Does Democracy Kill Freedom, When It Comes to Design?


I was drinking coffee at a rickety table in a cafe in Madrid yesterday — there are so many different, small cafés scattered across the city — and I realized that it was difficult to do this in the U.S. In the land of the free things work better, but the choices are more homgeneous. How did this happen? I fear that we designers are to blame, along with the hardscrabble origins of our young democracy.
In some ways the Constitution, and the democracy that followed set in motion the consumer culture that has come to define us in the U.S. Indeed, the preamble to the U.S. Constitution proclaims as a goal: to promote the general welfare. Globally, as democratic institutions have become established, consumerism has followed, and with consumerism, of course, comes the emergence of professional design. Democracy gives each person the right to vote and the freedom to choose; and sets the stage for commerce. Back in 1776 the material welfare of the people was largely homemade. People in a very literal sense took care of their own material lives; it was a full-time job just to get by: there was little manufacturing and no Walmart. Today, few of us make anything, but a lot is available to us; we assemble our material lives out of things we buy and express ourselves more by choosing than by creating. As consumers we get to vote with our dollars.

It is the flaws in the system that make things different, and it’s one of the designer’s jobs to eliminate flaws.

Companies orchestrate the challenge of producing and distributing products to us, and the design of the building blocks of our lives has been given over to professional designers who poll consumers to figure out what they will want and invent ways to make it possible. As a result, we consumers enjoy a very high standard of living and this confirms to us the rightness of our system. Our standard of living is one of the ways in which we judge the effectiveness of our democracy — "it's the economy, stupid." If you visit the Buckman Tavern in Lexington, where the Minutemen were drumming up courage before taking on the British Regulars in April, 1775, there you can see the "flip irons" that were kept hot in an open fire and were used to heat up drinks by sticking them directly into the beverage. Not very convenient, and I have my doubts about the taste — I'm pretty sure Starbucks is better. As consumers we make choices, and construct our material lives out of the products and services available to us, each of us constructing a slightly different life from our neighbor. But as people we are more the same than different, so we tend to like similar things. The irony is that as better solutions are designed we converge on them, so our freedom to choose combined with professional design is making our material lives more the same, making us less individual. It is the flaws in the system that make things different, and it’s one of the designer’s jobs to eliminate flaws. It took over two hundred years to go from "flip irons" to Starbucks, but design has not stopped there. Today we are designing not only products and services, but also complete experiences. In fact, we are choreographing entire sections of people’s lives. Once you sign on to the iTunes music experience or the Facebook social experience, well, that’s it. Millions of people all over the world are buying music and learning about what a "friend" had for lunch today in exactly the same way. Superficially the free market is making us the same. But, by constructing our lives out of bigger building blocks it is easier for us to have richer experiences and that pushes out the frontiers of our individuality: a wider range of music, more friends. Also, by satisfying our material wants more simply, we should have more time to focus on social and spiritual needs. And these will remain different for now — at least until professional design figures out how to make them better. [Top image by Goosmurf]

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