The Design Choice
of Care

Marc Ruaix  &  Jonathan Ventura

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Few in the design industry would anticipate the argument we want to present, a subject-matter bound to be met with reactionary responses of reassurance. However, it will hopefully kindle an internal, presumably silent, self-assessment of our personal design practice. It seems to us that design practitioners have fallen into a trap of goodwill. If one might very rightfully think that it is morally unacceptable to suppress design’s potential to foster good, it is equally impermissible to vociferate our allegedly caring endeavours without a sharp and conscious understanding of our intentions. We believe that unmasking this motive of concern is our duty as design careers, and we hope our fellow designers will give this text careful consideration if we even remotely intend to hold the reins steering our profession.

In a time engulfed by fear, hate and narrow practicality, wherein liberal, pluralistic and egalitarian approaches are perceived as naive, feeble or simply anachronistic, it is vital for the designer to take an explicit stand. The pathological lack of conscious and clear values driving design has plagued the discipline since Romanticism, which hailed the false embodiment of capitalism as a dogmatic force of nature rather than a chosen set of priorities. The breadth of our unease is such as to say that a lucid redefinition of our role in society is compulsory if we are to escape a future where designers become unnecessary or obsolete. That being said, we wish not only to trigger an act of conscious evaluation but also to present humble and actionable guidance that can lead the way through the nebulous rationale that drives us, designers.

Recent technological advances, coupled with global social, economic and political shifts, have emphasised the necessity of reflecting on the reality of our role in such context of constant upheaval. The loss of ideology, feared and loathed by most designers, has led the discipline to the gluttony of chrome-papered catalogues celebrating its relevance to an anecdotic portion of society. Fortunately, a vanguard represented by a growing stratum of socially-rooted sub-disciplines, such as inclusive design and design anthropology, has emerged with the intention to reverse this trend. Now, as most of the significant changes in the discipline unfold within its academically-cloistered margins, a mind-set shake-up is needed inside the realm of design practitioners.

Concealed beneath the thick robes of our unconditional love for design and the sturdy moral convictions aimed at actively sculpting a better world, lies the undeniable crude motivation that pushed us into the design industry spiral. Perhaps we are preaching to an audience fortunate enough to slip through the reality of it, but we are quite certain that, for the vast majority of us, the purpose of the design practice we devote our lives to is, ultimately, to provide a means of sustenance. We might be at a stage of our professional career where this reality has long been forgotten, but it seems difficult to dispute the existence of any other reality for us, the working class.

In point of fact, we do not see any grounds for why it would be demanded of us to care for anything else other than our own subsistence to fully execute the design profession. Although noble, it is naively ludicrous to adopt a position other than defending our freedom, as design practitioners, to decide how we want to care in our practice and what we want to care for. In radical contrast with the impossibility of producing genuine works of art by someone working for the necessity of earning a livelihood (Morris, 1901), the authenticity of design is not bound by the purity of its intentions.

How is design then so inherent to the idea of social responsibility? There is an ontological clash between the foundations of the discipline and post-modern ideals that assume a more elevated position to the bare visual-material solution-seeker. First performed as a mere tool of self-survival, the design’s fruits were proven attractive enough to place design at the service of others through the knowledge of those who embraced it as practice. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, design endeavours evolved from the boundaries of communities to serve the market machinery itself. Nevertheless, as dehumanising as it may seem, design was catalysed by the wonders of automation into a scale that would reach an unprecedented volume of people across all socio-economic strata.

The caring ideals of our design practice are as irrelevant as the puppeteering strings of labour are an uncomfortable reality. Employing our main source of subsistence to care beyond ourselves is a privilege that a large segment of designers is not in a position to attain. We, the authors of this text, and you, the reader, have the opportunity to step beyond the humdrum workday and malleableise the core of our practice in the pursuit of new questions which, we hope, will be granted the virtue of playing a role in sculpting the meaning of our profession.

All our self-congratulatory caring arguments must be passed through the sieve of reality. There is no genuine act of caring in a labour-engineered process. But rather than questioning our moral integrity as professionals and citizens of a shared society, let us employ this text as a vehicle to acknowledge our role as agents of change. Altruism, the purest and most inaccessible expression of caring, shines above us, obfuscated by the gears of the industry, but we would be foolish to let this distant gleaming possibility blind us to the fact that there is no operator more capable of fostering care than the industry itself, even if this is through a careless proposition.

The emergence of digital products and their overbearing ability to grant production access to the most unexpected businessperson have given rise to an assembly line of unrecognisable offspring. In an ecosystem where product propositions shine by their lack of distinction, and brand differentiation is a big gamble for newcomers, the design process has shifted from designing for the industry to designing for the people. Today, wherever you look, you can see an optimistic change of course in the idiosyncrasies of the design practice. But we must not fool ourselves about the motivations that drove it in the first place. This is a process that sparkled as ideology to quickly become an industry catch-phrase. Professions such as user experience design seek to alleviate people’s most acute concerns but are primarily motivated by the survival instinct of the industry they serve. The American industrial designer Henry Dreyfus, who first engaged with the concept of User Experience, noted in his publication Designing for People (1955), that ‘if people are made safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient – or just plain happier – by contact with the product, then the designer has succeeded’ (p.25). However, there is no room for social change in a design process based on the product outcome. As conspicuous as the design’s potential for shaping a better society might seem in our present time, we cannot find any trace of the topic until Victor Papanek’s work Design for the Real World (1971). Almost 200 years had to pass from the inception of design as a profession to the first distantly-emanating suggestion that, perhaps, we do have a role in society.

As part of this scarcely planned-out change of course, the designer has been rapidly, but extremely subtly, tossed out of their comfort zone into a new territory of promising moral rulesets. But any change casts its own trade-off shadow. In resemblance to a pendulum that made use of gravity to swing forward, designing for people is under the constant threat of swinging back to the market. In the swiftness of this process, which we conveniently named The Design Care Pendulum, we noticed that some of our fellow designers have fallen out of the caring spectrum into a terrifyingly oblivious state of sheer carelessness. The shift in direction has passed over our heads without causing any legitimate pause or commotion. First, there are those who have not yet awakened to the crude reality of suffering from the progressive and sneaky swap of direction, somehow noticeable yet not understood. Second, there is an undesirable group of crafty fellow designers who, having seen the new reality ahead, have scrutinised themselves and feared the moment when their insignias of capital expertise would be plucked away, after admitting that learning a new design process is a condition sine qua non to remaining in the profession. Just as a painter would never use watercolour to decorate a facade or an architect use a wooden Corinthian pillar in a factory mechanical room, a designer can by no means expect to use the tools of market care to face the endeavours of people care.

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The Design Care Pendulum

At the apex of this people care escalation, signalling our intentions in the right direction seems to be key in reconciling our image with what is morally expected from the potential of our discipline. In the event that you would direct the question of caring to someone in the senior positions of any of the most popular health-tech companies in the UK today, they would answer, without a trace of hesitation, that their actions are the most caring and noble since they care for the greatest number of people. If, at the same time, one asked the very same question to a commission-only orthopaedic cobbler, one would receive, in return, a firm declaration that their practice is the most caring since it is tailored to the singular needs of each individual. At one end, the idea of creating standardised global care solutions might sound truly tempting in contrast with the ego-centred mud in which a notable portion of design finds itself. Nevertheless, from a design anthropology stance, material and behavioural culture outputs vary to a great extent between cultures and social groups. The inherent Western self-importance tends to lead to low-quality care results. We see well-intentioned solutions for the developing world managed by design firms failing to deliver positive results since, in the most optimistic scenario, they simply do not conduct in-depth research and, in the worst cases, they merely believe they know best. We are sickened by marketing experts appropriating the very concept of care and deforming it into another buzzword to reach a wider breadth of consumer audiences. At the opposite end of the spectrum, bespoke design, while ticking most of the socio-cultural boxes, irremediably leads to extremely scarce and expensive solutions, excluding the vast majority of the population design could address. The designer must confront this situation with the acceptance that a perfect solution is unattainable and seeking it contradicts the functionalist nature of design. We have full confidence in the possibility of reaching a middle ground where design care considers local socio-cultural individualities while providing high-end, aesthetic analogical and digital solutions. It seems to us that the only hopeful solution in reaching an agreement on the problematic meaning of ‘useful care’ relies on stirring into the same mortar both frugal design and a meaningful partnership with local professionals.

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The design care trade-off between design reach and quality of care via standardisation

Instead of thinking of care as a binary subject – either caring in our design practice or not – we must start thinking of care as a crossroads, where we are generously offered the choice of caring, and we must take an unequivocal direction to proceed on our journey. Our duty as designers is not in caring but in taking a stand with regard to the caring question, and we must do so in absolute subordination to the intricacies of the context in which we find our practice involved. First, with respect to the range – a necessary choice ranging from a weak to a strong inclination to care. We already believe in our inherent empathy, as humans, to be affected by different intensities of caring according to each situation. This now needs to be a conscious act of intent. We must see through every motive that models our caring range, for example, when designing a waiting room for a children’s oncological department, compared with the scenario where we are tasked with designing the garden of a tech unicorn headquarters. Second, with respect to the choice of direction – a diverging path leading to various caring ambitions which, as the swinging pendulum extremes, are intrinsically distant. And one must realise that the mechanisms for caring and the directions of caring often share identical ingredients, yet we must not mistake the ‘caring for’ with the ‘caring through’.

From the epicentre of the classic lacuna of mediating academia and the reality of the industry, we need to rewrite the definition of care. Combining this mediating process with an intra-disciplinary and culturally-relevant vernacular design will enable us to identify a broader approach, embedding care in design. Unlike healthcare, which tends to be concerned with the amelioration of existing outcomes, the care designer must help redefine the situation by focusing on reinterpreting contextually complex situations instead of designing artefacts. This will enable the design practitioner to grow from a peripheral consultant to an active caregiver and shift the notion of the designer as an educated craftsperson to the designer as a value-oriented practitioner. But the caring design forum can no longer be moderated by the hope of goodwill. We must turn our thoughts into a planned and dedicated act of design, based on ideology, and focused on a profound understanding of its specific context.

While theoretical rhetoric is all well and good, a genuine change to the discipline must emerge from practice, the sole agent in possession of both the tools, and reach, to achieve it at a relevant scale. We have a suggestion for those who managed to surpass the needs of self-care, and who now find themselves in the uncanny position of being able to choose. We propose the path of integrating the concepts of (a) the layers of care vis-à-vis (b) the design situation added to (c) bespoke design, which results in the methodology we have dubbed Situated Design Care: a ruled blank page intended for each practitioner to grasp, mould and then action with lucidity the act of caring.

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Situated Design Care methodology

Care for the Craft: The always determinative debate between aesthetics and functionality is as persistent as it is futile. The outcome, regardless of whether it is biased towards function, aesthetics, or it magically strikes a democratic balance, is as instrumental as the highest source of thinking it might serve. Indeed, defining a new aspect of care for the craft is almost a catch-22 situation. From the Industrial Revolution until just recently, the traditional delivery-based understanding of design framed the designer as a technical problem-solver procuring for the market. Functional design has served the industry’s agenda, whilst the most sensible aesthetic initiatives have followed marketing goals determined to create evocative artefacts within the confines of consumer culture. Yet, on the other end of the conversation, the new paradigm of people care engendered a stigma towards the process of caring for the craft as one that is intrinsically antagonistic to the new and more elevated caring goals, to such an extent as to cause the designer to feel shame at the mere thought of devoting themselves to the craft of beautiful, functional artefacts. A prosthetic leg needs to be cheap to be accessible, yet if a woman refrained from wearing a skirt as a result of the shame caused by this situation, design would have embarrassingly failed. Fortunately, today we see a renewed and more forceful conversation regarding the craft’s importance when it is founded in an understanding of the audience’s idiosyncrasies and becomes an instrumental agent to enable relevant, impactful solutions. The aesthetics and functions of the design outcome must blend seamlessly with the reality of the people they serve.

Care for the Discipline: Caring for design itself is still an alien matter yet to be naturalised in the design discipline. Less appealing than design-art and less widespread than industrial design, it remains a topic for the design researcher alone. It is an upsetting theme for us to see how the fissure between academia and the industry has deteriorated to a point where each side has consigned the other to oblivion. Whilst the academic designer can easily tailor an expansive discourse on the topics of ethics and care, the practitioner diverts their gaze from any intangible thought. Machinery has directed the patterns of innovation since the Industrial Revolution, but it has been the people of arts, to which design has been so historically attached, who managed to prevail in their own space of creation, with their own tools. For a long time, the design practice has been asked the bounding question of coming up with tangible solutions and, for a long time, this has been successfully achieved through our free interpretation of the necessary tools to process the available raw materials. Digital products have altered this romantic setting. We no longer own the design tools and, before having had time to cry about it, our practice has become dependent on the stock of technologies on offer. However, there is hope in the duality of a technology that takes away as much as it offers. Not only have the design tools become overbearingly accessible to virtually everyone, but technology has also evolved to a point where the entry barrier is surmountable even to the artful designer. Today, this new phenomenon is prompting a vast array of digital design tools, not only engineered for designers, but engineered by designers. We have created a unique opportunity to automate our most manual processes and give ourselves a singular chance to have a tranquil space within which to rethink the balance in our discipline and start focusing on the ‘what’ rather than the historical ‘how’. The design practitioner must stop deflecting their responsibility to participate in forging the meaning design will have in their lifetime. There is an open opportunity to reinterpret design in every action taken by the practitioner willing to stand up, wipe the dusty, forgotten glass ceiling above us and see a new horizon within reach of anyone ambitious enough to pass through.

Care for the Design Partners: Identifying and catering for the various groups of people affected by our design decisions, regardless of the extent, has been a process fraudulently swept under the rug of discretion by the designer set in the tools of the market. Yet, in recent years, this process is being gracefully bumped up by the adjacent stemming discipline of design anthropology. Rather than a stage within the process, the care for the design partners must be taken from the periphery of the design process to a central position as the single pillar that enables and constrains each of our design resolutions. The effects of designing a hospital bed will reach the patient directly, but they will also reach the caregiver, the healthcare professionals, the healthcare system and ultimately, the designer themselves. The design’s audience context has to be relished as much as the context of its underlying ecosystem of entities.

Care for Society: Socio-demographics and cultural traits will influence the expected effects of any design intention. A remarkable example of this can be found in a research study conducted in the early 2010s when one of the largest global investment banks was planning to open a network of branches in South Africa. The research was conducted by a Western survey agency that did not consider the variations across a population accustomed to extreme politeness to the unknown, which resulted in a bias highlighted by a reluctance to answer formal questions negatively. The consequence was a staggering difference between the responses and the actual actions taken later by the local community. However, while caring for the socio-cultural context is indeed crucial in the design practice from a micro perspective, it will only influence design as a discipline when caring for society itself. Designing for the top 1 per cent is as banal as using energy-saving light bulbs to combat climate change. Unless there is broad consensus, individual diversions do little to induce broader discourse. Therefore, political design must dig up its prominence from a reality where it is anathema in both design theory and design practice and clear the path for the designer to become influential in their communities along with the broader national and global decision-making. Starting by drawing red lines when practising design, we must define our own value system. And we are certain that there is enough room in the discipline and abundance of creativity in the design industry to raise our sights beyond this inherited horizon and start building society-changing initiatives that can shape the market and hopefully bring prosperity to it.

We do not call for any segregation between the value-oriented design and the design for the market, nor do we call for neglecting the love for the craft in favour of caring for the design partners; rather the contrary. We call for designers to regain control of our minds and hands and, equipped now with a more translucent set of lenses, make a sober choice to situate our design practice.

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First published in Does Design Care...?! Head to Head Debates by Lancaster University in 2020.

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