Even though "Design for Democracy" is this year's motto of the DDC, I ask myself whether design can live up to this claim at all. Worse still, if we look at the state of our world, wouldn't we have to conclude that design is anti-democratic?
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An anti-democratic functionalism
This question, which I would like to explore in this article with the help of examples, is a resounding slap in the face of the entire tradition of modern design. For since industrialization, an egalitarian and democratic hope has been associated with the functional design of our living environment. Even the architect Louis H. Sullivan ("form follows function") wanted to recognize nothing less than the spirit of democracy in the reduction to function, which seeks its expression in organized social form. (Sullivan 1947) The Arts and Crafts movement under William Morris addressed the social question through its design in the face of fully developing industrial capitalism in England. A perspective that was eventually also adopted in Germany by the Bauhaus under Walter Gropius, which was founded in 1919 decidedly as an institution for the democratization of society through modern design. (Droste 2019) And its successor institution, the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, was also explicitly established by Inge Aicher-Scholl, Otl Aicher, and Max Bill as an institution for the democratization of society through design in memory of Aicher-Scholl's siblings, the White Rose, in 1953. (Selle 2007) This prompts the design historian Gert Selle to speak of a "democratic functionalism" (ibid., 175 / Translation FK) with regard to modernism as a whole.
But is a list of the founding fathers of modern design sufficient to prove a congruence between design and democracy? Or is the program of modernity itself not rather inscribed with a tendency towards an anti-democratic total designability? In short, if one thinks the modernist program through to its logical conclusion, one assumption seems to be confirmed: Design is profoundly anti-democratic. Through three points of criticism of modernism, I would like to explain what I mean by anti-democratic design: despite the fact that it was the great achievement of early design modernism to attempt to think of design in a social context, its concept of good design must be criticized for (1) the abridgment of abstract, democratic equality, for (2) an unmistakable, intellectual-aristocratic paternalism as well as for (3) a dangerous tendency towards its socio-technological totalisation.
To (1): Abstract democratic equality has the peculiarity of turning into its opposite, into coercion and pressure to conform, if one sets it as a goal and tries to realize it materially. For modern design, abstract democratic equality should show itself in the objectivity and honesty of products and in the fulfillment of the equal needs. But the fact that all people need to sleep, eat, drink, breathe and live in safety says little about how exactly they want to satisfy these basic needs. The socially mediated and the natural moment of a need cannot be separated and no hierarchy of satisfaction can be generated. (Adorno 2003) If one nevertheless tries to do this, the assumed, concrete equality of all people plays a trick on us and turns into coercion to assimilate, which levels out individual peculiarities. North Korean uniform hairstyles, the obligation to wear short hairstyles, would be an extreme example of this tendency.
Re (2): Gerd de Bruyn calls the well-intentioned paternalistic design of modernism the "dictatorship of the philanthropists". For actual participation was not envisaged in the Bauhaus program. The point was to explore the essence of things as design experts and to give them their functional form. One's own particular position, one's own necessarily limited perspective, was ignored when aiming for the universally applicable principle of "form follows function". The beauty of a democratic functionalism was thus also not an individual negotiation of the design process, but the insight into the objective necessity of reduction to function. Understood in this way, design would be an unstoppable evolutionary process that merely had to be pushed forward - even against the will of an unenlightened public. This intellectual-aristocratic paternalism destroys the space for plurality and was therefore also very compatible with the design of the Nazi regime - as, for example, in the designs of the Bauhaus master Herbert Bayer for the racial hygiene exhibition "Miracle of Life".
Finally to (3): Taken to their extreme, both tendencies end in total designability, which subordinates all areas of our life and the social to instrumental reason and all design to an ultimately functional design - designed social technology. There must be nothing superfluous any more. The emancipatory aspirations of a democratic functionalism come to their self-inflicted end and mutate into an anti-democratic totalitarianism, as Claude Lefort describes it: "the idea of a homogeneous society that is transparent to itself", which "denies social division in all its forms", which no longer knows any outside and denies "all signs of difference" in the assertion of universalisable, factual equality. (Lefort 1990, p 287, translation FK) It would be the end of all historical development. Such a material-ideological basis of a community of equals no longer needs to be shaped, but only administered. The industrial destruction of life unworthy of living as well as Putin's dream of a Greater Russian Empire, which is driving this intolerable war today, find their counterpart in this design.
Washing one's hands in innocence
It should be clear that there can be no design that promotes democracy in dictatorships - and I would argue: no good design either! It should also be clear that design unfortunately contributes significantly to the stabilisation of totalitarian systems. However, to shift the anti-democratic problem with design into the historical or into geographical distance belies anti-democratic design within our democracies. Besides the use of design for the openly anti-democratic New Right movements within Europe, which use the whole repertoire of communication design via memes, websites, posters and magazines, it is not uncommon for democratically elected governments themselves to knowingly or unknowingly implement anti-democratic design. This is not done directly to realise a utopian vision of unity, but mostly to exclude foreigners.
In her lecture at the DDC Convention for Democratic Design, design scientist Bianca Herlo points to the simple yet impressive example of a park bench that is supposed to make it impossible for homeless people to sleep on it. Designed structures embody internal power relations, mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, which are oriented on the basis of certain vectors of discrimination. From the field of digital infrastructures, Herlo brings the example of algorithmic biases that arise because of unquestioned presuppositions. A Google search algorithm that identified people of black skin color as gorillas, or sensors on soap dispensers that do not perceive the hands of People of Color, are just some of the best-known examples. Who is set as the standard? What image of humanity is the design of these structures based on?
The most deadly external border in the world - the border of the European Union - is also defined by the exclusion mechanisms described above. In his analysis of passports, borders, and refugee camps as designed structures and interactive devices, design scholar Mahmoud Keshavarz describes these anti-democratic technologies of power. It is the specific property of design as an accomplice to these technologies of power to make technology invisible, normalize it, thereby simultaneously legitimizing and promoting it disguised as a tool for achieving a comfortable life. This entanglement of design with a capitalism that has become unquestionable and destroys the foundations of our life on this planet is also the theme of Ruben Pater's extensive analysis.
But not every designer works for Frontex or multinationals. Not all design is openly anti-democratic or complicit in exclusion and discrimination or the destruction of our planet. But is that enough? Is design already good for democracy as long as it is not actively used against it? In this concluding part, I would like to take a look at the inner logics of design, which, despite the best of intentions, undermine and slowly corrode democracy. These tendencies are particularly dangerous because they do not arise from an abuse of design, but are intrinsic to design itself. When invisible functions and hyper-visible forms fall apart in design, we are dealing with two tendencies of decay: the loss of contestability of decision-making on the one hand, and the loss of meaning of differences on the other. Both can be described with the French philosopher Jaqcues Rancière as post-democratic, since they promote the creeping decay of democratic societies. (Rancière 2006) This creeping decay takes place through the denial of democratic power, which makes decision-making the sole task of experts, and through the promotion of a paradoxical indifference of the public to this decay. Both tendencies go hand in hand: without the assertion of powerlessness, the irrelevance of the hyper-visible would not occur. I will use the platforms of social media as a paradigmatic example for both tendencies.
"The world is on its way to ruin and it's happening by design," diagnoses UX designer Mike Monteiro. (Monteiro 2019) What is meant here is the creeping decomposition of our public sphere, the creation of filter bubbles, and the hyper-individualization of individuals by the Internet giants, first and foremost Alphabet and Meta. Beyond the overtly anti-democratic features of such technologies of power, as Keshavarz describes them, they also contain a creeping, post-democratic decay tendency. It is the control society social media and surveillance capitalist data collection of Facebook, Google, and Amazon, which converted opinion research into digital behavioral research, that enables this individualized and singularized public sphere in which fake news and propaganda can operate - by their design. By their design, whose actual functions of data collection disappear and become invisible behind beautiful and smooth surfaces, they decompose a shared space of discourse.
According to Shoshana Zuboff, who coined the term surveillance capitalism, "corrupted information" is even an "inevitable consequence of radical indifference" and is an essential part of social networks. (Zuboff 2018) This is the real manipulation by the Net that can be called post-democratic: not the propagandistic manipulation of the masses, but the socio-technological manipulation of a post-democratic community of indifferent individuals. Furthermore, according to Zuboff, Google and Facebook are constantly working to ensure the "myth" of their own "inevitability" as well as alternativelessness rhetorically, technically, legally, and finally also creatively. Design decisions become not only invisible, but uncriticizable.
However, this decomposition of democratic societies through uncriticizable design decisions as well as manipulation is only one side of a post-democratic challenge of design, only one direction of decay. Only by interacting with the second tendency towards the side of surface, form, and visibility can it become fully effective. The paradigm of the all-visibility of diversity, which meets a freely choosing subject who is supposed to decide on his own responsibility and for himself how he wants to realize himself and his own identity through the offered design, shifts all responsibility to the individual. Democracy becomes a purchase decision and an individual style. A misunderstanding of freedom without commitment or preconditions, as propagated by free choice and absolute freedom of expression, can only really establish itself as a model as a result. Design is depotentiated within the economy of attention and self-realization, of flexibility and individualistically solvable problems to an "anything goes", for which everyone is themselves responsible at the end of the day.
Worse yet, by design, formerly significant political differences are depotentiated. The depotentiation of difference is particularly evident in social media, when these merely offer a platform for the display of identity-logic difference, for example, through the Like button as a rainbow-colored Pride button; or, as recently, by decorating one's own profile with the flag of the Urkaine. In a society in which everything can somehow and in some way always be designed, because everything is somehow designable, in which everything can be made visible next to each other and there is nothing left that fundamentally challenges the order, design becomes the difference-emptying styling of one's own identity. Design becomes "anesthetic" because it desensitizes us to meaningful differences and at the same time removes the real design decisions from criticism.
Where do we go from here?
Is the cause of design for democracy now finally lost? Not if we are prepared to think democracy differently and anew, more radically, as Dominik Herold theorizes in his lecture at the DDC Convention for Democratic Design. Democracy not only as a form of government, but as a form of life, means then that the possibility to shape it must be open to everyone, that the shapability of democracy itself is a higher good than the commitment to a certain form. Democracy then means that together we could always design things differently than they are at the moment.
What would be understood as democratic design in this sense I have discussed in more detail elsewhere. (Kosok 2021) During a panel discussion in which I participated, the question was asked whether we as designers would be prepared to design Putin's table as a commission. If democratic design could be achieved within a dictatorship, my answer would have to be "Yes!". Because good design does not only include the idea of a client, but changes the setting and thus always affects several people. Finally, democratic design means that things can change, can evolve. Thus, a table would also have an influence on the policy that is made at it and could open up new design spaces, provoke breaks and change things. However, this is futile within a dictatorship in which everything aims at unity. A dictatorship cannot be overcome by design, but only by resistance.
An excerpt of my conclusion on democratic design as an outlook and hope: "Good design is an essential part of a democratic culture of freedom. [...] Democratic design ultimately turns the designed things of the world into things that are aesthetically relevant to us. Through good design, [the] world [...] shows itself to us in its designability."
Theodor W. Adorno, »Thesen über Bedürfnis«, in: ders., Gesammelte Schriften, Band 8, Frankfurt/M 2003, S. 445-452.
Gerd de Bruyn, Die Diktatur der Philanthropen. Entwicklung der Stadtplanung aus dem utopischen Denken, Braunschweig, Wiesbaden 1996.
Michelle Christensen, Jesko Fezer, Bianca Herlo, Daniel Hornuff, Gesche Joost (Hg.): Lechts und Rinks. Auseinandersetzungen mit dem Design der Neuen Rechten, Hamburg 2020.
Magdalena Droste, Bauhaus 1919-1933, Neuauflage 2019, Köln 2019.
Mahmoud Keshavarz, The Design Politics of the Passport. Materiality, Immobility, and Dissent, London, New York, Oxford u.a. 2018.
Felix Kosok, Form, Funktion und Freihiet. Über die ästhetisch-politische Dimension des Designs, Bielefeld 2020.
Claude Lefort, »Die Frage der Demokratie«, in: Ulrich Rödel (Hg.), Autonome Gesellschaft und libertäre Demokratie, Frankfurt/M 1990, p. 281–297.
Mike Monteiro, Ruined by Design. How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It, San Francisco 2019, S. 10.
Ruben Pater, Caps Lock. How Capitalism Took Hold of Graphic Design and How to Escape from It, Amsterdam 2021.
Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, London 2013.
Juliane Rebentisch, Die Kunst der Freiheit. Zur Dialektik demokratischer Existenz, Frankfurt/M 2012, S. 368-374.
Gert Selle, Geschichte des Designs in Deutschland, aktualisierte und erw. Neuausg., Frankfurt/M, New York 2007.
Louis H. Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats and Other Writings, New York 1947.
Shoshana Zuboff, Das Zeitalter des Überwachungskapitalismus, S. 580.