Radical Design and Radical Sustainability
by THOMAS WENDT, Surrounding Signifiers Sustainability & Ethnography in Business Series, Mike Youngblood, Editor “Revolution is not about destroying capitalism, but about refusing to create it.” —John Holloway1 Serious designers must be radicals. If we are truly enraged by the political, ecological, and economic challenges we face, and if design is characterized by the envisioning and actualization of preferable futures, then the only choice in perspective is that of radicalism. Otherwise, we are simply maintaining the status quo. To do this, we need to do more than tinker with a different “approach.” Recently at the IXDA’s annual Interactions conference I presented a critique of human-centered design in commercial design contexts. When practiced in the mostly uncritical realm of corporate power, I argued, HCD is unequipped to come to terms with its own paradoxes—it claims to address political and ethical concerns that capitalism purposefully attempts to circumvent. I concluded that HCD within capitalist...
Empathy as Faux Ethics
by THOMAS WENDT, Surrounding Signifiers “The term ‘empathy’ has provided a guiding thread for a whole range of fundamentally mistaken theories concerning man’s [sic] relationship to other human beings and to other beings in general.” —Martin Heidegger Popular design discourse is full of articles, books, and conference presentations on the role of empathy in design. In both commercial and non-commercial settings, most designers argue the same thing: designers should attempt to build empathy for “users” so they can better design for them. But empathy as it’s generally practiced ultimately subverts its own goals. It tends to reinforce “otherness”, promote anthropocentrism, and ignore ecological considerations. Everyday Empathy I recently moved from Manhattan to Queens. My old neighborhood, NoLita (north of Little Italy…thanks, real estate agents), had fully gentrified, with storefronts quickly transforming into cold pressed juice bars ($10/cup) and men’s shaving supply stores ($25 “beard oil”). My...