Seven Generation Design

Essay written for Interaction Design Seminar taught by Molly Wright Steenson at Carnegie Mellon University

First, we make things not only in order to make things as such (things in themselves), but to make a world that is a particular kind of world in which we can be particular kinds of human beings (for how we can be as human beings is dependent, in large part, on the kinds of human worlds we can make).

— Clive Dilnot, “The Gift”

Dilnot’s claim that designers are makers of worlds and shapers of humans was so powerful (and audacious) that it stuck with me since I first read it. Though the assertion may appear grandiose, recognizing the profound impact of design imports the tremendous ethical responsibility designers carry in their work. Designers do, in fact, shape worlds. Between the artificial and human is a designer as a conduit; interaction designers in particular work within the liminal space between the outside world and humans, influencing the whole of interactions that make up our experience of the world. Those experiences shape our behaviors, and, consequently, the types of people we become. The impact of what we design is even more acutely felt when we consider that the world is becoming increasingly more complex and interconnected. The phenomenon of viral media is a prime example that our impact is no longer simple and local; it is quickly compounded and reverberates across the world. Thus, interaction designers in 2017 need to operate with a consciousness that what they design has an impact on not just here and now in the physical world, but on people and societies across time and space.

As designers, we are attuned to recognize bad design in things that are eyesores and/or do not function smoothly. However, we are less inclined to recognize longstanding societal problems as design failures. Nevertheless, these problems are examples of where bad design has failed society. They are cautionary tales, pertinent to designers, illustrating what grave consequences can result from action without foresight, while also highlighting entry points for designers to help correct course.

For example, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman illustrates how, as our information sources become less static and more dynamic — from the printed page, to a photograph, to a moving picture, to an endless news feed — our attention spans decrease, and our ability to think at a deep level also diminishes. Neil Postman wrote this book in 1985; researchers over thirty years ago had already begun to recognize the impact of fast media on society, yet technologists and designers persisted in helping to create ever speedier and more abundant streams of information. Today we are inundated with information to such an extent that Americans are unable to discern authentic news from fake news, the repercussions of which we are witnessing today.

In addition, digital screens have vastly degraded the quality of how we communicate and how we relate to one another. Hidden behind the safety of their screens, Internet trolls feel free to unleash as much cruelty and abuse as they please, knowing that the consequences are minimal. Along the same lines, bullying (cyber and otherwise) among adolescents is so severe that it leads them to commit suicide. Young people today spend so much time behind screens that they are not developing the empathy and social skills needed to build healthy relationships. These design “solutions” are creating sociopathic tendencies in an entire generation of people. The things we make shape who we become.

In design’s contribution to the destruction of the environment we see a clear example of the things designers make having a direct impact on the world and human behavior. Design solutions that employ planned obsolescence or advance ideals of consumerism create and perpetuate the kinds of materialistic and throwaway lifestyles that are polluting the environment, filling the earth with garbage and toxins that will take generations to eliminate. Designers can use their powers for good, though, by designing for sustainability and implementing solutions that change attitudes about consumerism. In so doing, design could help transform the mindset and relationship of humans to Earth from one of domination to one of co-existence.

Many will rightly argue that interaction design has been instrumental at making life better and easier for all of us by streamlining processes that were otherwise clunky, cumbersome, and inefficient; for connecting people from around the world; and for making technology more accessible to all. These are indeed positive contributions of design, but we cannot deny there have been major failures of design as well. Recognition of these failures is critical, as they warn us of the perils of not designing with wisdom and foresight.

The value of designers is that they are trained to think through potentialities and mitigate the negative ones. As makers of worlds and shapers of societies — when our interconnectedness makes our actions that much more consequential — this mitigation of negative potentialities
in the long-term becomes a critical aspect of the practice of interaction design. The Iroquois tribe stressed the importance of acting not for our immediate benefit, but for the benefit of seven future generations. How might the practice of interaction design change if we undertook that same simple, yet profound principle?