ecosystems and soils.

I don’t really want to go through the litany of problems, as we have all heard them already ad-nauseam. In fact we have become a bit calloused to the problems, there are just so many. A more productive angle is to look at the underlying dynamics that drive the system and the worldviews and perspectives that underpin design practices and behaviours.

Humans are technological beings. From our very first beginnings we experimented with and created artefacts and methods for transforming the world around us, or for organizing ourselves. But we are also in a technological crisis. Many of the technologies that we brought forth in the 20th century, nuclear technology, pesticides, combustion automobiles, were driven and developed with an incredible over-confidence, naivety and ignorance to the consequences that they entailed. Underneath this was a mechanistic and materialist worldview. People acted from the assumption that we are not deeply interconnected, that we are just a set of disparate elements in a static system.

Many dangerous assumptions have been part and parcel in the design of everyday life. The way in which the systems and algorithms of the big tech platforms drive an attention economy, commodify data, in primary service to corporate shareholder profits. Is this seriously how we are playing with the minds of our children? But this too is an expression of underlying assumptions, that whatever we find in front of us can be exploited and commodified for profit. The symptoms of this we call “social externalities”, but it is more specific to talk about the PTSD that Facebook moderators experience, or widespread screen addiction among our children… let’s try not to mince words.

Even social constructions, ways of organizing social life can be understood as aspects of design, and imbued with assumptions. The time and motion studies that accompanied the emergence of industrial production and factories, Taylorism, on one hand created remarkable efficiencies, and on the other hand infantalized workers, turning them into repetitive automatons. It was not until Edward Deming when this logic began to be fundamentally questioned.

So we need to find a way to question our design assumptions, and bring the future into our design logics, so that instead of creating social externalities (unconscious harm), we are creating generative value (conscious benefit). Decades ago the Australian designer Tony Fry articulated this by talking about “defuturing”. He argued that so much of what we call design reduces the scope of our futures, making our future less and less viable and possible. And through a new design philosophy, we might be able to use design to re-future. Or as Sohail Inayatullah might say, if we want design to be different it needs to be an epistemological intervention, design needs to come from a new set of assumptions and perspectives that will make the future more viable.

The major shift in worldview and perspective we have seen in the emerging practices, such as futures studies, action research, human centered design, etc., has been from a mechanistic to living systems based understanding of reality. Today we see the emergence of such a life centered worldview, in which we can appreciate our deep interconnectedness with the many living systems around us. We increasingly understand how the health of our living systems translates to our health. Or how the dynamic balance within our planetary ecosystems is a prerequisite for the integrity of our societies and our future generations. This is the way that many indigenous cultures have seen the world for a long long time. This is also a critical way to think about how we need to reimagine design in the context of our future challenges. We need a life centered perspective and vision to come forth as a primary driver and holder for the space of the way in which design needs to take place.

And if new selves help support new methods, we need a life centered self, with a deep appreciation for our interconnectedness, a great compassion and empathy for all of our living systems and beings, to guide our journey. We can already see this in many areas, the development of regenerative agriculture, community approaches to mental health and well-being, the platform coop movement, and climate restoration space, and many other places.

But design is also dangerous for another reason. Design has the power to make existing systems obsolete. And by virtue of this design is a threat to incumbent systems, cultural norms, political configurations and economic vested interests. To design with integrity can also mean to challenge existing unsustainable forms of everyday life, and to enter into the space of power and politics. This requires the deep skills of the social innovator, social entrepreneur, systems navigator, political operative, and life-centered empathic leadership.

Incumbency is seemingly all-powerful. As we’ve seen for decades, the fossil-fuel and mineral industry lobbies have held the response to climate change hostage. Backroom manoeuvring, misinformation and bogus reports shaping public perceptions, and a host of other ways of holding onto power. Buckminster Fuller said “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” I want to say, yes but… the actual application of these new designs, solar energy etc., was a journey of a thousand miles.

But he is still right. The future starts in seed form. It begins in the womb of the world, the glimmer in the eye, the daydream, the fantasy, the imagination, the model and the spirit of possibility.

So design holds this very special potential. In its most conscious manifestation it is an epistemological intervention, it can be dangerous to incumbent systems that are unsustainable or harmful. It can bring forth forms that can lead to a much better world. Design can be conscious disruption. It can be done to create breakthroughs that make existing models obsolete, and create new generative forms of life and living.

There is a double loop here. The future is implicated in what is designed – as a design is a potential seed of a different future. However, the images of the future people hold serve as “meta-assumptions” that form the boundaries and limits of what is seen as possible and desirable in what we design. To design differently we need to imagine differently and hold different assumptions about the future. The future and design form a complex interplay of imagination and cascading consequences. All of which is a very dangerous.


Join us for our introductory course, which will cover these ideas and more: Undesign: practical futures tools for anticipation and conscious design