Design work

Some time ago, Anne Galloway posted an excerpt from a talk by designer and HCI theorist Brenda Laurel on her concept of culture work which caught my interest.

Laurel’s main concern is design which focuses on the bottomline, the way that most of the products we buy are designing with buying and consumption in mind, not necessarily use. She suggests Culture Work as the means for designers to inject their own positive values into the capitalist and consumerist products they design:

Here’s what I want to say. Consumerism demeans us. Nobody wants to be a consumer. The power relationship implied by the term should be unacceptable to everyone, if they were able to understand it. I picture a “consumer” as something like a giant slug, a simple tube through which stuff passes from retail to landfill.


In the 18th century, 80% of the populace read Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Today, we do a better job of teaching kids to be consumers than citizens. And so there are fewer and fewer young people who believe that their votes can make any difference the gross malfunctioning of our government the underlying dismemberment of our Constitution. Many, like I, are ashamed of the dim, corroded lamp we lift as we hold up our way of life to the rest of the world.


I propose that each of us actively redefine the success criteria for business to include the cultural and material costs and benefits of the product, as well as what we currently think of as “the bottom line.” I’m suggesting that we find ways to help both kids and adults have access to this material and the means to understand it. I want every person in this country to know the unauthorized biography of every single thing they buy.

At its best, commerce can be sustainable, if it is based upon the free and fair exchange of value with respect and common sense. By contrast, consumerism consists in the creation and fulfillment of desire, regardless of the actual value of the product to the individual or to society. And who decides what value is and which values are to be put forward in the design of experiences and things? Designers do. We do.


Design gives voice to values. Design suggests what is useful or beautiful or pleasurable or good or true. The affordances of a design suggest desirable actions. A design that has not engaged the designer’s values may speak, but with a hollow voice. We know the rules of good design. But it often comes as a delightful revelation to young designers that brilliant design not only permits but requires the designer’s personal voice.

And so we arrive at the happy confluence of responsibility and power. We are only the victims and servants of business as usual if we choose to be. This work of transformation – which I have come to think of as “culture work” – must be approached mindfully and with great conviction and effort. The strategy of culture work is not straight-ahead revolution; rather it is to inject new genetic material into the culture without activating its immune system. By intervening in the present, we are designing the future.

One of the central elements of the STS academic discipline is exactly focusing on the implicit values which designers and engineers infuse in their products, and now one of the designers themselves cry out to use this in a positive, ethically viable way.

Internet theorist Geert Lovink comments on this in the following way in his review of Laurel’s book on the topic:

Fair enough. She wants to get rid of the “great machine of consumerism,” a strategic cause many share. However, this goal hasn’t made much progress over the last twenty odd years — and Laurel will be the first to admit this. Laurel says: read my advice and keep on trying. I would counter this “will to action” and instead call for a break. It is time to stop and take time to go through some fundamental questions. For instance, I would like to call into question the implicit equation between utopian entrepreneurism and the very specific techno-libertarian agenda of the venture capital class.


As soon as you start to reflect on the inner dynamics of Silicon Valley, you seem to be out. Instead of calling for the development of a rich set of conceptual tools for those working ‘inside,’ Laurel reproduces the classic dichotomy: either you’re in (and play the capitalist game), or you’re out (become an academic/artist/activist, complain and criticize as much as you can). There is no sense here of a possible support line of an ‘organic’ virtual intelligentsia (in the Gramscian sense) which could cross borders between in and outside. The implicit anti-intellectualism is widespread amongst Californian New Age- infected fifty somethings. The mutual resentment between those involved in technology and business and the ivory tower humanities on the other hand seems higher then ever.

Lovink argues that the ethically positive, reflective stance of designers and researchers and the ‘anything goes’ attitude of those wanting to create instant fortunes in places such as Silicon Valley cannot be aligned at all. Maybe this is part of the reason why veterans from failed Silicon Valley start-ups are so reluctant to talk with researchers about why their venture failed.

Basically, Lovink denies the possibility of doing culture work within a clear capitalistic context in that it would require cooperation between people who deeply distrust one another. How can anti-consumerist products be designed without capital? How can anti-consumerist product ever make any money?

Indeed, this leads onto the whole question of the ethics of creating and designing new technology and Anne Galloway has found another excellent quote on this issue in her dissection of the Engineering Ethics Curriculum at Texas A&M:

Technology makes such a profound impact on a culture that there is always a question whether a particular technological artifact should be created at all. Some technological innovations have clearly been more destructive than constructive…The question about the ultimate value of a technological innovation is often difficult to answer, but it is one which an ethically sophisticated designer should consider…

She suggests that it would be relevant to have a sort of Engineering or Design code of ethics – maybe even something like a hippocratic oath? – for makers of new technology to swear to. This won’t solve the problem above between capitalist interests and ethical concerns, but it will offer some guidelines which may relate to.

Meanwhile, Geert Lovink argues that if you really want to do ethically viable design you need to get off the capitalist bandwagon all together and refers to the utopian Oekonux project which seeks to take the ideas of Free Software and use them in a wider economic and societal context. Which is curious, considering that all of the Free Software projects I’ve encountered all work with or to some extent receive sponsorship or goodwill from various IT-companies who want to use or provide support for the Free Software they produce.

Most are concerned with corporate entities taking over the direction of their projects as it has happened with Novell taking over some GNOME projects, and they may not like being dependent on corporate money but most are pragmatic enough to accept it for now. Maybe more of those ethically conscious designers should try a similar approach..?

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