Middle Management

Design thinking is not apolitical, it’s centrism in disguise

Full-text audio version of this essay.

Imagine the tech utopia of mainstream science fiction. The bustle of self-driving cars, helpful robot assistants, and holograms throughout the sparkling city square immediately marks this world apart from ours, but something else is different, something that can only be described in terms of ambiance. Everything is frictionless here: The streets are filled with commuters, as is the sky, but the vehicles attune their choreography to one another so precisely that there is never any traffic, only an endless smooth procession through space. The people radiate a sense of purpose; they are all on their way somewhere, or else, they have already arrived. There’s an overwhelming amount of activity on display at every corner, but it does not feel chaotic, because there is no visible strife or deprivation. We might appreciate its otherworldly beauty, but we need not question the underlying mechanics of this utopia — everything works because it was designed to work, and in this world, design governs the space we inhabit as surely and exactly as the laws of physics.

Now return to our own world, cruel and turbulent by comparison — are you a designer here, or a consumer? Keller Easterling, an architect and Yale professor best known for her writing on infrastructure and urban planning as they relate to global politics, turns this distinction on its head. Easterling’s new book, Medium Design: Knowing How To Work on the World, begins with the assertion that everyone is a designer, including you. This is not a new concept: similar currents have run through the design world since at least the 1960s (perhaps best exemplified by architect Hans Hollein’s 1968 proclamation that “everything is architecture,” meaning that architects’ purview extends to all aspects of spatial knowledge). Within this well-trodden ground, however, Easterling finds an intriguing hook. Everyone is a designer, she says, not of buildings or typography or clothing, but of environments. We move from place to place, encountering new situations — a jug of milk near expiration, a crying child, a busy intersection — and try to alter them using whatever is available to us in the moment, whether by cooking a meal that will use up the remaining milk or bringing the child a comforting toy or pet.

Here in our cruel and turbulent world, are you a designer or a consumer?

From this foundation, Easterling makes a bold declaration: Through careful examination of our environments and their latent potentials, designers can find solutions to seemingly intractable political problems by working around them (in her words, “rewiring some of the abusive structures of capital”). This methodology, which she calls “medium design,” is applied throughout the book to quandaries such as land ownership and inequality, urban transportation, and global migration. In other words, design — the same theory and process that has created everything from the Swiss Army Knife to the iPhone — could also alleviate poverty and displacement, replace crumbling infrastructure, and perhaps eliminate the need for “politics” altogether.

Easterling finds medium designers throughout historical and fictional narrative alike, including among her ranks Jane Eyre, Richard III, the recaptured slaves of Kubrick’s Spartacus, and Rosa Parks. These figures are supposedly united in political temperament: Rather than engage in direct conflict with their oppressors, she claims, they redesign the dynamics of their circumstances, find power in the quieter work of subverting expectations such that persecuting them can only produce a pyrrhic victory. On the bus in Montgomery, Parks supposedly “activated an undeclared urban disposition, and she shifted this potential in the spatio-political matrix to break a loop without intensifying a dangerous binary.” Putting the needlessly impenetrable language aside (most of the book is written like this), the implication that Parks and the subsequent bus boycott didn’t very intentionally intensify the binary between segregationists and anti-segregationists — and the suggestion that this binary bred violence, rather than segregation itself — is jaw-dropping.

As galaxy-brained and jargon-laden as Easterling’s articulation may be, her worldview far from fringe: its less urbane cousin, “design thinking,” has long found eager acceptance in Silicon Valley, corporate America, and parts of academia. (You may have encountered its very basic precepts in school, in the form of a process diagram with steps labeled “empathize,” “define,” “ideate,” “prototype,” and “test.”) Lofted into the mainstream by Tim Brown and the design company IDEO in the late aughts, the ambiguously-defined technique was billed as a magic bullet with as much to offer on issues like global poverty as it did on consumer product innovation. By the time critics began pointing out that this approach simultaneously rarified common sense and oversimplified actual design expertise, teaching people to “think like designers” had become a massive industry, flush with the cash of business schools and corporations. Like medium design, design thinking seeks to identify mobile pieces in seemingly intractable situations — to “get things moving,” as Easterling puts it, with grease rather than force. The seemingly distinct problems of a poor rural community depending on time-intensive, hand-operated water pumps, and of children having nowhere to play, for example, could be ameliorated in combination by attaching the water tank to a children’s merry-go-round.

But where design thinking is primarily focused on process, Easterling appears interested in design as a kind of political theory — or rather, a theory by which “design” transcends politics, rendering it obsolete. Medium design is presented as a salve against “ideological conflict,” which seems to refer to direct struggles for power between those with different class interests or incompatible visions for the future. This type of political engagement is problematized as a fruitless endeavor with little potential beyond stalemate; throughout Medium Design, words like “ideological” and “activist” are employed with a timbre of condescension, characterizing those to whom they refer as well-intentioned, but unsophisticated. This framing allows Easterling to lay claim to sober pragmatism while also articulating a quite hopeful vision: that we can change the world simply by teaching people to think better. For any given conflict, an ingenious, catch-all solution is just waiting to be engineered.

When the triumphs of neoliberalism failed to deliver on their utopian promises, the Bill Gateses of the world issued an addendum: The world’s remaining problems were technical, not political

Perhaps it’s most helpful to think of medium design and design thinking as the respective theory and process elements of one larger design-as-politics worldview — one that is willfully ignorant and fundamentally centrist. This view has been refining itself since the late 20th century: In 1989, Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history,” claiming that Western liberal democracy would mark “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution.” When the triumphs of neoliberalism subsequently failed to deliver on their utopian promises, the Bill Gateses of the world issued an addendum: The world’s remaining problems were technical, not political, and as such require solutions rooted in technological innovation rather than mass political action. Every convoluted technical stopgap designed in service of a fundamentally political problem, then, can be cited as evidence of the coming utopia.

This is where the gears of design-as-politics grind into motion, leaving the concentration of power unacknowledged and unquestioned. Global health and sanitation, and access to water and toilets specifically, are often signature social causes of the design-thinking industry. The previously mentioned merry-go-round water pump was a real technology, implemented in at least 1,500 locations across southern Africa after receiving $16.4 million in funding in 2006. It is also one of the “innovation” industry’s most infamous failures: The pumps required constant use to produce enough water — translating into arduous labor, not play — and maintenance and repair was prohibitively expensive. Since then, corporations and nonprofits engaged in this work have supposedly learned their lesson, and will often emphasize, repeatedly and in self-congratulatory fashion, the centrality of community input and feedback in shaping their solutions; this involvement is often known as “participatory design.” But input and feedback are only so meaningful when control over the actual decision-making — which could and should be placed in the hands of the community — is still wielded by the designers, whose field of possibility is shaped by the interests of the powerful companies and organizations that fund their work.

Easterling strenuously declines the label of “centrist,” a tendency whose adherents, by her calculation, suffer as much from ineffective temperament as the leftists she condescends to. But this objection is a matter of branding; her solution is ultimately to leave the dominant structures intact, which is of course what centrism is. I could easily imagine a passage from Medium Design delivered in the cadence of Barack Obama or Pete Buttigieg; both worldly, well-read political figures familiar with left perspectives (when a screencap of Buttigieg sporting a horrendous buzzcut caught Twitter’s attention last April, some took note of several volumes of n+1 on the bookshelf behind him). This fluency has allowed both politicians, and others like them, to market the neoliberal consensus as something newer and bolder, ripe with “common sense solutions” that can subvert the usual stalemate of Washington. Failure to solve anything never seems to threaten the stability of this position — the cycle simply begins again, with a fresher face and loftier rhetoric, like a new actor stepping into the Spider-Man suit.

Design-as-politics is a bargaining with politics as one might do with grief. Failure to solve anything never seems to threaten the stability of this position

One of Easterling’s most optimistic case studies is that of urban transportation in America. She adopts neither a left-wing collectivist vision of robust public mass transit nor a right-wing individualist one of privately owned or rented self-driving cars, instead relishing a vision of constant interplay between various modes. The multiplicity, she reasons, can potentially combat the inequality inherent to transit and its routing by providing more ways to get from place to place in neighborhoods far from the train. But who owns the trains, and the self-driving cars, and the bicycle docks? Who does the labor necessary to create and maintain them, and where do the profits from that labor go? These questions are left unaddressed, perhaps because they are simple, material, and doctrinaire, and thus pitifully unsophisticated; or because they could unravel the book’s central premise entirely.

The appeal of the centrist escape hatch for designers isn’t hard to grasp. You fall in love with something — skyscrapers, letterforms, robots, websites, cars — and dedicate yourself to its craft, only to run headlong into the cruel depravity of its mode of production. Caught between the thing you love and are paid to do and the political implications of doing it, a trap door appears beneath you: What if capitalism could be designed around? One could infer that the seminal impulse of design-as-politics is bargaining with the nature of politics, as one might do with grief — a compulsive search for loopholes, in which the underlying problems are swapped out for satisfying puzzles.

But disentangling oneself from the false promises of design-as-politics has liberating potential. Once you come to terms with what design cannot do, you free yourself up to focus on what it can do. The most interesting thing about Medium Design is that some of its ideas are utterly reasonable, even helpful, when divorced from their crypto-centrist context. The oft-mentioned tactic of subverting expectations pops up frequently in radical organizing — as design writers like Colleen Tighe and Lilly Smith have noted, abolitionists responded to liberal co-option of the summer’s radical potential with a counter co-option, copying the messaging and graphic design of the tepidly reformist “8 Can’t Wait” campaign with “8 to Abolition.” And Easterling’s vision of an equitable multimodal transit ecosystem is rather convincing — or at least it would be in the context of complete public ownership.

I even wholeheartedly agree with the assertion that “everyone is a designer,” a phrase I first heard not while reading Medium Design or taking a design thinking class, but rather, at a socialist meeting, where people of differing skill sets had gathered to develop techniques for making propaganda. There was no design-as-politics to be found there, but rather, design in service of politics. The folly of “design thinking” or “medium design” isn’t believing that design has political utility, but expecting it to offer deliverance from the crucible of living within capitalism. Design is not an art form, or a mindset, or a politics, or a trap door; it is a tool, and in order to use it effectively, you have to believe in something beyond it.

R.E. Hawley is a writer and designer whose work has previously appeared in the New Republic, the Baffler, and the Outline, among other places.