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The Politics of Design and the Design of Politics
Nolen Gertz - University of Twente
Editions 2022Politics of Design

Some years ago, I was teaching an Industrial Design module on Human-Product Relations where students were assigned to choose a social problem and design a product that would help solve it. One student chose the problem of cleaning up trash on a beach near where she lived. She designed a trashcan that, by scanning the QR code on its lid, could give people points for throwing away garbage. These points could then be redeemed as discounts at shops near the beach.

At first glance, this student seemed to have done an exemplary job in both meeting the requirements of the module and in designing a solution to a social problem. Using the increasingly popular technique known as “gamification,” the student designed a product that would turn a task that people tend to do begrudgingly into a task that people would do enthusiastically. Unfortunately for the student, I’m not a designer, I’m a philosopher, and so rather than applaud her creativity in fulfilling the assignment, I applauded the student for revealing what was wrong with the assignment itself. 

So why did I think there was something wrong with the assignment? And why did I think the student’s project helped reveal this wrongness? First of all, by gamifying cleaning up the beach, people would be motivated not to care about garbage as being harmful for the environment, but would be motivated to care about garbage as a way of scoring points. In this way, people would come to see the beach less like a fragile ecosystem that humans can help or hurt and more like a sports arena or an arcade where they can win prizes for playing a game. Consequently, not only would they become less inclined to clean up garbage in places where there was no reward to be had, but the game could even drive people to actually put more garbage on the beach, since the more garbage there is, the more opportunities there would be to score points.

Now as I said, I didn’t see these issues as the student’s fault, but rather as that of the assignment. It should come as no surprise that if students are taught to think of something like pollution as being a problem that can be solved by designing a product, then students will design products such as the one described here. The assignment taught students to view products as solutions to social problems and to view social problems as resolvable by products.

Consequently, issues like pollution came to be viewed as caused, not by complex psychological, political, and economic factors, but rather by the absence of a product that could make cleaning up garbage fun. And of course, some of the complex psychological, political, and economic factors that cause pollution to revolve around our not taking the environment seriously. So turning cleaning up the environment into a game will counterproductively only help fuel the nihilism that leads people to pollute the environment in the first place. Hence while the product may help motivate people to clean up the beach, it may also help to perpetuate the very ideology that leads people to not care about leaving garbage on the beach.

Another issue with this assignment that was helpfully revealed by this student’s project is the idea of using products to steer people to behave in ways considered to be more socially desirable. That a QR code on a trash can lid can motivate people to pick up garbage is an example of what has come to be known as “persuasive technology”; admittedly this does sound nicer than “manipulative technology,” even if the name is less accurate. Being able to design technologies to “persuade” people to behave in certain ways raises the question of why a designer should have the power to decide how others should behave.

It was my role in the module as a Philosophy Professor to help students answer this question. But because I’m a Philosophy Professor I instead taught them that the question of why a designer should get to decide how others should behave is one that belongs to what is known as the problem of “paternalism” - otherwise known as the tradition of “Father knows best”. To avoid perpetuating this, we often teach design students not to avoid telling others what do, but rather to find a better justification for telling others what to do.

Such a justification typically comes in the form of having design students identify and talk to “stakeholders” - the people most likely to be impacted by their designs - and “experts” -the people most likely to be able to justify the design’s impact. But design students can’t talk to everyone, so they then have to decide who counts as a stakeholder and who counts as an expert.

In other words, this process doesn’t resolve paternalism, it merely makes it less obvious. But because this process makes the paternalistic nature of the projects less obvious, the need for the students to take responsibility for their design decisions also becomes less obvious. Students justified their projects by claiming that they were trying to give “stakeholders” what they asked for while trying to meet the demands imposed by the “experts.” That the students could not talk to everyone, or meet every demand, was lamented of course, but only as a practical limitation that couldn’t be avoided.

Yet, just as fascists are no less fascist if they come to power by an election rather than by a coup, so too are designers no less paternalistic if they make decisions by choosing who to listen to rather than by listening only to themselves. No matter how much effort design students put into collecting feedback and advice, the products they design are necessarily going to have an impact on people, on people who had no say in being impacted by the product.

And because the impact was intended to steer their behaviour, people having no say in the product means people having no say in having their behaviour steered. For this reason we could imagine that even if people do benefit from the impact of the product - say by winning points by throwing away garbage because a QR code on a trashcan told them they could - recognition of this impact might lead people to resent the product’s impact on them. Or at least make them uncomfortable with the idea that the product could have had such an impact on them.

Now of course this does not mean that designers can never design products that impact people. Nor does it mean that designers must first consult every person who could be impacted by their product. Instead, as I urged the design students, it means that designers should take the problem of paternalism more seriously and not imagine that working with stakeholders and with experts does as much to resolve the problem as they might hope. Rather than trying to avoid taking responsibility for their paternalism, design students should instead be taught how to embrace their responsibility and how to justify their decisions more honestly. But that would of course require giving philosophy professors like me more than the one or two brief meetings with students that we are typically allotted in design modules, if we are allotted such meetings at all.

To be clear though, I don’t want the issues I’ve described to be seen as merely pedagogical. We know that designers can steer people’s behaviour, and can do so in ways that the people who are being steered are not even aware of. So it’s vital that designers can justify their design decisions on firmer ground than saying, “I’m just giving the stakeholders and the experts what they said they wanted.”

John Stuart Mill, for example, argued that we can only legitimately interfere in the freedom of others to stop them when they are themselves interfering in the freedom of others. Consequently, he claimed that trying to improve the lives of others was not a legitimate justification for interference. If, as he argued, we learn from our mistakes and thereby develop as human beings, then to prevent people from making mistakes is to prevent people from an essential part of what it means to be human.

Simone de Beauvoir, on other hand, argued that we should not only try to improve the lives of others, but that we must try to improve the lives of others whenever we can. While this perspective may seem to embrace paternalism, de Beauvoir made clear that we must avoid making decisions for others and instead find ways to help people be better able to make decisions for themselves. Accordingly, de Beauvoir urged us to stop viewing technologies as solutions to our problems and instead, to view technologies as ways to help us better see the problems facing us so we are in a better position to address them ourselves.

Now I’m not trying to say that designers must choose to either follow Mill or de Beauvoir in justifying their designs. But I am saying that Mill and de Beauvoir show why designers must take the politics of design seriously and not delegate the responsibility for their politics to others. Design is political, thus designers must be ready, willing, and able to recognize and justify the politics of their designs.

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