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In a 2005 conference Design and Democracy, designer and researcher Gui Bonsiepe laments over the lack of ethical and political concern in the design practice. He is alarmed by the fact that designers are primarily working on aesthetics:

With concern, one can observe the growth of a generation of designers that obsessively focuses on symbolic aspects of products and their equivalents in the market—branding and self-branding—and that doesn’t know anymore how to classify joints.

Gui Bonsiepe, Design and Democracy, 2005

Of particular interest in this text is the underlying political value of aesthetics, which often falls under the responsibility of design:

Appearances lead us to the issue of aesthetics—an ambivalent concept. On the one side aesthetics represents the domain of freedom, of play—and some authors claim that we are only free when we play; on the other side aesthetics opens the access to manipulation, that is the increase of outer-directed behaviour. When designing products and semiotic artifacts we want to seduce, that is foster a positive—or according to context, negative—predisposition towards a product and sign combination. Depending on intentions, design leans more to one pole or the other, more to autonomy or more to heteronomy.

Gui Bonsiepe, Design and Democracy, 2005

To offer citizens the means of emancipation (more autonomy through useful but not alienating solutions) or to constrain them to dependency (heteronomy through products, messages, interfaces which coerce or at least condition their behaviour), such is the ambivalence happening in design.

Ignored for a long time by the institutions and classical fields, design as projecting (not as a mere exercise of style) must be urgently addressed by the critical and cultural disciplines (namely the humanities1).

  1. Not so surprisingly, one can observe the presence of “humanistic” vocabulary in the industry discourse (in expressions like “human-centred design”)—a rhetorical use which calls to skepticism. ↩︎