The democratisation of design

Victor Papanek begins his book, published in 1971, with the words “All men are designers”. By this, Papanek means that an element of design is involved in almost everything people do. Design is the basis of all human activity. The fact that Papanek himself was an industrial designer gives more weight to his words, even if his statement can be considered self-evident. This includes the idea that each and every one of us is capable of designing products, for ourselves or our loved ones.

A high-quality product is not considered a status symbol, but a means of leading a good life.

It is often thought that Finnish design is reflected in the durability and timelessness of its products. We believe that buying high-quality products is more economical, even at a higher price, than creating inferior quality for less. High-quality products are cheaper in the long run. Due to industrial production, high-quality products are viewed as a universal entitlement. A high-quality product is not considered a status symbol, but a means of leading a good life. Industrialisation is viewed as having democratised design products. This can be considered the first wave of the democratisation of design.

Design is a peculiar word. Where Papanek refers to design as an activity, as something that produces a plan, new product or service, in Finland the word tends to take on its second meaning – that of a finished product. When we talk about design, we often refer to a high-quality product, not the underlying process. This is probably partly rooted in the honourable history of Finnish design and architecture. We are well aware of what good design, or a high-quality product, means.

Three phenomena are rapidly changing our society and its economy and culture: (1) the Internet-based network; (2) growing computing capacity; and (3) robotics.

Design too is being challenged by the post-industrial and global network society. In new products and services based on digital technologies, such as Uber, Airbnb, Facebook and Wikipedia, design has been the key to hyper-success. These design products of our time are successful combinations of an enjoyable user and service experience, to which aesthetic values have been added. The key element, however, is the user’s experience of using the service together with other people, and the service experience thereby generated. The design and development of such services requires seamless collaboration between multi-professional teams.

Three phenomena are rapidly changing our society and its economy and culture: (1) the Internet-based network; (2) growing computing capacity; and (3) robotics. The above services are mainly based on the first two elements, but each of them is also flirting seriously with robotics. Major future products and services will probably be based on a smart combination of these three phenomena.

What will this mean for design if we consider it as an activity in the way Papanek did? It is easy to foresee product design in particular becoming more democratic as the impact of the above-mentioned phenomena accumulates. Increasing numbers of people can design products themselves using tools such as 3D software (growing computing capacity), can share activities and learn from others (Internet network) and manufacture products independently (robotics) without expensive investments in production facilities.

When the service experience is based on a network, it makes sense to include all network operators in the design of the service.

Alongside industrial products, at both a superficial and deeper level design is also becoming more democratic in terms of services. The services described above represent superficial, democratic design. Uber and Airbnb are networks that rely on car and house owners. The people with whom these companies have established a new kind of contractual relationship constitute one of the cores of their design service. The service experience provided by these companies is dependent on car and house owners, and their drivers and caretakers. When the service experience is based on a network, it makes sense to include all network operators in the design of the service.

Similarly, Facebook and Wikipedia are dependent on their own users, who create the value added provided by the service. In these examples, too, power accrues to the users, although this is often in the form of faceless swarm intelligence that service providers cannot ignore if they want to remain competitive. Wikipedia, in particular, can be primarily defined as a community which has developed a novel operating model and complex and multi-level design method for implementing its goal of producing and disseminating information for all people in the world.

. . . the key issue is, once again, how they apply contemporary phenomena, i.e. the Internet-based network, growing computing capacity, and robotics. The cleverest democratic design groups use all of them in their own activities and the services they are collaboratively designing.

On the other hand, the so-called deep-level democratisation of design can be seen in services such as those that rely on novel social peer networks, and the reorganisation of public space and public services. Restaurant Day, Cleaning Day and Time Banks are examples of services that have been developed by active communities. The broader dispersal, in recent years, of urban planning towards ordinary citizens and away from professionals, political decision-makers and various interest groups is another example of the democratisation of design. In recent years, public service provision has been developed through collaborative processes, while exploring how services might also be produced on this basis. In all of the above examples, the key issue is, once again, how they apply contemporary phenomena, i.e. the Internet-based network, growing computing capacity, and robotics. The cleverest democratic design groups use all of them in their own activities and the services they are collaboratively designing.

. . . all of us act as designers providing products and services for one another.

In other words, it looks as though Papanek’s statement that all men are designers is coming true. The first wave of the democratisation of design, or the provision of high-quality products and services for everyone, is blending into the second wave, where all of us act as designers providing products and services for one another. We need to keep both traditions alive and capable of reinventing themselves.

Postscript 1: This text was originally published in Esko Kilpi’s book Perspectives on new work (Sitra Studies 114). The book is available as PDF. If you want to make a reference to this text, it goes like this:

Leinonen, T. (2016): The democratisation of design. In Esko Kilpi (Ed.) Perspectives on new work. Sitra Studies 114, Helsinki, Finland.

Postscript 2: When writing this I didn’t think precisely education but you may easily think how the democratisation of design applies to education. The first wave of democratisation of education was the idea of Volksschule, the compulsory education described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1946) Article 26 as follows: ”Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory”. Right now we are potentially living the second wave of democratisation of education. What is it? Maybe this is a topic for another blog post.

One thought on “The democratisation of design

  1. Great Post. I haven’t thought about social networks and the sharing economy from the perspective of an “inclusive design strategy” – if you could call it that way. I was also wondering if this happened “by design” – or if it is just a phenomenon we can now witness. I wonder if these decentralised structures will behave around and inside the highly structured economy, politic and society. Things like the blockchain and bitcoin will further manifest such “inclusively” designed systems. Fascinating times!

    Like

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