The Beazley Design of the Year for 2020 has just been awarded to US architecture firm Rael San Fratello & Colectivo Chopeke for their Teeter-Totter Wall project, a series of luminous pink seesaws built into the US-Mexico border wall in July 2019.
The 74 shortlisted entrants for the prize range from a poster for vegan burgers to a parody of Pantone’s Color of the Year. Most were self-consciously political.
As design has grown in stature, so has its ability to amplify the opinions that employ it. Most of us will never work on an actual political campaign. Still, there is little doubt that the design teams for both the Obama campaign in 2008 and the Ocasio-Cortez campaign in 2018 were significant factors in the resulting electoral success. And it isn’t just visual design, user experience across a platform has implications; last week, Twitter finally suspended the account of the outgoing US president, a decision that left CEO Jack Dorsey lamenting the platform’s “failure…to promote healthy conversation.”
As designers, our understanding of user experience — particularly the psychology of user experience — has grown immensely in the last decade. We’re very good and persuading people to do things, and that ability is a commodity, saleable to the highest bidder. As such, it is capable of undermining basic democratic principles by skewing debate and exerting disproportionate influence.
We frequently talk about Black Hat and White Hat techniques in the tech industry, but the truth is, almost all designers spend their days looking for ways to manipulate an audience.
When that manipulation extends into political events, do designers have an ethical responsibility to maintain an independent balance, just as we expect reputable journalists to?
Designers are — for now, at least — human beings. We have all of the prejudices, biases, and philosophies of any other human being. Do we have an obligation to use our skills to promote our ideals, or an obligation to resist doing so?