Elite Designers and Sustainability

Design is a elite culture, with elite participants. They belong to that half of America and other countries that generally benefited from the economy in the last 40 years, while the other half has fallen behind.

Too often, designers forget this, and begin imagining “How Might We” changes that are fine within the designer, work from screen, from home bubble, but would instantly run into systemic problems in reality where most people have different lives.

Case in point – a recent post to Ecover UK by Ted Hunt, self-described as a London based independent critical designer.

Hunt’s article discusses the tendency we have to want more in our daily lives, and how this mindset contributes to reduced sustainability One good example is travel by plane vs train. Hunt notes that the apparent travel time by plane is short relative to the train. But the overall process of plane travel requires more “stops,” an in many cases you’ll spend more overall time checking in, going through security, driving to and from the airport, etc.

So far so good. But then the discussion devolves into pure elitism:

Elitism reinforced by this quote:

…When we free ourselves from a mindset of getting to our destination as quickly as possible we can embrace a far less harmful time-to-waste relationship…”

Here’s why such attitudes from “design will change the world” people makes others reach for their pitchforks:

First, it makes the assumption that people don’t need to get somewhere right away. A designer meeting their fellow wizards might be a bit lax, and get away with it. But what about someone working at a low-level service job, who has to travel to different stores on a daily basis? True, they won’t have to fly – usually. But one could apply this same argument and say “let them use electric scooters” or “let them ride the bus” instead of taking their car. But they don’t have that choice.

In the case of a non-designer worker in retail…if they “free themselves from the mindset of getting to their destination as quickly as possible” they are likely to lose their low-paid job. And, unlike those mostly single, young, unencumbered designers, they often have a family they need to support, and not just with money. They need to spend time with them, and get back to them from work as soon as possible.

So…“free them from their mindset” of getting stuff done fast? This is self-reflection within a small population of the highly prived, not a prescription for reducing unsustainable behavior.

And now, here’s an even worse example of designer elitism, from a different author. The author seems to imagine the entire world is devoted to creating some wireframes and sharing on Slack or Discord, before retiring to their fave online virtual world.

It’s the only way I can understand how a elite NYC designer could create the following image for their equally astounding blog post:

The converged online persona, dark theme

Are we all converging into the same online persona? (vanschneider.com)

No, we aren’t.

In fact, the Internet has created a firestorm of media, personalized it, and spread it everywhere. The consequence is that we have a vast polarization, siloing of people in different online personas. Any “convergence” like the author imagines is happening within a tiny community of design job-seekers optimizing their resumes.

No, we are NOT “converging online.”

Another astounding quote:

“…The same combination of hand movements timed to the same song. The same audio clip recycled over and over again. The same meme used this time in a beauty channel, and the next in one about stock trading. It’s what people love about the platform. Everyone is in on the same inside joke.

Apps aside, humans have always converged and evolved into sameness. We’re made to conform and follow the herd. Ideological systems and political parties have long taken advantage of this to further their causes and power. Yet it seems, at least to me, that more stark differences existed before the internet. Before its underlying algorithms introduced some sort of global flatness…”

Nope, we aren’t watching all the same videos, listening to the same audio clips, etc. If we were, you wouldn’t have massive, worldwide political divisions that run so deep that they may never be bridged.

Some of us are watching trendy cottagecore video, while others watch videos describing the Flat Earth ancient forest.

Nope, we are not all designers of virtual objects, web pages, games, and social media. We are not all on the ascent to the metaverse and the techno-utopian singularity. We are not all posting online personas and relentless converging them as we compete for the same $200k jobs. Many of us are instead delivering heavy packages from Amazon to the people doing these things in their studio-castles.

And, if you’re running around in your $14/hr job between fast-food stores, hardscrabbling your hours…you are not thinking about how your resume looks the same as everyone else, or how similar your experience is like the other burger-flippers or store greeters. You’re just trying to get a job. You don’t have time for deep navel inspections.

We are NOT being flattened into a leveled, online collective hive that is being created as an idealized denizens – an online ghost of reality. Instead, we are being separated and purified into tiny political factions, mostly organized by class (e.g. income and hours). Only within our little silos are we converging.

And sustainability is something that has to cross silos. This is something that designers have to understand from ground zero to have any hope of creating sustainable systems.

Designers, especially UX designers, are supposed to understand the dangers of “designer-centric” thinking, but apparently they don’t anymore, at least when they write blogs for each other. They are supposed to have empathy for the other. They are supposed to know “you are not your users.”

But apparently the polarization we see rising worldwide has siloed creative designers even deeper into their precious, designerly worlds. Designers have always adopted the persona of beneficent “innovators” and “deep thinkers” with insanely great ideas to bestow, like Mardi Gras pennies or temple gifts, to the sweaty upwards-straining masses. User Experience was designed to counteract this high priest mentality inherent in design. UX has numerous strategies and exercises to find out what people really need, and cultivate designer humility.

No more. Designers are increasingly in their own silos, even worse than the old mass-media elite of the 20th century. And the consequence is that they react to their users as “others.” Increasingly, there seems to be a movement away from empathy, and to elite “fixing” of those others.

This bodes ill for sustainable design.

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