Thomas Wendt – The Politics of Design

Thomas Wendt is a consultant and user researcher based in New York City. He’s also a speaker, writer and an author of two books: Design for Dasein and Persistent Fools.

You come from an exciting background one which is somewhat unusual for a designer and strategist can you tell us a bit about it?

My path into the design was not through a design school. I came to design from a psychology, philosophy and literary theory background. When I was in undergraduate school I studied philosophy for a while, I did my degree in that, and then I switched to a department called Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature. In the US, I went on to study European Philosophy and Literary Theory. I planned to go into a PhD program after that: I wanted to be a literature professor until I found what it meant, then I quickly realized that job wasn’t for me
I ended working up in a marketing agency which had great a strategy department. There was a team of cultural anthropologists with PhDs and doctorate degrees that had previously worked at universities. They had left because they were sick of academia, though. I thought that this path might be interesting for me as well, as someone who has an academic background but had not that much of the experience in the design practice. This was nine years ago or so now. That was my introduction to working in design and qualitative research, which also gave me the experience of design as a broader discipline. 

A lot of experienced designers eventually start to get involved with the visual side of design pushing pixels” in Photoshop or Sketch. Have you experienced that side of design? 

I’m primarily a researcher. Many years ago I used to do more work like that in interaction design, however, I quickly realized that I’m not an executional designer. I’ve always been very good with data and research methodologies though, so I’ve stuck with it and tried to uncover insights and customer needs.

I came across your work very recently  it was your Slideshare critique of human-centric design that got me interested in the work that you do

The presentation was for a talk where I was trying to make the irony of that apparent. For the past 3-4 years, when I was working independently, a lot of the work that I did was teaching design methods, some of which fell under the HCD umbrella to non-designers. I thought and still think that it’s necessary to be a bit skeptic. Too many designers and design practitioners take things for granted, they read articles by big names and popular people and just accept it as truth without thinking about it. Yet, I believe that design practitioners should be critical about the design work they do and the methods they use. I’m not against HCD, regarding its methods or practices. 
However, I think that it’s a mistake to use just one methodology in this case, HCD and apply it as one cure for all projects we do. 
In the talk I gave, one of the things I focused on was: Once you put anything in the center, whether it’s a human or anything else, it makes everything else secondary. And I’m not sure that humans are necessarily the essential part of that, especially if we’re going to think in terms of systems and ecosystems. The other thing I hoped to gain, was to create a space for a discussion. The first time I gave this talk, it was at a huge industry conference full of design practitioners, I thought this topic would be thought-provoking.

What would a non-centristic approach in design look like? 

Well, regarding alternatives there are a few different approaches. The one that I mentioned was the idea of Incorporated System Thinking within design practice. Systemthinking has become very trendy in the last couple of years. People seem to be interested in the topic and have begun to talk about it more. It’s only when you start to think about the different systems and levels of complexity that you can begin to understand what’s truly involved. First of all, yes a human actor is a critical component of a design system, but there are a lot of other elements there such as environmental, social, cultural or political concerns which are frankly not often taken into account in HCD projects. The systemic design gets closest to it, but so far this hasn’t been adopted by the industry. 

Why do you think it’s essential for a designer to think about systematic and sustainable solutions?

First of all, I’d say, if you’re a designer and you’re not interested in sustainability then you should find yourself a different job. For too long there have been way too many designers that haven’t been interested in their impact. 
Sustainability is for me is a very slippery and ambiguous topic because we tend to use the word sustainability very generically. The first question for anyone thinking about sustainable design is to figure out what are we trying to sustain. Are we sustaining the Earth? The environment? Are we sustaining the human species…?
My interest in sustainability is not necessarily about sustaining humans but sustaining ecosystems. There’s inherent value in environmental concerns that go beyond the human species. And as I said: I don’t think that humans are the most important part of our ecosystem. Our ecosystems are hierarchical structures there are certain types of quality across each system. It all goes back to my critique of HCD.
 Why are designers not thinking about their systematic impact?

I think because it’s tough to relate everything from the process together. Even when we think we’ve got everything right, the real-life practice might turn out differently. Then maybe because it’s difficult to cultivate this kind of casual-relation mindset. And lastly, because it takes a lot of time. 

In your latest book Persistent Fools: Cunning Intelligence and the Politics of Design you introduced the idea of designers being tricksters.How would you outline this concept? 

Persistent Fools is my second book that came out in July 2017. The inspiration for the book came from a book by Vilem Flusser who wrote beautiful little essays. In one of his pieces, he traces down the roots of word design” to ancient languages, pointing out that its origins are connected to cunning intelligence and deception. It really struck me at the time, especially being steeped in the human-centric model of design. We commonly cast design in honest, benevolent terms we’re solving problems, creating the better future or changing the world”… While true, these conceptions of design tend to leave out the basic idea that any introduction of the artificial tends to do a certain amount of damage to the natural”. However we choose to define it, artificial, designed interventions inevitably introduce change. 
This opened up the radical research I did regarding Jung’s archetypes. Particularly the trickster archetypemostly because of its connection to cunning intelligence. For example, what’s interesting about the tricksters is that they’re sort of unable to think in easy logic” and in traditional ways. Just imagine that you enter into the subway, the traditional logic will say: Swipe your card and go through the turnstile.” Why? Well, physically you can’t go any other way. How does a trickster see the same situation? The trickster wouldn’t wait, he would jump over the turnstile or wait for someone to sneak in behind his back. It’s a straightforward and mundane example, but I think it’s very relatable to designers.
Designers are those constantly thinking against the established norms. 
We design constrained by what we already know. Or what kind of institutional pressures we’re experiencing. So I thought that designers could use the trickster’s cunning intelligence to sidestep some of that. Imagine working on a project for a company that is, let’s say, radically depleting environmental resources that we have. One designer might not stop the climate change, but he/she can introduce a different approach to and sidestep some of that political pressure.
That was my big argument If we are ever going to take complexity seriously and we say that we have these complex, so-called wicked problems”, traditional logic and business thinking will not help us work through them. We need something different. 
Designers should understand how to use their deceptive powers and use them for good. 

Do you know of any real-life cases where designers have used the strategies or ideas that you discussed in the books you wrote?

 There’re plenty of examples like a case study from Huston’s, Texas Airport. A couple of years ago, the airport in Huston was experiencing a lot of complaints. 
The customers kept saying: Our baggage is taking way too long to reach the baggage claim carousel.” Executives of the airport started to research the case. Their initial idea was to speed up baggage transfer from plane to the carousel. What they found out though has nothing to do with the baggages transfer. The gates were too close to the carousel, so it only took about a minute to get from the plane there. While it took about eight minutes to transfer the baggage from the plane. In other words, customers were walking for one minute and then waiting for additional 7 minutes. What did they do? Instead of speeding up the transfer time they reverted the gates and baggage handling. Incoming planes always had their baggage claim further away from the plane so the customers were walking for 6 minutes and waited for only one. It’s a purely psychological thing. Yet, the complaints went down instantly. 
The customers labeled time they were walking to the baggage claim as productive time. Therefore they didn’t mind it. If you think about it, it’s a highly deceptive thing to do. But it doesn’t change the experience of getting off the plane and getting one’s baggage. 

What do you think about the impact of social media platforms and the bubbles they are creating? Personally, I feel like we can’t think critically if we’re only trapped inside a biased bubble, based on our likes. 

 Personalization serves a business-centric perspective, primarily. That’s why it always strikes me when those who call themselves a human-centric designers” and use this methodology create experiences that are not human-centric at all. They probably should be fighting against these types of algorithms and personalization.
Nevertheless, I think it’s obviously wrong and made only for more clicks and longer time spent on those platforms. What’s interesting though, is to connect personalization to critical thinking. I think what you’re alluding is correct: we can’t be good critical thinkers if we’re only exposed to things Facebook believes we like. We need diversity. This reminded me of psychological research which showed that our openness is connected to our intelligence or if we think about it: to our ability to think rationally, reasonably and empathically fundamentally, to think critically. 

I’ve seen you mention on your twitter that Design=Politics, could you explain what that means to you? 

 Well, I think the act of design is a political act. Any design has the ability to influence political, ethical and cultural realities for people. Silicon Valley and those big tech companies have recently realized how much of a political and social influence their technologies and products have on people, especially the younger generation. I adapted a quote from Allan Chochinov from School of Visual Arts here in NYC: Design is doing philosophy with a hand.” The things we design contain our political stances and biases. And that’s an important thing to realize. 

My last question What advice would you give to creatives that want to create a better, more sustainable future?

 This might be a bit cliche, but I would say to expose yourself to things outside design (if there is such a place). Read political philosophy, anthropology, philosophy. Take classes on wild plant foraging, eco-housing, survival skills. Get involved in social justice activism. Allow this exposure to shape your mindset, as opposed to worrying about directly applying everything you learn.



Where you can find Thomas?


Source of images: Thomas’s Twitter, Unsplash



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