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Are designers activists, or is design inherently an unethical profession?

  • E2 1111 8th Street San Francisco, CA, 94107 United States (map)

About the talk

Definitions of the type of design we practice and many of the labels increasingly applied to it (e.g., human-centered design, purpose-driven design, inclusive design, co-design, …), the missions and proclamations of many of its professional organizations (including IxDA) and many of the places where it is taught (including CCA), the types of projects designers are increasingly choosing, and the nature of the codes of ethics increasingly advocated for designers suggest a strong commitment to activism. 

But activists (tend to) approach a problem with a solution in mind and engage in a variety of activities to see that the solution is implemented. Designers, on the other hand, (supposedly) approach a problem with no solution in mind, and ultimately (should) advocate for whatever solution emerges from a design process influenced by a multitude of constraints. Is it unethical for a designer to function as an activist?

Indeed, design is most often practiced in a context which at best puts community interests at parity with client interests. Is design inherently an unethical profession?

Richard will review the evidence suggesting that designers are increasingly functioning as and are being encouraged to function as activists. He will then elaborate on the arguments that designers shouldn’t function as activists, explore what activism means, and describe the obstacles typically encountered by designers to functioning as activists.

Richard will argue that there are times when designers should function as activists in their role of designers and that designers need the tools to recognize how and when functioning as activists is appropriate.


About Richard

Richard Anderson is a human-centered design (thinking) practice, management, & organizational strategy consultant with international management, cross-organizational development, & more than 20 years of experience. He has been the director of design disciplines in three consultancies, held leadership/management roles in other organizations, and freelanced for multiple companies. He is presently Principal of OE Strategy, providing human-centered research, strategy, and design thinking for organizations seeking to make a positive difference in the world.

Richard was Editor-in-Chief of interactions magazine with Jon Kolko, helped start & grow numerous HCI communities around the world as ACM SIGCHI’s Local Chapters Chair, has organized numerous design events, including two major conferences, and has written lots and has spoken and moderated panels lots on numerous design-related topics. He has taught design, design research, design strategy, design management, and/or design thinking throughout his career in many places, including the University of California (Berkeley & Santa Cruz), the Academy of Art University, General Assembly, and at multiple conferences and companies. He is now on the faculty of the Austin Center for Design.