Annotated Bibliography - About the Ethics of Design Activism.

An annotated bibliography of the article "About the Ethics of Design Activism." by " Maziar Rezai. Taken from the book "Ethics in Design and Communication: Critical Perspectives" edited by Laura Scherling and Andrew DeRosa. Submitted in 2020 for partial Fulfilment of the Bachelor of Arts in Product Design at Lasalle.


Denise Wang

Details : Rezai, Maziar. "About the Ethics of Design Activism." Ethics in Design and Communication: Critical Perspectives. Ed. Laura Scherling and Andrew DeRosa . London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. 111–116. Bloomsbury Design Library.

In this book, Rezai discusses the rising importance of the ethical standpoint of designers and how the role of the designer has changed over the years due to the changing socio-economic times. He mentions how the period of the 1960-1970s where the ethical underpinnings of capitalism were frequently questioned led to the rise of design activists who took inspiration from critical writings such as ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson and Victor Papaneks ‘Design for the real world’, inspiring them to see the world as something that could be changed by their actions. (111) However, only until designers acknowledge their ethical responsibilities to their community and use their skills to influence and affect others will these designers become design activists.

Rezai first argues that whilst designers hold the power in designing, they are still bound by what the market wants, as the consumer and the corporations hold the power in dictating what should be designed. He references Whiteleys ‘Design for Society’, who noted the relation between the economic situation and the designers willingness to consider moral issues. In the 1990s, the notion of the conscious consumer came about, where consumers became more aware of the ethics in design, and thus expected a more ethical approach from companies. This led to the growth in companies considering ethical issues in their product development, resulting in designers being urged to take their moral responsibility in the design stage more seriously. (112) However, he also notes that since designers are supposed to design based on the needs of those who are paying for the product, designers who align with market trends may eventually sell consumers what they want, regardless of its ethics. (113) Through this, we can see how although designers have a big role to play in the environmental impact of the products, services, and infrastructures around us, they can still ultimately be influenced by what the consumers and corporations who employ them want.

Through this, he highlights the ethical and moral responsibility of the designer, and how ‘normal’ ways of designing are no longer enough, thus urging the need for more activist designers. He references Manzini and Magolin’s open letter in 2017, which urged designers around the world to take action and confront the crisis that democracy was undergoing. By taking action, designers would shift into the realm of design activism, which in turn inspires society to respond either by resisting or incorporating the values of activism in order to achieve the widespread usage of more ethical designs. (112) When designers begin to understand their ethical responsibilities, they will be able to see how their actions can influence change or highlight issues that may not be easily seen. Therefore finding the motivation to carry out appropriate actions which would mark the difference between being a designer and being an activist designer. The activist designer should thus have the need and passion to be more critical in their design language, becoming more effective in tackling social problems and not just be a bystander or ‘service provider’ with no moral obligation towards the community. Thus we can see how there is a need for designers to understand their moral obligations as a designer, and that the design activism process is not just about being an activist, but more so a form of creative enlightenment (113) which can help better the society.

Rezai then proposes the term “Design by Act”, which is meant to express the situation of Intellectual Designers who design by their actions based on their own personal social, political, or cultural needs. Essentially, the designer and user are no longer separate identities, and are thus designing or redesigning to send a political, cultural or social message to the people around them. This concept needs to be understood through the distinction between non-designers and activist designers. Whilst the role of an activist designer is to deliver a message through their design expertise, Non-designers are found in situations where the creator is unaware of their design action. These designs usually encompass a perfect design thinking process that takes into account the minute details of their every day, transforming things into a meaningful tool based on their needs, a situation coined by Uta Brandes as ‘non-intentional design. An Intellectual Designer in this case, uses this method to design based on their own actions. Therefore, an intellectual designer is an activist designer who thinks, observes, discovers, analyzes and reacts accordingly by utilizing their design expertise. (114)

In conclusion, this book is useful to my research as Rezai highlights the complexity of design activism, and how the type of influences behind a design affects the role of the designer and the ethics of designs they produce. He also notes how designers have an ethical responsibility to the community they serve, and that designers need to use their skills for higher means. Furthermore, his proposed notion of “Design by Act” highlights the role of an intellectual designer, who are able to interpret their own ordinary actions and use their skills to design in order to create strong messages to confront the social, political or cultural issues of the society.

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