Seeing through design, Part II: Breaking out of the box

What other ways can designers imagine the future, besides through technology?
Social Narratives
Lukas Abubeker
min read

This is part two of a two-part series on how the design industry sees the future. You can find part one here.

At last, we’ve reached the headset-wearing, virtual-assistant-commanding future we've imagined for 90 years or more. But arriving at The Future™ forces us to grasp its actual contours instead of daydreaming about a promised utopia perpetually out of reach.

Do we still like what we see?

I ask this because, for as many people who accept Vision Pro at face value, I see an equal number actively rejecting the world proposed by it and similar headsets. Likewise, I see a well-substantiated, labor-conscious backlash from illustrators, writers, and actors to AI appropriating their work. Ironically, the response from the design industry largely trends in the opposite direction: we gladly ‘research’ this new technology to see what it can do while assuming our industry won’t be negatively impacted.

In the last several decades, designers’ working styles have largely become hyper-individualized (maybe even “anti-social.”) A focus on efficiency—working faster, improving workflow, streamlining collaboration—rather than considering the social context of our designs is combined with a neutral, instrumentalist, almost anti-intellectual "I just want to design" attitude that often ignores the politics inherent in our actions. Mirroring modernism’s coping mechanism of emotional disconnection, is the blind optimism of simply “making cool shit" letting us avoid the cognitive dissonance of outsourcing the creative process and ownership we claim is so precious to us? What are the long-term effects of rushing headfirst into the newest tools without affording space for criticality?

While I’ll admit the amount of technology packed in these devices and software is incredible, lessons learned from the past twenty years of tech culture—addiction, depression, misinformation, exploitation, etc.—give me pause about putting my whole visual field or creative output in the hands of these companies. The quickly nauseating effect of binocular screens plastered between me and the real world—or of an algorithm wedging itself between me and my imagination—prompts the question, “Is this really the future? What’s outside my peripheral vision?”

To reframe that as a more concrete, affirmative question: “What does the future of design look like when it’s driven by people instead of Designers?”

Recovering our vision: human and more-than-human

Making that transition is a cyclical process: Social narratives create social actions, which further inform social narratives. So, how can we switch tracks from the individual to social?

Aligning ourselves with wholeness instead of progress could help. I’ve been thinking about two routes to get there: labor and nature.

Social Working

What’s best for the whole?

This question has been beaten out of us—especially in America—to the point that it seems off-putting. Apart from a stretch between 1930 and 1960, when the country encouraged collective stability for some, it has mostly enforced individualist progress for all. At least in the Global North, it seems this mindset has emigrated and been naturalized worldwide.

I wonder if this lack of collectivity forces our hand in design. Do we default to seeing the world through tech progress and instrumentalism because those are the only social stories we see—or, more accurately, are allowed to see? How different would the future look if we regained the ability to act as social creatures first and designers second?

That path could balance the intuition, tradition, and community of being people with the intellect, innovation, and individualism of being designers. It would be a path of mutuality and resilience. Of solidarity.

Even for average workers, these ideas are essentially absent from our vocabulary. We’re often encouraged to define our design abilities in hyper-marketable ways and continually manifest new competitive advantages. Market forces guide our actions even if we’re not entrepreneurs or C-suite officers.

So what does solidarity, in contrast, offer us? Why is it necessary?

In their book, Solidarity, Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor say it can be “a rallying cry for the exploited and a way for more privileged reformers to think about how to solve the problems created by unfettered capitalism.“ In other words, solidarity is the salve that protects society from an otherwise all-consuming blaze of market economics. It gives us another lens to view the world and another barometer to measure our actions; instead of innovation for innovation's sake, we innovate for our sake. In contrast to individualism, the shared responsibility of solidarity creates space for creativity and ownership. It acknowledges our survival depends on others, whether we like it or not.

This idea isn't new by any means. Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor explain: Building on the Roman idea of ‘obligatio in solidum,’ and,

Arguing against the economic liberalism that doomed millions to pauperism in the name of free markets and individualism, a political movement in France took shape at the end of the nineteenth century. The solidarists, as they were called, saw interdependence as a fact of human life and the natural world and believed it should be the basis of law and policy.

Solidarity is also not new to design. In fact, the International Typographers Union was the oldest in America when it disbanded in 1989. DCW is trying to revive this working-class sentiment in the design industry, and professors at The New School in Manhattan used union tactics to secure better working conditions in 2022.

Since inequality is now more extreme than during the Gilded Age, I would argue that solidarity has regained new importance today.

Small ingresses have been made to explore this idea on a broader scale, such as a 2018 workshop series sponsored by AIGA, the biggest graphic design organization in the US, which looked at how we can create modern design unions. Sadly, that project—apparently meant to be ongoing—seems to have died less than two years after it was birthed.

There's a rising tide of designers taking a more immediate—if less collectively organized—route to solidarity by creating worker-owned studios, sharing their insights and financials, opening flexible community spaces, and thinking up yet-to-be-invented structures. That all these businesses were started by people 40 and under might indicate a generational shift in the idea of labor rights and competitive secrecy. It signals that the exploitation the design industry perpetuates, even within studios’ walls, is no longer being taken as a given or a rite of passage.

PORTO ROCHA, another under-40s agency, recently implored the design industry to collectively stop doing free pitches. At the time of writing, 6131 people, including myself, have signed the letter. This gives me hope—although solidarity, like creativity, is a process, not an event. It needs ongoing care and attention. It requires an identity. (No, not a brand identity.)

What kind of identity can we tie to solidarity? There are myriad, but one in particular seems like a good fit.

Holistic Feeling

Although solidarity offers a more positive vision of society, society doesn't exist in isolation; it’s a microcosm of the wider world. To create a more sustainable vision of the future, we must remember that we're a part of nature, not apart from it. Sadly, this detail is often forgotten, even in climate messaging.

Could this partly explain why the sustainability movement hasn’t made a dent in the decades it’s been around? Movements require emotion, not just knowledge, to survive. And emotion requires a story and a cast of characters that imagine what could be, not just reject what currently is.

I wonder if, along with the strategy of solidarity, animism could be that identity for design. This belief that there’s living energy in everything from rivers to rocks to wind could help us develop respect for the world around us rather than look at it as a storehouse to ransack. It could help us realize we need to be stewards of nature, rather than its nepo baby, pillaging and profiting off the gifts it has given us without giving anything in return. This compassion—this solidarity with the broader world—helps build the story and cast of characters we’ve been missing. It moves us closer to wholeness.

In Solastaglia, Ken Hada writes that an obstacle to creating this narrative is our refusal to “emotionally accept the fact that we can’t benefit from some of nature without protecting all of it.” Acknowledging this dichotomy would mean admitting fault, ignorance, the necessity for drastic change, and de-centering humanity as the highest form of life. But the timing is ripe for this reckoning. The climate crisis is asking us to reconnect with the planet’s future, not just society’s; with care for the earth, not just ourselves. Until we fully believe this, we’ll be treading water, looking at people as ‘consumers’ and natural wonders as ‘resources.’

We had this animist connection many centuries ago, and indigenous nations like the Potawatomi still have it. However, modern society has largely abandoned it to follow the hypnotic hymn of ‘progress,’ which ignores nearly all metrics except material and economic growth.

In a roundabout way, animism could help address multiple problems that pursuing progress has brought us: overproduction, biodiversity loss, or inequality. It creates an economy of need instead of desire. But then, that also begs the question: in an economy of need, what is the need for designers?

A divergent view of the future

I want to wrap up by noting how important we say the exploratory phase is to the design process; often, the coherence of the final product depends on a swath of investigation. I wonder if we miss that when thinking about the future. Propelled by millennia of momentum, we feel like we’re in the ‘refinement phase’ of society—however, the reality is we’re in a continual exploratory phase—and it only takes a small percentage of people to spur a new approach.

This newsletter is part of that new approach. It’s an attempt to think out loud, communally, and try to push something new into the world. Since it’s a work in progress, I haven’t touched on all the possibilities outside of a tech-focused lens. However, I think other possibilities will use an affirmative approach that asks what world we want to build instead of what problem we want to solve. Maybe that’s why we find ourselves here: problem-solving is short-term; world-building is long-term.

To think long-term, tech has to become just another tool that helps us construct the future, not the future itself.