A Simple Opinion on the Effects of a Designers’ Strike

25th September 2019 | Originally published on Medium | Revised in 2024

Beyoğlu, Istanbul, 2015

In these days of climate change protests, Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle came to my mind:

“I am thinking of a general strike of all writers until finally coming to its senses. Would you support it?”

“Do writers have a right to strike? That would be like the police or the firemen walking out.”

“Or the college professors.”

“Or the college professors,” I agreed. I shook my head. “No, I don’t think I would support a strike like that. When a man becomes a writer, I think he takes a sacred obligation to produce beauty and enlightenment and comfort at top speed.”

“I just can’t help thinking what a real shaking up it would give people if, all of a sudden, there were no new books, new plays, new histories, new poems…”

We are not only discussing climate change, the risk of making it irreversible, the beginning of mass extinction with unimaginable suffering until then.

Little Greta is teaching us a lot about ourselves, she is showing us our worst side. The laziness of those turning their face away, the stupidity of her detractors, the selfishness of betraying governments. She is right to be disappointed. She is disappointed by politicians — whom, in theory, we elect. She is disappointed by adults — who, in theory, are us. Maybe it would be considerate to start being a bit disappointed with ourselves.

For instance, what are we designers -a bunch of powerful and privileged mavericks, creative, innovative, problem-solvers, and so on- doing?

It is not enough to be responsible in your everyday life, to turn off the lights, to stop using plastics, to eat less meat, to ride a bike. Everyone can and should do this. My question is about our responsibilities when sitting at that table we long fought for.

You might defend your warm-hearted intuitions but it is quite irrelevant to push for an energy-saving feature in an unnecessary product. It is not enough to interview a dozen users to believe you care for people -and the planet.

Only very, very few lucky ones work at solving real problems (it would be nice of you to instigate change in the heads of as many colleague designers as possible. Thanks.) The reality is most of us are simply not doing the right thing. We are fortunate enough to use words of extraordinary beauty, several times a day. Words evoking intelligence, power, and altruism: we understand, we learn from people, we envision, we create, we explore, we measure, we grow, we impact.

What wicked problems are we trying to solve with these words and the invincible methods and tools behind them? What are our priorities?

The often unsaid, sad truth is the activities many of us are giving all our heads, hearts and hands to are not so important -sometimes they are even harmful to others.

We should learn and improve fast -faster than other people- as we always preach to our clients and stakeholders. We are not left with much time to realize we are part of a systemic problem of a socio-economical nature.

We need to admit we are among the major contributors to false progress, to the accumulation of superfluous products, to the exploitation of people who are too distracted or uneducated to oppose something they don’t need, to the creation of dividends for speculators.

We must change our attitude, as a matter of urgency. We should stop thinking about fame and fortune -because that’s what most of us do. We blame greenwashing corporations but we are the ones salving our consciences first. It is time to consider ourselves decisive for humanity, with the huge burden of responsibilities and sacrifice such an idea carries within itself. Maybe these are the days to look into yourself and take radical actions to stop conniving with the machine endangering us all. You have decided to be a designer, it is a way bolder and complicated thing than living in a bubble.

I hear and read people say design is one of many political acts; I don’t think so. At least, not for most of us; we still think and behave like mere market consultants. If design were a political act, ours would be a daily mission, a civic one. Starting off, we would decide to strike -like Vonnegut’s writers, like our kids.

One week without pushing pixels, no post-its around, not a single compromise with dull clients. The industry would get nervous. While some could get fired or lose clients, many more would keep their jobs but change their life. Effects would last way beyond those 40 hours of the protest.

Bovisa, Milano, 2012

Those who got fired would have a bit of a hard time paying the bills, sure. They would need to stop consuming for a few months. Dramatically for them, austerity would carry an increase in artistic performances, the return to poetry, and the rediscovery of nature. The unlucky ones who would have kept their jobs with no guts to quit would experience peaks of excitement and terror. It would be a continuous dusting off of portfolios, of reading posts from outlaws. Small groups of independent designers would grow and intimidate the old market; innovation labs would turn into living labs; an increasing number of studios would only accept common good work and resolute fighters for change.

Can you imagine hordes of hamsters escaping their wheels? A flood of free souls who would go back to wonderful, useless, and provocative creations to make people reflect? There would probably be a rush back to university drawers to take out the dreams we left there. To turn those into the solutions we badly need now.

I know Kurt, this is too challenging and scary for indolent, well-paid visionaries like us. But hey, “I just can’t help thinking what a real shaking up it would give people“.