On 26 March 2020, architect, urban designer, activist, and critic Michael Sorkin died at the age of 71 after contracting COVID-19. A prolific writer, Sorkin was best known for his irascible critiques and joyful humor, as is apparent in “Two Hundred and Fifty Things an Architect Should Know,” a poetic essay-list that recently became a posthumous book. While trapped in my flat during the first UK lockdown, I became inspired by Sorkin and began compiling my own list.
Despite the currency of design thinking from the early 2000s to today—when it has become the secret weapon of businesses and governments—the designed world, design education, and design practice look and feel almost exactly the same: devoid of thoughtfulness. Design thinking does not magically rid the world of bias; it merely masks it under the guise of innovation. The mainstream version of design thinking—the “creative” version of management consulting—has carved up a split between the intellectual designer and the practitioner, crippling designers to generic tools and methods. If we take away the post-its, the A3 papers and the markers, can the designer really think?
“Design thinking does not magically rid the world of bias; it merely masks it under the guise of innovation. [...] If we are to really think, we must critique our very conception of design.”
If we are to really think, we must critique our very conception of design. For Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, the starting point of any critical reflection is “knowing thyself,” gaining consciousness of the historical processes which have imprinted so much in us despite leaving no inventory. “The first thing to do is to make such an inventory,” Gramsci advises.
I like to describe myself as a “pessoptimist,” a term coined by Palestinian writer Emile Habibi to express the inseparability of hope and despair. Through this pessoptimistic lens, which remains a hopeful one, I started compiling my own inventory of things every designer should know—or rather, an inventory of things designers should think about, in order for them to know.
My list is generic—it applies to all designers no matter their specialization, as I believe every designer also needs to be a generalist. There is no “correct” way of using it. Most importantly, the list is not to be seen as a definitive “how to” guide—design libraries are already filled with these. Instead, it should be read as a series of prompts to spark conversations, help designers challenge the unquestionable truths in their discipline, and to think more critically about what they do to make the world a better, and at times, a worse place. Ending at item 240, the list will soon be published by Onomatopee as a small booklet, but it remains, like any piece of design, an iterative work. What follows is a reflection on a small selection of items.
Designer Charles Eames was once quoted as saying, “The designer must be the perfect dinner host,” meaning they should anticipate all their guests’ needs. Designers spend very little time observing people, yet a bulk of what we do is about creating things people need or think they will need. We dictate taste and lifestyle, we shape ways of being, and we transform desires into needs, endlessly.
When we enter a hotel, we are greeted by a friendly: “How may I help you?” rather than the self-absorbed designerly way of approaching it: “How may I tell you how I can help you based on my assumptions and intuition of what I think you want?” Designers have much to learn from the field of hospitality: greeting people with kindness and peace, and offering them protection, sympathy, and a caring ear. [This relates to #196. The importance of research and #197. Of exploring methods].
#16. Explaining the why behind the what
Designers often seek examples to inspire their work. But while examples can serve as cues for the development of relevant concepts, fixating too much on them can have negative effects. Studies have shown that familiar examples may further activate someone’s common knowledge, making people more fixated on a typical area, or on what they already know. This fixation does not only prevent us from expanding our perspective, but it also contributes to the inability to explain the “why” behind the “what.” Although new ideas are built from prior knowledge and experience, we should all be wary of our “heuristic bias”—the shortcut of familiarity that comes to our minds when we make decisions.
Familiarity is designers talking to ourselves and repackaging ideas. It removes the ability to discuss the arguments behind the choices made during the process. Instead, we must broaden our gaze by speaking to other people and disciplines, and search for examples and inspiration in less common domains. After all, design is a complex and world-shaping force. Explaining the reasoning behind our design decisions enables us to constantly interrogate our assumptions, understand the consequences of our actions, and seek alternatives.
#23. When not to design
Design theorist Tony Fry also coined the term “defuturing” to describe “[t]he negation of world futures for us, and many of our unknowing non-human others.” In other words, as we create, we actively eliminate possible futures. For Fry, design futuring is the basis for educating designers to fully understand the world within a social, cultural, economic, political, and environmental context.
“As design makes the futures we inhabit an everyday reality, it paves the way for new material practices. In fact, sometimes the best solution is not to design anything at all”
Design students must learn how, and to what ends, to direct their technical skills. For example, they must critically examine the source of the materials they use, the likely poorly paid labor behind production, and most importantly, where their designs are likely to end up. They must ask: “Is this responsible? Is this sustainable? Is this human-centered? And what of the non-human?” Above all, students must acquire a clear understanding of their own implication and responsibility in forming futures.
As design makes the futures we inhabit an everyday reality, it paves the way for new material practices. In fact, sometimes the best solution is not to design anything at all (though telling a maker not to make is not quite so simple).
#34. Design’s unintended consequences
What we design has consequences on the world. When you design packaging, you create the problem of disposing of this packaging. For example, the introduction of the automobile created not only the necessity to develop land into parking spaces, but it also created an artificial predator for animals such as squirrels, possums, birds, cats, foxes, dogs, and racoons, while simultaneously reducing the natural predators of these animals. In an attempt to solve one problem, we end up creating another, and another, and another.
Our interrogation of the present (how things are), and convincing people of accepting our new inventions (how things could be), opens new practices that have repercussions on social, economic and political systems. The range and diversity of design problems means that designing interfaces, for example, is no longer about merely “pushing pixels,” but about engendering complex systems that spread love and hate while deeply affecting people’s lives, and the lives of those around them. [This ties to #110. How our designs shape the world and this in turn shapes us].
In acknowledging that design has unintended consequences, and designing to reduce their effects, there must be, to quote Tony Fry once more, “a willingness to accept responsibility for what is designed as unfinished and thus in continual process.” For Fry, understanding “that everything designed goes on designing” is a crucial frame of ethical assessment.
#35. That design is not always universal
The fields of Ergonomics and Human factors emerged in the early and mid-twentieth century to better understand users, and render production more efficient. It launched a wave of standard manuals with measurements, movements, and instructions to assist designers in the design process, many of which are still in use today. The basis of our current user standards dates back to the work of researchers from many decades ago, and as such are infused with the cultural and historical bias from their time.
Think of Henry Dreyfuss’ The Measure of Man, a book from 1967 which is still featured in many of today’s design bibliographies, which is based on the racist theory of anthropometrics, combined with principles of Taylorism—itself a process to maximize the productivity of consumer goods. Or Ernst Neufert’s The Architects’ Data, whose norms were widely adopted by the Nazis, but still remains one of the most translated architecture books of all time. Or Charles Ramsey and George Sleeper’s Architectural Graphic Standards, or Francis Schroeder’s Anatomy for Interior Design, or Josef Muller Brockmann’s Grid Systems, and even Jan Tschihold’s Die Neue Typographie. These advocates of “good design” treat the body like a machine, but designers and design schools consider these still-in-print tomes as gospel.
“Standardization is not only about efficiency, it also serves a normalizing function which has broad social-political implications.”
Standardization is not only about efficiency, it also serves a normalizing function which has broad social-political implications. As pointed out by architectural historian and theorist Nader Vossoughian, the standards that “govern the dimensions of bricks also shape understandings of the body politic.” For late feminist design historian Judy Attfield, modern design limited consumer bodies into “a standard unit to serve the functional needs of the product and the production processes of the manufacturer.” Once products are produced on a mass scale, consumers are reduced to a “homogenous undifferentiated mass.”
The same could arguably be said of design students across the globe. The authors of a recent article on design education titled “Changing Design Education for the 21st Century,” unsurprisingly, appear to advocate for a one-size-fits-all “common basic framework” that is “broadly accepted by the design community and that allows for multiple curricula.” Although they believe that each institution should make its courses appropriate to students and faculty, there is no mention of design as a contextually based practice. We are only to assume that this “common basic framework” is yet again to emerge from the Global North.
Our desire to reconfigure conversations around decolonization and anti-racism cannot happen in speech only, it must have practical consequences. Would it be too controversial to propose questioning the very idea of standards based on the world we live in today? Are they inclusive? Do we revise, rethink, or abolish them? And what happens if we do?
The design world was not always about standardization. As Vossoughian pointed out, architectural standards were not always the norm. During most of the 1920s and 1930s, Germany’s leading standards institutions (such as the Deutsches Institut für Normung, known as DIN) paid little attention to architecture, and designers resisted adopting regulating norms. But everything changed with Neufert’s book. According to Vossoughian, its success was so widespread, that “today the very practice of architecture is unthinkable without standards.”
Standardization of paper sizes by DIN also influenced how we read and engage with texts. The grid helped us place elements on the page in an orderly fashion, and dictated the speed in which we read them. Today, our obsession with instant gratification, efficiency, and speed is ingrained in the way we read—just think of the advisory or perhaps even a “disclaimer” at the top of online articles, telling us how long reading it will take. [This relates to #110. Design shapes ways of being.]
Don’t get me wrong: there are designs that should be universal or standardized, but often, those we need are not. The best example is USB cables: if there ever was an argument for standardization, this is it.
#36. How design perpetuates bias, inequalities and racial violence
Architecture scholar Kathryn H. Anthony reminds us that, although not all biases in design disadvantage specific identities and ages, “when they do, the burden tends to fall disproportionately on women, on children or the elderly, or on the petite or oversized, in addition to those with physical disabilities, both visible and invisible—anyone who is “not average.”
The truth is that most products are designed with cost savings in mind, adjusted to fit their future packaging. What happens when objects require high levels of manual dexterity? For the elderly who suffer with arthritis for example, this means the difference between eating a frozen dinner or a home-cooked meal they have put together themselves. The absence of diverse voices does not allow them to have a say in the objects they use. Rather, they suffer the consequences of poor design decisions created by designers who make products they want and that fit their own experiences.
#39. The dangers of short-term decision making
#40. Of maintaining the status quo
The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the dangers of both #39 and #40, which are closely related. It showed us the harm of “business ontology”: the assumption that everything in society should be run as business. As a consequence, good short-term decisions such as furlough (which made the case of universal basic income even more appealing) are dismissed because they are not profitable, while bad decisions are kept because they can be made profitable. Short-term decision-making combines capitalism’s worst with bureaucracy to create the most boring of solutions.
“If we surround ourselves with homogeneous groups that fit into the culture we have created, we dismiss alternatives. We are more likely to keep defending the status quo than to imagine otherwise.”
The truth is, countries and companies are run by teams of decision-makers who are not particularly diverse—whether racially, cognitively, socio-economically, discipline of expertise, or even in terms of their gender. In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, economist James Surowiecki states that homogeneity leads to a lack of radical innovation, which means people are “even more unlikely to embrace them when they’re proposed.” If we surround ourselves with homogeneous groups that fit into the culture we have created, we dismiss alternatives. We are more likely to keep defending the status quo than to imagine otherwise.
#46. How cheap design makes one feel less valued
There is a saying “only the rich can afford to buy cheap.” Throughout history, many socially-conscious designers had ambitions of creating high-quality affordable designs for the average person. Unfortunately, some of these are now the most expensive pieces on the market. Design writer Ellen Lupton pointed out that most product development is based on short-term economic interests or “to the expressive or theoretical intent of designers to a community’s entrenched habits and customs.”
When we prioritize cost and speed, the interests of shareholders, or even our personal expression, we risk making bad and poor designs, which sends an unconscious message that they are not valuable. When we design high-quality products that are unaffordable to the average person, we unconsciously tell them they are undeserving of quality. Planned obsolescence was invented in a specific political context of restoring the economy by selling more products. Just as easily as it was concocted, it can be relegated to the waste bin of history.
#51. The ability to continuously question
“To create, one must question everything,” to echo the words of architect and designer Eileen Gray.
But that’s not what we are doing. As designer and researcher Marjanne van Helvert points out, we take things for granted. We view the planet as a limitless resource, we lack care towards harsh labor conditions that produce our precious goods, and we ignore the extent to which we produce junk and disposable objects. We act as if our design and consumption system has always been this way, which makes it difficult for us to challenge things.
“Bad decisions are made when people do not ask why, or challenge what they deem problematic or unethical. We all have the agency to bring about change.”
Often, people say: “I am just doing my job,” to detach themselves from responsibility, as though a job description revoked our agency, or our ability to question; as if we are incapable of thinking for ourselves. Bad decisions are made when people do not ask why, or challenge what they deem problematic or unethical. We all have the agency to bring about change. Nothing changes overnight. Asking about the ramifications of our work does not prevent the thing from being made, but it opens possibilities for others to begin questioning.
The process can start simply by designers asking the 5 Ws: What is this thing I am asked to make? Why am I making this thing? How will it affect people? Where will it live? Who will benefit, and who will be disadvantaged?
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our lives, and introduced multiple constraints. We are conditioned to struggle when we face constraints, but constraints can be positive too, even if they are uncomfortable. They enable us to shift our mindsets and think about what else is possible. Critical thinking, questioning, and constraints are always accompanied by discomfort.
The current conversations in design around anti-racism and decolonization cause discomfort, and they are meant to be uncomfortable. In fact, in his book The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon described decolonization not as a space of “friendly understanding” but as a programme of disorder. If we continue to avoid unsettling, uncomfortable conversations, we end up nowhere. Discomfort, in the words of feminist scholar Sara Ahmed, allows things to move.
#54. The dangers of seeking out simplicity
The fear of discomfort causes us to seek out simplicity, and COVID-19 showed us the extent of our simplicity. Think of the Coronagrifting trend, which saw some borderline ridiculous conceptual designs: from turning everything into an app or a subscription service, to bizarre socially-distanced offices of the future thought up on the fly. Will design and architecture after COVID-19 change? Can we reimagine how we can live to better protect ourselves and our mental health from the next pandemic?
We talk about innovation, but to properly innovate we need to shift our mindset. What we deem as innovative is rarely innovation. Consider “revolutions” in banking through digital-only banks like Monzo or Revolut. Is it really so innovative and disruptive for one to be in control of one’s spending by not dealing with a physical branch? It may make things easier, but it does not change the banking system. It only provides another, simpler way of banking.
“We talk about innovation, but to properly innovate we need to shift our mindset. [...] Often what we call “innovation” lies in maintaining the status quo, not challenging it.”
Often what we call “innovation” lies in maintaining the status quo, not challenging it. We seek out the simplicity not just in our design solutions, but in every aspect of our lives. We put trigger warnings and create anti-racist and decolonial toolkits, which risk becoming another form of bureaucracy. Check this box if your design briefs are committed to “anti-racism” and “inclusivity.” We never run out of innovations to give the impression of change occurring, when in fact we are avoiding change to keep things exactly the same.
Making the same design mistakes is akin to being in love (not to be confused with #55. The meaning of love). When we are in love, economist Paul Rosenstein-Rodan writes, we do not believe anybody else has ever been in love, and we do not learn from people’s mistakes, and thus we repeat the same ones all over again.
#59. How to transcend the limitations of reform
Asking for design education to change is merely calling for reforms, or what political theorist Angela Mitropolous calls “the change that doesn’t change.” Instead, design education must be transformed and subverted.
Those who call for “radical reforms” must come to the realization that reforms cannot be radical. This goes against the very nature of what we mean by radical. Those who wish for reforms believe in incremental change, which has been leading to short-term decision-making and maintaining the status quo. It’s what COP 26 recently demonstrated: compromise that favors the few, not the many. Reforms are, of course, vital in the path towards revolution, but for that they must challenge the status quo. As bell hooks argued in Feminist Theory: from margin to center, reforms cannot “eradicate systems of domination” if they do not “challeng[e] and chang[e] the cultural basis of group oppression.
Why do we fear radical change when we accept it every day? We allowed technology to take over our lives, and gave away our personal data for a free Big Mac without batting an eyelash. It’s because we don’t want to change the status quo. Instead of rethinking models, we “cut back” or get rid of things. Supermarkets first charged for plastic bags; now, they want to get rid of them altogether. Beware: this is a red herring; a danger of the greenwashing industry. The same companies who created the problem now want to find short-term solutions to fix it. Instead, can we question the supermarket model altogether, and cut the food waste it produces?
#201. How one’s modernism is another’s colonialism
Who is modern, and who is contemporary? What was modernity for some, was colonialism for others. Signs of progress are someone else’s progress—they are imposed on others at a great cost.
Modernization enforced emulation of the Western model to the so-called developing countries. Think for example of urbanization, giving way to cars, tower blocks are better than compounds, concrete is superior to local materials, insurance is better than mutual aid, and fast food restaurants are better than subsistence agriculture. All of this is considered progress; a progress that still controls us, even while we watch it continuously destroy the world.
Modernization demands constant change and growth: things must be bigger, faster, shinier, newer, and use the latest technology. But sometimes the best solutions do not use digital devices at all.
#212. Of the tiffin box
Take for example the dabbawalas of Mumbai. Using an elaborate color-coding and numbering system, every day over 5,000 semi-literate workers, called dabbawalas, deliver over 200,000 meals between 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. in one of the most populated cities in the world.
The containers, known as tiffin boxes, are then collected after lunch by reversing the process. Research shows that their error margin is almost negligible, almost one in six million. This 130-year-old practice provides the Global North with valuable lessons in cutting both food and plastic waste, particularly with the increase in takeaway foods due to COVID-19 and fast-paced lifestyles. Why hasn’t this concept caught on?
The reason, I argue, is not only because technology makes everything more convenient and we prefer cold interactions where we do not engage with our delivery drivers and, but due to the damage caused by modernism [#200 on the list]. Following the question of who decides who is modern and who is contemporary, we can ask: who dictates what is good design?
“If we can’t think about design in different terms—to disrupt it—then everything will stay exactly the same.”
When we think of good design, the expression of taste manufactured by tastemakers, we think of Western design. The West makes good design while the rest practice “crafts.” As pointed out by design critic Alice Rawsthorn, many craft traditions, including those with proud histories, were dismissed on the grounds that they would impede modernization. The frame of reference for the vast majority of design histories and theories is still Europe and North America. Western audiences consume arguments of thinkers and practitioners from the Global North, without, to quote anthropologist Zoe Todd, “being aware of competing or similar discourses happening outside of the rock-star arenas of Euro-Western thought.” The same prejudice we have about who makes good design goes to drawing lessons from elsewhere. At the end, who then dictates where good ideas and innovations come from? If we can’t think about design in different terms—to disrupt it—then everything will stay exactly the same.
Danah Abdulla (she/her) is an Arab-Canadian designer, educator, and researcher—not in any particular order but always all three. She is program director of Graphic Design at Camberwell, Chelsea, and Wimbledon Colleges of Art, University of the Arts London. Danah holds a Ph.D. in Design from Goldsmiths, University of London and is a founding member of the Decolonising Design platform. In 2010, she founded Kalimat Magazine, an independent, nonprofit publication about Arab thought and culture. Her research focuses on decolonizing design, possibilities of design education, design culture(s) with a focus on the Arab region, the politics of design, publishing, and social design.
All images by Aude Nasr, illustrator and photographer, based in Marseille, France.