DOI: 10.1145/2832903 © 2015 ACM 1072-5520/15/11 $15.00
reject competing products through their
free choice in the market. In that way,
they can indirectly stimulate companies
to react and change their designs. In
political terms, these situations may be
viewed as revolts against established
rules (as Rancière suggests). Such “mass
politics” can also force other changes
in design companies. In 2014, for
example, a number of users boycotted
the Firefox Web browser because of the
CEO’s stance on gay rights. This boycott
significantly contributed to the pressure
that led to the CEO’s resignation.
Another set of political situations
in design relates to the rules that
regulate a design process. Design
professionals and other stakeholders
need to agree on a number of rules
that coordinate their work. Defining a
design process, deciding on a budget,
setting priorities, negotiating deadlines,
and selecting tools and materials are
complex political activities with many
stakeholders. Interactions between
design professionals and clients are
one example. On the one hand, clients
define the terms and conditions of
contracts and are responsible for
providing financial and other support.
On the other hand, clients depend
on the expertise and ideas of design
professionals. Design professionals
are not mere executors of the client’s
wishes, and they are expected to be
innovative. But to get their ideas
accepted, design professionals need to
interact with clients and persuade them
of the rightness of particular design
choices. This aspect is nicely illustrated
in an anecdote provided by Herbert
Simon. Simon had asked Ludwig Mies
van der Rohe how he got a client to sign
off on a house that was radical for 1930.
Mies apparently replied, “He wasn’t
happy at first. But then we smoked
some good cigars . . . and we drank some
glasses of a good Rhine wine . . . and
then he began to like it very much.”
This anecdote may be described as
a political situation viewed in Arendt’s
terms. Decisions are reached “through
words and persuasion,” and people
manage their affairs “by speaking with
and persuading one another.”
In some cases, complex political
interaction among design stakeholders
may lead to negative consequences and
“party politics.” A typical example is
“design by committee.” Fred Brooks
argued that outcomes of a design by
committee lack focus and result in
impractical products with too broad
functionality. Brooks elaborated that
the people in committees, in order to
protect their own interests, are often
reluctant to reject any request:
Each player has a wish list garnered
from his constituents and weighted by his
personal experiences. Each has both an
ego and a reputation that depend on how
well he gets his list adopted. Logrolling is
endemic—an inevitable consequence of the
incentive structure. “I won’t naysay your
wish, if you won’t naysay mine” [ 12].
The need of design professionals
and other stakeholders to make
decisions within limited timeframes
further emphasizes the political
aspect of design. All projects have
deadlines. Design professionals often
need to make a number of agreements
and compromises to meet these
deadlines. Even when a strict deadline
is not imposed, the dynamics of the
design process may put pressure
on design professionals to make
decisions quickly. Bryan Lawson, for
example, noted that procrastination
as a strategy in design is deeply flawed
[ 13]. He elaborated that once a design
problem has been identified, it is
no longer possible to avoid making
decisions about a design outcome:
“In many real-life design situations
it is actually not possible to take no
action. The very process of avoiding or
delaying a decision has an effect!” [ 13].
For example, if a new road is planned
but the route remains under debate
for any lengthy period, the property in
the region will likely change in value.
Here we have a typical Schmitt’s
situation where the rulers and ruled
face the political imperative that a
decision be made.
Examples in the previous section
are just some of the possible
political situations in design. Design
professionals may also be involved in
other political situations, including:
• politics surrounding public policies,
as illustrated by the long-running
Interactions forum of the same name,
• workplace politics of organizations
in which design professionals operate,
• politics of design educational
institutions and funding agencies, and
• politics of professional
organizations (such as ACM).
And the list could be extended
even more. My goal is not to provide
an elaborate rundown of all possible
political situations in design. Rather,
I want to illustrate that the space of
political situations in design is broad
Consequently, we need to be
thoughtful about the political aspects
of design. Politics is an unavoidable
and essential part of design. With this
article I wanted to show that studying
classical political theories can provide
insights about why design is a political
activity. I hope to encourage design
professionals, researchers, and students
to explore this topic in more depth
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Željko Obrenović is a principal consultant
with the Software Improvement Group in
Amsterdam. Before joining SIG he worked as a
consultant at Backbase, an assistant professor
at the Technical University in Eindhoven, and
a researcher at CWI. In his work he aims at
bridging design research and practice.