Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Radical Design and Radical Sustainability


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 systems is fundamentally unsustainable.

I have made this critique before, as have others, so what I really wanted to do in my talk was to inspire designers to take action (or purposeful inaction) against aspects of commercial design they find unsavory. What should designers do?

I am a firm believer in the importance of pure critique—the work of hyper-focusing on problematic elements, without necessarily offering tangible solutions (similar to problem framing in design). But my critique of human-centered design points to a larger problem within the politics (or lack thereof) in design practice, and this can be addressed through the lens of radicalism.

Becoming Radical

The word “radical” is itself tainted. Calling something or someone radical, or even worse “radicalized,” often conjures up notions of terrorists, zealots, hatred, and extremism. The origin of the word, however, is associated with “getting to the root” of something. A radical approach specifically aims to uncover root causes and original sources, as opposed to surface level explanations. (It’s also related to that quintessential root vegetable, the radish.)

The radical individual fights to uncover the sources of injustice, to interrogate the powers that support those injustices, and devise means of changing the conditions that allow for injustices. If we replace the “injustice” with the “problem”—a word commonly (and often, naively) used in design practice—we can easily see how closely related radical action is to design.

It is time to reframe the notion of radicalism in design if we ever hope to work toward sustainable futures. We must be willing to extend our perspective beyond the next MVP or the five people we interview, to shore up the courage and political vulnerability to ask difficult questions, and do away with the cowardly stance of appeasing client whims at the cost of long-term sustainability.

Radical Sustainability

John Ehrenfeld describes design as “a conscious, deliberate effort to change the systemic presuppositions—beliefs and normal practices, including the use of technology—underlying action so that the desired end may be attained.”2 This phrase “systemic presuppositions” is particularly important, as it points to the things we take for granted in socio-technical systems—things such as the commodification of communalism in the so-called “sharing economy,” the exploitation of workers in platform capitalism, and the ethical responsibility of the designer.

I agree with Ehrenfeld, but I don’t think he goes far enough. We might go deeper and explore systemic presuppositions such as industrial capitalism itself. Is a world of extractive profit and power for a few a world we find preferable? Was building a culture on a non-renewable resource really the best thing to do, or did it simply serve the profit motive of those in power? Or even further: Are nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies more sustainable than “civilized” groups? And within all of these concerns, what is the role and responsibility of design?

These are the types of questions design needs to ask, questions that attempt to get to the root. Otherwise, we are simply trimming the branches.

If the early design thinking literature teaches us anything, it’s that many design problems are symptoms of larger issues, and these systemic linkages are perhaps even more important than the problems themselves. Similarly, Murray Bookchin—communist turned anarchist turned libertarian municipalist and social ecologist, and one of the more interesting inadvertent design theorists ever—tells us that all ecological problems are actually social problems.3 In other words, the issues we see in human ecologies—defined not simply as environmentalism, but as the ways humans interact with their surroundings and other living things to create places of dwelling—can be traced back to dysfunctional social relationships, which for Bookchin are associated with institutions of hierarchy and domination.

There are many definitions of sustainability, and variations and nuances within. I certainly do not have the answer for how to adequately frame sustainability, and there may not be a single answer. But I think it’s safe to say any conception of it hinges on the relationship between ecology, society, and design.

Common Modes of Designerly Resistance

If all ecological problems are social problems, I would argue that social problems are design problems. Societies are institutionalized communities, and as such, they work as designed. Society is not an organic phenomenon; it is a product of purposeful action. If we want to change social forces, we need to not only resist but also redesign—resist and refuse undesirable aspects of society while also re-designing aspects worth saving.

Designers need to admit that their voice is simply one of many. As we see time and time again, designers who are detached from everyday contexts of the people do not have the people’s best interests in mind, regardless of how much empathy they have stockpiled. As the rallying cry “design is political” gains traction and beings to have tangible outcomes in design practice, I hope more designers turn to participatory design methods to become more inclusive in their work.

Co-design is not a new, shiny methodology; it is steeped in principles of cooperativism and direct democracy that attempt to provide more diverse voices in the design process, specifically the voices of those who are generally being designed-for, and counteracts the silly notion of the designer-god bestowing gifts from on high. Design loves to talk about collaboration, but it often lacks a sense of communalism. Collaboration is too often encouraged in corporate design contexts as a productivity tool—to launch “great products” faster and make more money, using co-labor to pool work together for the benefit of the company, all of which play back into the productivism of capitalist accumulation.

A better frame is communalism and its inherent participatory function: a fully inclusive design process that collaborates not only with other teams but also with those being designed-with. Communalist design not only provides a voice for those usually left out, it also works as a mediation point for the ethical responsibility of design.

The notion that designers are directly responsible for the outcomes of their work seems to be finally gaining momentum in contemporary design practice. Designer responsibility is often veiled by capitalist forces, especially the neoliberal variety, which works to divorce the individual action from systemic effects. It is too easy for individual designers working on services like Uber to remove themselves from the effects of labor exploitation, or those working on algorithmically driven products to separate their work from the erosion of privacy. But the truth is that each and every person involved in the design of these products is responsible for their effects, both good and bad. This means that the researchers learning about customers, the interaction designers removing “friction” from the experience, the marketers crafting messages, and so on, are all complicit in creating new ways of being in the world.

Many designers are attempting to change the system from within—work with the corrupt governments and multinational corporations in attempt to infiltrate and provoke change from inside. One might argue that this is the logical conclusion to arguments in my forthcoming book, Persistent Fools: Cunning Intelligence and the Politics of Design, in which I argue that the use of cunning and elements of trickery are necessary skills to design sustainable futures. One must be clever to work at a corporation with the goal to make its practices more sustainable and its ethics more transparent.

But is it even possible? Short of a highly influential and business-minded member of the executive cadre, can an individual or even a team within a rigidly hierarchical, profit-driven company make this type of change? Or is unsustainability within companies a product of that company’s culture? If so, is culture bigger than an individual or a team? Ideally, designers interested in working from the inside can make their way up the corporate ladder into positions of power and eventually influence the radical changes necessary. I hope that can be a reality soon.

Radicalizing Our Modes of Resistance

Beyond working diplomatically within the very systems we are attempting to resist, there are a few options for a more direct, radical approach.

One approach is to refuse work that does not align with individual or collective standards of the good. The quote from John Holloway at the beginning of this article sums it up quite nicely; the refusal to create is just as powerful as active resistance. For independent designers, this can be simply refusing work from companies whose principles run counter to the designer’s. For studios, it is necessary to co-create a set of principles that guide work, similar to the Design Justice Network’s living document. Everyone in the studio should have a voice in the creation of the document, and new employees and collaborators should agree to the principles.

However, the refusal of work is a very privileged position, both for individuals and studios. There is a romantic view of refusing work, and it certainly does feel amazing to turn down projects, but there are always times of revenue slumps when one must weigh the benefit of not taking a project with the cost of not making rent. The preferred state would be a system of solidarity and mutual support for designers refusing work, to help provide aid in these situations. Another problem with refusing work is that, especially with for-profit companies, if you dig deep enough you will probably find some kind of activity that you have a hard time supporting.

Another approach is direct action—a mode of resistance with a long history of successes, from Gandhi and Martin Luther King, to Occupy Wall Street and the Seattle anti-globalization movement, to the blockading of logging roads in national forests and the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance. In his ethnographic account of direct action, David Graeber describes:

“The direct activist does not just refuse to pay taxes to support a militarized school system, she combines with others to try to create a new school system that operates on different principles. She proceeds as she would if the state did not exist and leaves it to the state’s representatives to decide whether to try to send armed men to stop her.”

Most direct actions are carefully designed as new modes of participation are envisioned. This is where I believe designers can most effectively promote sustainable, radical alternatives to the status quo.

To the extent we are able, we should choose work that aligns with our morals, attempt to make change from within oppressive systems, and not forget the creative aspects of effective resistance. Look for local ways to plug in to radical movements like reclaiming public space, food justice, fighting fascism, and a myriad of other causes that need designers to help organize and get to the root of social issues.

Dealing with the Roots

The radical designer can take many forms. They are the ones on the street subverting corporate advertising to redesign public space, the ones trying to convince their clients to consider real human needs beyond profitable human needs, and the ones who avoid providing their valuable service to organizations who stand opposed to their vision of the future.

Designers with radical views are vulnerable; their politics are front and center for everyone to see, and taking their beliefs seriously might result in reduction of income. The realities of paying bills might prevent a full expression of one’s radical thought, but I think that simply being conscious of the connection between radical thought, personal ethics, and long term sustainability is a good first step for many designers to begin changing their practice.


Photo credit: Radishes by Allison Giguere via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

1. Holloway, John. Crack capitalism. Pluto Press, 2010.

2. Ehrenfeld, John R. “The Roots of Unsustainability.” The Handbook of Design for Sustainability (2013): 15.

3. See especially Bookchin, Murray. The ecology of freedom: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy. Palo Alto, CA: Cheshire Books, 1982.

thomas wendtThomas Wendt is an independent design strategist, author, facilitator, activist, educator, and speaker based in New York City. He splits his time between client work and independent scholarship. His client work focuses on building sustainable human-centered design capabilities through workshops, training programs, and coaching, along with projects encompassing early stage design research, co-design, and service design. Thomas has worked with clients ranging from large companies to nonprofits and activist groups. His independent research interests revolve around the relationship between design and philosophy, which have manifested in numerous articles, essays, and conference presentations, along with two books: Design for Dasein: Understanding the Design of Experiences and Persistent Fools: Cunning Intelligence and the Politics of Design (forthcoming—read more and sign up for updates here).


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