Photo by Scott Rodgerson on Unsplash
What roles can designers play in creating sustainable, equitable futures? In my book, Design after Capitalism, I argue for a deliberate transformation of design practices toward new forms of everyday politics, social relations and economics. By assessing design through the lens of political economy, we can discover pathways toward transcending the logics, structures and subjectivities of outdated economic and social ideas. Designers today are uniquely situated to combine entrepreneurship with social empowerment to facilitate new ways of producing the things, symbols and experiences that make up everyday life.
We can identify principles for this transformation by drawing on insights from sociology, philosophy, economics, political science, history, environmental and sustainability studies, and critical theory fields not usually seen as central or even relevant to design. We can also find case studies of anticapitalist, noncapitalist and postcapitalist approaches across the parallel histories of capitalism and design. These range from the British Arts and Crafts movement of the nineteenth century to contemporary practices of growing furniture or biotextiles and automated forms of production. Bringing those principles and case studies into the arena of contemporary design practices, we can establish strategies for applying postcapitalist design at the scales of the project, practice, and discipline. The work of transforming toward a postcapitalist approach to design can start today.
REFLECTING SOCIAL & ECONOMIC HYBRIDITY TO DESIGN A BETTER FUTURE
Capitalism has been the ideological envelope for most modern design practices. However, it is just one specific historical model of economic and social organisation. This model has been both lauded and critiqued. At present, it is undergoing significant challenges. However, the future is unwritten. We can all participate in shaping what comes next. Capitalism’s enduring power lies partially in the ways it is cast as an almost “natural” model of resource allocation. However, we can see today that business as usual is not working. It’s not working for most people on the planet, and it’s not working for the planet.
Capitalism is no longer an economy of things. As economies transitioned from industrial to postindustrial over the past several decades, design forged new ways of operating. Designers today are doing new and seemingly more complex things almost daily. Not long ago, UX design wasn’t even a thing. Now it’s one of the fastest-growing job titles. Designers are taking on new strategic roles within organisations across all domains, from healthcare to finance to government. These designers are affecting the lives of “users” around the globe, and their work is often experiential or immaterial. Many of us are now commonly practicing a kind of design that is also no longer about things.
Meanwhile, many designers do continue to work toward the production of material things. Even so, the ways of working and the opportunities for further transformation have changed dramatically. Rapidly evolving technologies are quickly changing how physical products are designed, produced and distributed. Even the very-near future holds unknown possibilities for new materials, new manufacturing processes, new distribution systems, and new digital-physical experiences. The very presence of new models of production indicates opportunities to think about new economic or social forms—new models of participation, collaboration, and communal or shared ownership.
Beyond what is produced, designers are situated to change economic and social models at higher levels, including at the scale of practice. Designers today are strategic partners. They conduct research, study or shape markets, and in many cases determine what should be made and why. Designers are sitting closer to levers of power than ever. With this “seat at the table,” comes the opportunity to re-imagine the designer’s role in expanding business interests to social interests. The work of designing itself produces new ways of being in the world. How that work is done has dramatic consequences—for humans and nonhumans alike.
MOVING BEYOND THE STRUCTURES WE KNOW
The term “after capitalism” names moving past or beyond the capitalist structures we have already built. It means building upon and transcending the logics, structures, and subjectivities that capitalism has created. We can’t yet fully see, think, or maybe even appreciate this yet-to-be-defined system because it is in a state of becoming. It is a new system of economic and social organisation that will take new forms of social and economic relations, new symbols of social and economic life, and new ways of living together on a crowded and warming planet. We may not be able to see this future in its entirety, but we can sketch its basic contours even as we begin creating it today.
Sci-fi author William Gibson famously said, “the future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Design after capitalism is also already here in various ways—it is just not evenly distributed. It has been here in the practices of designers who have intentionally and systematically operated against, outside, or beyond capitalist structures and logics. To connect, expand, and nurture these different ways of designing and different kinds of design outcomes will take effort. It will take a deliberate and concerted effort at the scales of the project, practice, and discipline. Making these transformations, we can distribute this future more evenly. We can participate in making sustainable, egalitarian futures by transforming design today.
HOW DO WE PRACTICE DESIGN IN WAYS THAT MOVE BEYOND CAPITALISM?
Designed products, services, and experiences are like tentacles of congealed labor, politics, and subjectivity. They are distributed into the world, where they create subjects whenever and wherever they are used (consumed) by others. Designers today, whatever their current practices or professional obligations, can begin making this transformation now.
The book names a long list of Postcapitalist Design (PCD) Guidelines that can be put to use now to create change. These can be applied in a variety of practical contexts, including independent design consultants (freelance or solo practitioners), large consultancies or agencies, entrepreneurial or start up enterprises, or in-house design teams working within business enterprises. These guidelines prompt designers to ask “How might we…” questions. Those questions are geared toward expanding design’s roles in building and maintaining community economies, expanding social power over economic power, enacting strategies of degrowth, and changing the subjects of design from capitalist consumers to postcapitalist participants and constituents, more actively engaged in producing their everyday needs and desires. We are the change makers we’ve been looking for.
More important than the book are the ideas within it. For this reason, I created the site designaftercapitalism.org where designers, students, and educators can find additional resources to study or practice the ideas in the book. Postcapitalist design can start with your very next project.