Less toxic ideology, more human-centered design

Yesterday, I opened a can of Johnny Letter on Fast Company, for running what I saw as an uninformed and blatantly bigoted opinion piece, “Design needs more feminism, less toxic masculinity”.

Rather than complain about the bigotry, though, I chose instead to focus on what I believe is the root cause of most lousy, unempathic design: the failure to research design problems before attempting to solve them. Far too often we reflexively impose our own perspectives and interpretations upon situations and assume we know what needs doing to improve the situation — neglecting the essential hard work of listening, observing and developing an understanding of people in their contexts.

This is a failure the author herself exemplifies in making reckless assumptions about the cause of the bad design she laments and her proposed solution to this problem. Here’s the letter I sent (with slight edits):

I am disappointed that Fast Company chose to run “Design needs more feminism, less toxic masculinity”. I’ve worked with many male and female designers, and have found that the difference between those who are able to empathize and design to the emotional and functional needs of other people has far more to do with willingness to investigate and to get over our own preconceived notions than anything else. In this piece Tillyer investigated nothing. She does not know who designed that airport gate. Instead, with no attempt to understand how the design happened or who did it she applied her preconceived notions about how men essentially are and how women essentially are and decided to blame men for a design she didn’t like. If I had written that article, I’d have begun by investigating the design process that produced that gate, and if I’d discovered my suspicions were correct — that nobody had looped passengers into the design process — I’d have written an article titled “Design needs more understanding, less toxic uninformed speculation”.

I think rhetorically the choice to deemphasize morality in favor of effectiveness was the right one, but that does not mean I do not see this as a moral issue.

Our social justice discourse has become hopelessly mired in questions of Who. Who is doing the wrong thing to whom? What category of person does it? What category of person suffers? But this is exactly how irresolvable resentments are formed, entrenched and intensified. Justice is traditionally depicted blindfolded for good reason.

If we want to live in a just society, we need to refocus on the How of justice: the How of learning, understanding, interpreting and responding to specific people in specific contexts.

This kind of investigation into particulars is difficult, tiring and uninspiring work, and it is no fun at all. In this work we constantly discover where we were wrong (despite every appearance of self-evident, no-brainer truth), because that is what truth requires.

In pursuit of truth, we lose our sense of omniscience, fiery self-righteousness and uncompromising conviction, and acquire more caution, patience, reticence, reflection, humility, self-skepticism and nuance. These qualities may not be rousing, inspiring, galvanizing, romantically gratifying or revolutionary — but they are judicious.

If we truly want justice — as opposed to revenge, venting of resentment and intoxication of table-turning aggression —  we need to re-acquire a taste for the judicious virtues.

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