Down with ‘social design’

Too many designers now want to re-educate the masses.

Alex Cameron

Topics Culture Politics

The recent launch of a group called Designers for Extinction Rebellion may seem at first to be small potatoes. But this is actually the latest manifestation of the design world’s elitist and illiberal ‘social design’ agenda. This is an ideological outlook that is deeply problematic for two reasons: it is anti-design and it is anti-people.

Design has always, of course, operated within and alongside the economic and political worlds, but it is not a political entity or enterprise in itself. It is, or at least ought to be, independent of politics. It is this characteristic that allows design to permeate, engage with and service various cultural and social groups simultaneously. Its independence gives it its dynamism and impact. If designers, as individuals, decide to join political parties and organisations, that’s their business. But when design as a whole, or a significant section of it, takes sides politically – then we have a problem.

Something like Designers for Extinction Rebellion is a classic example of design ‘overreach’. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise. For a while now, the design elites have been arguing that so-called ‘social design’ is an antidote to the ‘consumer society’. So First Things First 2000, a design manifesto that was influenced by a manifesto published in the Sixties, advanced with fanatical hyperbole: ‘Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact.’

The contempt for ‘consumers’ here is apparent, as if we are all easily shaped by our surroundings. This lays bare an historic reversal of priorities in the relationship between design and its audience. Advocates of social design no longer believe in a participatory relationship with the audience; they no longer believe that people are active and discerning agents. They consider the consumer as a problem to be constrained, corralled and socially engineered. It is arrogant in the extreme.

This is an assault on the historic role of design. The design elite is so full of loathing for 20th-century mass culture that it is willing to ignore and even reject the history of design’s intrinsic relationship to the production process. This elitism is an affront to the millions of designers who have made enduring, transformative, life-changing, engaging, entertaining, witty and desirable products that have transformed our world. We are not all designing adverts for butt-toners, as is glibly suggested.

Over the past few decades, design writers and academics, alongside design schools and professional institutions, have published numerous books, anthologies and papers promoting the social-design agenda. It has felt almost evangelical. The attack on consumer society is no longer a thinly veiled attack on the consumer: it is outright and unashamedly hostile. From their patronising support for no-brand cigarette packaging and ‘nudge’ theory to their wholesale rejection of all design that is viewed as being in some way ‘unethical’, these social designers see themselves as the saviours and shapers of ordinary people.

Considerable intellectual effort has been made to give social design academic legitimacy. This has been a magnificent failure. Perhaps this is because social design it is not a distinct academic or practical field – it is an ideological imposition. Yet despite the lack of academic validation, decades worth of cheerleading by the design elite has nevertheless embedded social design as a new orthodoxy. It permeates design discourse and has infected design criticism. The ‘ethical designer’, ‘climate designer’ or ‘social designer’ is as untouchable as he is vainglorious. The social-design agenda is an ideologically motivated attack on the historic function and role of design in society, and on design’s unique relationship to people. For all its claims to the contrary, social design is actually anti-social.

Alex Cameron is a designer and critic. He is also part of the Dissenters Design Network.

Picture by: Getty.

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Christopher Tyson

6th January 2020 at 6:03 pm

So what happened to the black liberation struggle? What happened to the black working class? Crushed, defeated, sold out, vanished from history. Today we see countless black people on our TVs, every advert must have its quota. The advertising executive and casting directors fantasy of what a black person should be. Yes we grumbled when we were only depicted as pimps and criminals, but now? Inane consumers, absolutely delighted to now own their own sofas. When French dramatist Antonin Artaud called for a theatre that was ‘more real than the real’ there was a frisson of danger and excitement. I have grown up amongst black people I do not know these happy consumers and implausible one dimensional melodramatic characters, ‘we do not see race’ sounds radical sounds liberal and anti-racist, but what do you see? Black characters devoid of personality and history. The new reality of Stepford blacks. So what is missing? A sense of selfhood, black people are missing a sense of selfhood of individuality. Clinging together in fear, Somalis and Nigerians and Jamaicans and Kitticians, all thrown together under the umbrella of blackness, as though their blackness is what matters most, a parody of solidarity, almost like, well, racism. So am I saying that there should be less (apparently this is grammatically okay) black people on TV, well sort of yes, with due apologies to black thespians, supporting artistes and entertainers, I would say make a difference in the real world, create living breathing three (or four?) dimensional people who will inspire dramatists of the future. The new reality of implausible black consumers (played by actors), presented to us as progress and something to celebrate.


6th January 2020 at 1:10 pm

How can you manipulate the masses through design when most of them have a reading age of four?

Noggin The nog

6th January 2020 at 4:59 pm

ZENOBIA PALMYRA (aka Amelia Cantor) is an SJW Troll. Best to ignore its comments.

Jim Lawrie

6th January 2020 at 5:29 pm

I agree and second that.


8th January 2020 at 6:59 pm

I agree with Noggin.

Jim Lawrie

6th January 2020 at 12:06 pm

There is nothing new in this. Lenin commandeered the print, art, design, film etc … to hammer home his message. To the exclusion of all others.
What escapes them all is the old adage that form follows function. When you try to have function follow form it does not work. You can make people say it is working, but eventually, you create Chernobyl, with more resource going into the message than the purpose of the machinery.
A politically correct nuclear power plant. What a brilliant idea. Who thought up such a thing? Then, as if that were not enough, along come the BBC to make a politically correct TV series about it.

In Negative

6th January 2020 at 10:52 am

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.””

Edward L Bernays – the so-called ‘father of PR’ and nephew of Sigmund Freud. Almost every advertising agency in the West believes this. And this is nothing if not ‘political’ and ‘partisan’.

Our whole society is based on politicized design. The most interesting facet (and the thing that might be undergoing radical transformation) is the ‘soul of the community’, which may be demanding a new kind of design.

Jim Lawrie

6th January 2020 at 11:48 am

Not far from Gramsci.


6th January 2020 at 1:11 pm

You people really are obsessed, aren’t you? Conspiracies everywhere!

Jim Lawrie

6th January 2020 at 2:39 pm

ZP you once again display your ignorance by commenting on what I posted and making clear you have not read Gramsci. Or anything else for that matter.

Jane 70

6th January 2020 at 12:14 pm

Have you watched ‘The Century Of The Self’?

A fascinating account of Bernays’ work and influence by Adam Curtis

In Negative

6th January 2020 at 3:37 pm

I have indeed. I’m very fond of Adam Curtis and I reckon Century of the Self is one of his best.

I don’t really know that fellow, but from a quick Wiki lookup I see what you mean.

Personally, I think we make far too much of the power of individuals to manipulate culture. The individuals that think they are manipulating culture might do well to ask “to what extent am I in fact an expression of culture? How has my culture created me?” But that’s not really the kind of question such fellows ask. That’s why they are where they are.

Modern PR seems better at making itself a part of the culture and moving with it. It seeks to embed itself in trends and thoughts more than it actually shapes them. I sometimes wonder if Harry marrying Megan wasn’t just a massive PR misjudgement – that they thought the culture was universally heading in some direction when the cultural heart was still unsettled.

Jane 70

6th January 2020 at 8:06 am

Worth reading in this context; a surprisingly sensible article in the Graun.

And I’ve just purchased an Italian kettle: wonderful design -as expected for Italy, and no longer made in Britain, more’s the pity.

We need a commitment for substantial reinvestment in British manufacturing, rather than trendy virtue signalling.


6th January 2020 at 2:56 pm

Is that ‘70’ your age, your IQ or the sum of them both?


6th January 2020 at 2:57 pm

‘I’ve just purchased an Italian kettle’ lol

Jim Lawrie

6th January 2020 at 7:56 pm

When I lived in Italy electric kettles were a thing of small wonder that came from England. With elements that could be replaced.


8th January 2020 at 7:01 pm

There’ll be no Italian kettles in Brexit Britain, Jim. Only kettles made in Huddersfield with pictures of Churchill and HRH on them.

Emily Harper

6th January 2020 at 6:07 am

I am now making over $15k every month just by doing an easy job online from home using my laptop. Everybody can now get this and start making extra dollars online by just follow instructions on this website..

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