Interaction Design Activism

in Design

This is the personal position paper I wrote for my design theory class. I had enough notes and examples for a paper at least twice as long as the recommended, and condensing wasn’t easy, so I want to apologize for it not being the comprehensive tract I had in my mind, but screw that. This is my paper, read it.

Allen Chochinov asks, in the forward to Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People, “is there a distinction between good design, and design for good?” (2009, p. 6). Victor Papanek wrote in the preface to Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, “As long as [industrial] design concerns itself with confecting trivial ‘toys for adults’, killing machines with gleaming tailfins, and ‘sexed-up’ shrouds for typewriters, toasters, telephones and computers, it has lost all reason to exist” (1984, p. x). Presumably his answer to Chochinov’s question would be “no.” Papanek in the 1970s was deeply disappointed by what he saw as the essentially shallow and destructive nature of industrial design practice at the time. Design Revolution was published 35 years later, as a response to very similar concerns. Emily Pilloton, author of the book, says “in an ideal (design) world, there would be no need for this book, because we as designers would be more responsible and socially productive citizens than we have become” (2009, p 10). Across time and disciplines, there are designers who care deeply that their designs add to the world in a “responsible” way, that fit with their notions of social good. And these designers continue to be dissatisfied with the general contributions of their fellow designers to that good. While Pilloton’s collection is of examples that do contribute to the responsible design she hopes for, the reason for highlighting them in a book is to demonstrate to her fellow designers that such work is possible, to inspire them to do more of it themselves.

I am not interested in trying to construct a general definition of “good” that every designer should strive for; an essay on ethics is beyond both the scope of this paper and my own education and talents as a philosopher. I know only that my experiences of the world have led me to desire a certain kind of world, and that I am searching for ways to help bring it about in my practice as a designer. While other designers may not have the same ideals as me, many have their own ideals of social good that they are interested in pursuing. And encouraging others to pursue their ideals is part of my own activist goals, even if their preferred social values are not completely in line with my own. More traditional avenues for social change such as political activism tend to work on behalf of people and groups that otherwise lack political or economic power, or social influence. Which groups one advocates for, and what form of changes one ultimately desires, are up to the conscience of individual designers.

In an ideal world, the goal of every design project would be to improve the quality of life for users. But we of course do not live in an ideal world, and even in the space of products with a strong focus on quality of life for users, a “toy for the rich” may make the buyer happy while having a negative impact on other people. Design for social change is not just about the individual user, but the entire ecosystem of people and artifacts that the design becomes a part of. So I am interested in ways that interaction designers particularly can incorporate working for social good into their design practice, whatever their job requirements may be.

What Can Interaction Designers Offer?

Nelson and Stolterman write that a “service relationship” is a defining element of design, that all design work is about service on behalf of the other (2003). In this way, the only difference between design work for a wealthy and powerful client and design work for social good is the motivation for choosing that particular client or project. In both cases, the designer’s responsibility is “service on behalf of the other,” and is accountable to the client for design outcomes (Nelson & Stolterman, 2003). A designer might choose to work for a wealthy client because they want to get paid well, or because they want access to extensive resources in pursuit of a great design, neither of which is likely to be the case in a project for a client without power or resources. But other reasons could apply equally: the project may be an exciting challenge, involve work on topics the designer is personally interested in, it may benefit a group of people the designer cares about. All these are excellent reasons to choose a design project, and I believe they are the kind of motivations that designers ultimately need in order to be successful and happy in their work.

In many ways too, the potential for creating change is similar in both cases. The primary difference is that the powerful client has many other options for getting their needs met than this one design relationship. The project may increase either client’s wealth or influence; however, one client already has a great deal of power, and would still even if the project failed, while the other would likely suffer more severely from a failure. But both are design projects, and both can offer challenging and rewarding work. Some designers may choose to focus their career on projects that benefit people without much power, but it is not from a sense of self-sacrifice or charity, but because those are design projects they find exciting and professionally fulfilling. And in a successful designer-client relationship, the client should hold equal power regardless of their social or economic status.

The importance of a service relationship in all design work is something that designers can bring to work for social change that traditional avenues don’t always offer. Nelson and Stolterman contrast service relationships, in which all parties are equal, and working together, with helping relationships. Typical volunteer and charity work involve helping relationships, which are predicated on the power of the helper, and the indebtedness of the helpee. The helper’s actions may offer temporary benefit, but they seldom have at their core a goal of self-sufficiency and independence for the helpee. Helping relationships often serve as a legitimation of the helper’s power and status, in the process reinforcing the low status and powerlessness of those helped (Nelson & Stolterman 2003). I have seen traces of this dynamic in my own volunteer experiences, in which privileged helpers are dissatisfied with the tasks they are asked to carry out. Sometimes people I worked with felt they were not getting enough meaningful personal satisfaction from their volunteer work because the tasks seemed too menial or trivial, and as a result neglected commitments they had made. I became frustrated and cynical about my fellow volunteers’ motivations, and both sets of attitudes were ultimately detrimental to the interests of the people we were ostensibly trying to help.

Political activism, meanwhile, is typically driven by members of the group being advocated for, in a self-serving relationship. While this self-service can be a very important vehicle for change for many groups, others simply do not have the organizational capabilities or the combined influence, for them to be successful entirely on their own. “Special interest group” has become a political dirty word in the United States, and any group working to increase its own power is in some sense a “special interest group.” Without someone who is already in a position of power on their side, the powerless often have few political options. And there are many problems such groups face that do not have political answers. Laws and regulations are very often inefficient or ineffective routes to lasting social change. Here I found another source of frustration and disillusionment in my own experience. For some people, the answer to any problem they saw was to advocate for changes to laws. But in so many circumstances, the causes of the problems involve complex patterns of behavior over time, and many “evils” emerge from systemic interaction. Looking to the legal system to fix complex social problems seemed to me willfully ignorant of the diverse factors that influence individual behavior. Design offers another path to enacting systemic change, at the level of behavior as it is influenced by the built environment.

Interaction design in particular can put the power and influence of the greatest driver of social change in the past century – digital technology – to work for specific moral goals. Interaction designers occupy a position of privilege, with the power to influence the way these technologies shape our future, and what values they will embody.

How Can Interaction Designers Participate?

The legal and medical professions both have established procedures for offering their services to people who need them but cannot normally afford them. They share some characteristics with design professionals; both are service professions in the sense that the work is “other-focused.” Doctors and lawyers are only successful by serving the needs of a patient or client. They are also lucrative professions that have some history of being accused of primarily benefitting those who are already wealthy and powerful, while neglecting others who need their services.

The American Bar Association recommends that members do at least 50 hours of pro bono work a year, state bar associations also have recommendations, and many law firms have expectations of pro bono work from their employees. No one is forced to work pro bono, but there is a culture of expectation that puts pressure on individual lawyers to contribute at least some of their time to pro bono work, and the amount of pro bono that a lawyer or law firm does affects their reputation within the legal community. And within a law firm, while there is pressure for lawyers to bring in lucrative clients, the expectation of pro bono work means that lawyers who are interested in volunteering their time for causes they care about do not get punished for doing work that is not directly profitable.

Most interaction designers work for software companies rather than design firms, so they do not have the kind of freedom to choose clients or projects that lawyers have, or even other design professionals like architects or graphic designers who work for design firms. Independent Web design companies are common, but otherwise typical interaction design positions involve working with established software companies on their in-house products. So a culture of “pro bono” design work may be difficult to establish with a company that is not design-oriented, and where interaction designers may be only a small fraction of the firm’s total employees. But there are exceptions; some tech companies offer their employees some measure of freedom and flexibility. Intuit, for example, has a program to match employee charitable donation, and offers paid time off to pursue volunteer projects. Cultivating a wider culture of programs, such as that which exists in the legal profession, would help give interaction designers the freedom to work on projects they care about.

However, for those who don’t have the option of working at such generous companies, the medical profession offers another model of service. Free or low-cost medical clinics are common, if often inadequate to serve a community’s need for affordable health care. Still, doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals volunteer at these clinics in high numbers, believing in the importance of the work these clinics do. While interaction design currently has no equivalent widespread institutionalized model of providing low-cost design services, there are organizations such as DesigNYC [], which serves to connect nonprofits in New York city with design firms willing to provide pro bono services. Again, it is geared toward independent design agencies rather than individual designers working for non-design companies, but in a broader design culture that encourages and supports similar organizations, some could find a way to incorporate individual volunteers.

Finally, there are of course ways for interaction designers to incorporate their ethics into ordinary corporate work. Batya Friedman asserts that “Although computer technology is expensive to develop, it is comparatively inexpensive to produce and disseminate, and thus the values embedded in any given implementation are likely to be widespread, pervasive, and systematic” (1996, p. 21). Any for-profit software that becomes widely adopted has the potential for significant impacts on users. And while the goal of such software may not have anything to do with social justice or systemic change, designers who care about such things have a responsibility to consider how their work contributes to systemic interactions with moral implications. To that end, Friedman has developed Value Sensitive Design as a conceptual and practical framework for designing interactive systems with human values in mind. Where Design For the Real World is an impassioned argument for Papanek’s vision of ethical design, and Design Revolution offers a catalogue of examples of design work for social justice, Value Sensitive Design makes specific recommendations for designers to incorporate into their process, such as “identify direct and indirect stakeholders,” “identify benefits and harms for each stakeholder group,” and “identify potential value conflicts” (Friedman, Kahn & Borning, 2006). VSD is not a comprehensive design method, of course, and more specific action depends on the particular context at hand, but as a set of guidelines to help designers adequately consider the value implications of their work, VSD has a great deal to offer.

The value that interaction designers can bring to social justice work comes from the service-oriented nature of design, and from the potential of interaction design work to shape powerful new technologies that will have far-reaching social impact, beyond the usual limitations of charity or political activism. While interaction design, and design as a broader field, lacks an organized culture of contributing to social change outside of normal business channels, other professions have models of service that we can adapt to our own needs. And every act of design embodies certain kinds of values while excluding others, and interaction designers should be conscious of these patterns in all of their work, activist in nature or not.


Friedman, B. (1996). Value Sensitive Design. Interactions, 3, 16-23.

Friedman, B., Kahn, P. H. & Borning, A. (2006). Value Sensitive Design and Information Systems. in Zhang, P. & Galleta, D. F. (Eds.), Human-Computer Interaction and Management Information Systems: Applications. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Nelson, H. & Stolterman, E. (2003). The Design Way – Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World. Educational Technology Publications.

Papanek, V. (1984). Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change(2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: Academy Chicago.

Pilloton, E. (2009). Design Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People. New York, NY: Metropolis Books.