Last weekend LOKI took Design Against Design to Detroit for the 20th annual Allied Media Conference. We are thankful to have been able to speak to designers with similar practices based in social change/social justice. It was uplifting and inspiring to find ourselves in a design space where the conversations revolved so easily around the how-to's of doing the activism, the life, and the running of a studio — all with little resources and huge demands. We spoke with the aim of demystifying design practices and showcasing work that functions as/supports social-political resistance. We also critically questioned the current positioning and language of social innovation design, which we see as a gentrifying force towards our activist design practices.
A presentation such as ours in most existing design spaces would have been looked at with mistrust... but the AMC audience met it as common sense, pushing us to be even more transparent & critical about our process, structure, and approach to representation — all welcome subjects and questions we need more of. We are hoping this will continue a dialogue against Design.
Q: What about peace building? When you show phrases like Make Racists Afraid Again do you also think of design as part of future visioning and of the reality of the futures of these people? Because we all have to live together.
A: Design is often, is usually, very good at speculation and visioning for future, it is a position it easily occupies by its very definition. Design has been less concerned with working in opposition (to power), and that is specifically what we feel we need to do more of in these intense political moments. Design is often used to normalize optimistic illusions of equality that end up negating justified anger and contestation. How can it serve to shatter this artifice instead?
With design positioned primarily as a visioning tool, (which could be understood as a desire to prefiguratively shape behaviours) we’ve been thinking about the slippery nature of:
social innovation design
social impact design
socially engaged design strategy & facilitation
organizational and service design for social change
…& a seemingly endless list of similar titles
viewing these practices at times with skepticism, at times with awe — and often with sheer confusion at the amount of vagueness that is presented.
At the AMC, being in touch with folks who are actively practicing in these realms, we came to see tangible experiences of social innovation design functioning in radically different ways. For example, by embedding histories of self-determination, resistance & intersectionality back into the streets of Virginia, with Free Egunfemi’s amazing project Untold RVA.
Yet, we have also seen organizations lay claim to a social impact change-making while brutally gentrifying neighbourhoods and beginning lucrative real estate careers.
While we are clearly on one side of where our efforts should go, we are reminded that the term and practice of design is now more expansive than ever. There has been a shift in the landscape to include many varieties of strategizing for change (what change we don’t always know). All the while, at LOKI we are wanting our practice to remain rooted in something more akin to craft, based in the fact that we are creating tangible materials from our values and ideals (shoutout to DAnthro Rap). This implies a certain practical ethics of making, expressed with humbleness, care and respect (Boats is Saintlier than Captains).
Q: Ok so (as a designer) you hate the design world - but what would you do if there was no capitalism?
A: I guess… I would still make things, that are useful sometimes, and sometimes not. And I would make them look cared-for and thoughtful and stimulating — to reach out with care, to encourage care and the memory of care. I would make tangible representations of relationships between people and the world.
But this is not the what-if, so design as strategy must be in play. Corporate and state interests are large, vast, and hegemonically mediatized and we are caught trying to somehow face them on a similar scale. Design strategy is urgently necessary, but we also need to take the time to define the terms of engagement.
Design Action Collective was present to talk about their approach, their structure and campaigns. They spoke from experience of storytelling strategies for shifting discourse in mainstream media, the importance of web security, creating rad and supportive networks of designers, technicians and activists, the realities of responding quickly in times of crisis, and the necessity of being in touch with communities doing work on the ground.
They are a worker’s cooperative, and organized to share the knowledge of this structure with other designers, encouraging stable collective alternatives to the precarity of this overly individualized, often freelance profession. This was important to be faced with — the need for our own rights as workers, which often gets lost in the month-to-month hustle.
Bringing it back down to providing the necessities for living a good life — and wanting this for all workers and people — is another way to stay grounded in this mess of social innovation. Thank you to Design Action Collective for bringing it back to this, and for getting us all together.
And thank you to the Design Justice network, whose principles echo the values we are trying to practice everyday, and for developing tools that allow for self-accountability, critical self-reflection, and point towards a decolonization of the discipline.
"Before seeking new design solutions, we look for what is already working at the community level. We honor and uplift traditional, indigenous, and local knowledge and practices."
— Design Justice Principles
We had a great time at the AMC, in Detroit and Ypsilanti where we stayed (shout out to rad designer Jeff Clark for so graciously hosting us). It was deeply inspiring to meet so many amazing people, and we certainly feel less isolated in our practice now.
Designers linked to the AMC are listed below as an addition to our Design Against Design research.
Wesley Taylor, Emergence Media
Una Lee, And Also Too
Bianca Nozaki-Nasser, 18 million rising
Free Egunfemi, Untold RVA