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The bricks we lay.

Earlier, I got mad at the internet. Or, more specifically, I got mad at this bit of it:

One Miami architecture firm [is] proposing a softer, gentler version of [the U.S. president]’s famous wall: a sustainable structure built out of recycled shipping containers that mimics natural boundaries with divisions created by waterways, sloping terrain and, in urban areas, shopping, public art spaces and even housing units. The drawings look like they could be for a cutting-edge park or an innovative redevelopment project…

“One of our goals was to not be like the Great Wall of China or the Berlin Wall or any of those typologies that represent division,” principal architect Francisco Llado explained in a recent phone call. “Our design is not about division but about unity of sense and sustainable functionality.”

To put it mildly, I find the entire article galling. But rather than debating immigration policy, isolationism, or the like, I want to talk about one tiny part of the piece, which upset me quite a bit:

[The two principals] did not want to talk about politics, and emphasized that their mission is purely architectural.

This is a lie.

—to be clear, this isn’t their lie. This is the great lie we designers tell ourselves: that “design,” as a concept, sits apart from the world. As though “design” is somehow separate from, indifferent to, more pure than the society it sits in. And like it or not, designers, have a long, storied, terrible history of telling this particular lie.

The thing is, it doesn’t matter what medium you work in: “design” is not neutral. It never has been, and never will be. Here’s Paul Rand’s take on the matter:

Design is a way of life, a point of view. It involves the whole complex of visual communication: talent, creative ability, manual skill, and technical knowledge. Aesthetics and economics, technology and psychology are intrinsically related to the process.

We’re surrounded by a planet’s worth of evidence that individual design decisions beget collective consequences. But even faced with that, we designers are entirely too good at framing “design” as somehow distinct from the world.

“If it’s going to be done, it’s going to be done, I can’t change that.”

— Kevin Rouhani, of Meridian Precast Inc.

Even in my tiny design practice, every decision I make is shaped by my biases; every decision I make is capable of harm. And it’s so, so easy to forget this: to focus on the layout challenge in front of me, to fulfil the client’s latest request, or to meet a business goal. When I do these things, I occasionally forget to ask myself who’ll be impacted by my work and, most importantly, to ask how I can mitigate that harm.

And I know I’m not alone in doing this. By blithely erecting that wall between our work and our broader ethical responsibilities, that is—at least in part—how design can do harm: how a driverless car program could come to collect data about personal wifi networks; how a child’s toy could become a massive security breach; how pseudonymity isn’t seen as the important protective measure it is; or how color photography became optimized for white skin. A feature for a proposed IT project may sound innocuous enough:

The user shall be able to conduct a consolidated address search that will match on all addresses regardless of the record type.

until that project’s designed and built, that is.

Design is shaped by the world it shapes. And we need to sit with that fact, now more than ever.


Many thanks to Jessica Spengler and Ingrid Burrington for sharing a few articles that informed this little rant, and to Stephanie Lawrence for her excellent article, “Design Ethics in Practice”.

And of course, thanks to Liz for taking the time to review this entry, and offer her feedback.

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