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With increased recognition of designers, enormous demand for design talent, and an explosion of software, conditions in digital design are similar to the expansion of construction and development seen by architecture in the global industrial age. How will we adapt?
Featuring quotes from Niel Brenner, Mike Monteiro, Athanasiou Geolas, Jennifer Daniel, and Peer Illner.
Architecture at Scale

If my primary area of interest is digital products, my secondary design preoccupation is the adjacent field of architecture. My fascination began around the same time I started to consider myself a designer. A growing awareness of the designed environment naturally led me to observe and evaluate buildings as designed objects, and to find inspiration in those structures. The idea of creating such an enduring and memorable object compelled me to consider the architect; and ultimately, I began to study the domain as a whole. I am not an expert on the history of architecture, but casual consumption of journals and literature, along with a basic knowledge of design trends of the last 200 years, has allowed me to sketch a rudimentary map of architectural territory. Along the way, I noticed that the world of Architecture bears striking similarities to Digital Design-Land.

It’s not only that we designers share the architect’s propensity to wear horn-rimmed glasses and wax on about the quality of expensive stationary. Our practices are fundamentally similar – rooted in ethnographic (user) research, enabled by an understanding of how people use space and systems, and culminating with the production of an object in which is embodied this research and understanding, usually framed within a creative concept. It is telling that one of the most useful ways of explaining my profession to people unfamiliar with it is through architecture. I have often found myself explaining product design in these terms: “You know how an architect doesn’t just design the visual façade of a building, but the whole thing? – from the materials to internal construction, how people navigate the space, and how the building as a whole will affect the environment and the people in and around it? That’s what I do, but for software.” There are further similarities. Both architects and designers need developers and engineers to operate; we both work at the forefront of technology; we share the same debates about design homogeny and digital tools.

If we acknowledge these likenesses, we must also recognize how architecture has changed in the last century and be aware of its developments in relation to our own field. This topic is important because architecture is currently undergoing something of an existential crisis, precipitated by a severe loss of agency. I believe that digital product designers will confront similar challenges in the next 20-30 years, and that we can learn from how our counterparts in architecture have faced theirs. Let’s start by examining exactly what is happening in architecture today.

The State of Things

As designers, architects are trained to use research, logic, and creativity to think through problems and give form to solutions. Consequently, architects are quite adept at discussing and articulating problems, especially within geo-spatial contexts, the architect’s area of practice. Some topics hotly debated in architecture right now include “wicked problems” like spatial social inequity and environmental self-destruction.

It’s excellent that architects are thinking and writing about these problems, contributing to the current of thoughtful and critical literature that runs through the field’s rich history. But much of the current discourse laments a powerlessness of architects in the face of growing global inequality. In respected architectural publications, one finds questions about architecture’s agency in today’s economic and political system. On housing crises, excepted from the introduction of Fulcrum’s Real Estates:

Even the term ‘crisis’ conveys a sense of urgency while simultaneously suggesting (falsely) that architects retain a social importance in shaping the urban realm. As spectators, architects never directly cause housing crises, which is why they also cannot hope to resolve them.” … “Material equality, and thus the balance of social power, represent an inherently architectural problem – even if architects on the whole do not yet possess the tools required to formulate a meaningful response.

Elsewhere, in Princeton School of Architecture’s biannual Pidgin: “Pidgin asks in this issue not how, but if there are forms of ethical engagement ‘for a profession whose survival may depend on its capacity to serve and leverage power’… has exploiting our professional authority become tantamount to exploiting the subjugated masses?” (Pidgin 18, 27)

As these selections illustrate, a question central to architectural discourse today is how to design ethically and effect significant socio-economic change when the discipline is tied to a system fueled by growth and to major entities in the capitalist global economy. Developers must turn a profit from construction projects. The municipalities that govern and sanction space for development often rely on land-development revenues and capital appreciation to fund other programs. And the large institutional brokers and investors that finance these project desire a structure that will guarantee profitability for years to come. To restate with more specificity, when an urban project is mediated by several layers of financial stakeholders, how is the architect to conduct a responsible and critical practice? As described by Peer Illner, “once employed as an informed planner who carried out expert operations in an objective and knowledgeable way, the architect as socio-political designer became increasingly obsolete” (Real Estates, 52).

Technology and democratization of knowledge has also diminished the need for architects on many projects, for which developers do much of the planning and building. The consequence of this all is that despite its history of influential and forward-thinking social projects, critical discourse is being further removed from practice and relegated to the world of academia. Options for those who do carry out a critical practice are often projects at a decidedly smaller scale than architecture’s grand reputation, including “tactical urbanisms” or hyper-local “guerrilla” projects.

So why talk about this at all?

Acting While We Can

In contrast with the pessimistic outlook detailed above, the climate in Digital Design-Land is one of boundless positivity. The importance of user experience has finally been recognized, and design has “earned its place at the table,” as some like to say. Whether UX design, product design, interaction design, or something else, digital design is in its happy, ambitious youth. Prominent design critic and noted misanthrope Mike Monteiro has even proclaimed today to be “the golden age of design”. The rhetoric of the technology industry is full of designerly words and optimism, reinforced by an abundance of new literature enthusiastically agreeing that design is here to change the world for the better.

The world-changing potential is certainly there. But this discourse offers few alternatives to the Silicon Valley perspective. Our field yet lacks the experience and frame of reference to understand how design, like architecture, can be an unwitting agent of social injustice. In a recent Creative Mornings talk, Jennifer Daniel explains how when designers from influential Bay Area companies “proselytize design as a solution to the world’s problems”, they are speaking on behalf of the companies for whom they work and to whom they are accountable, not the people who are affected by their designs (Creative Mornings, Design is Capitalism). In our industry in which venture funding is the primary way of financing new companies, design is directly and indirectly funded by private capital. Furthermore, with the increased prominence of designers, the enormous demand for design talent, and the explosive rise of software, conditions are similar to the expansion of construction and development seen by architecture in the global industrial age. Despite a newfound recognition of design’s importance, I suspect that design will continue to follow the story of architecture: the market will work its magic, and digital design will be reduced to a replicable and democratized service, a component in a private capital-driven, growth-oriented industry.

But if we respect the similarities of our disciplines and open ourselves to a dialogue with architecture, we can understand ourselves and our duties and opportunities better. As with all things digital, our profession is evolving quickly. We must not fall prey to the mechanisms of commodification, anonymisation, and automation that have displaced architects from a position of cultural and social influence to one in which architects struggle to maintain relevance as “informed planners.” We do have the power to change the world, perhaps even more than architecture has ever had, because digital design architects at scale. And we need to learn to use our powers for good, not for maintaining the status quo.

To adapt the words of architect Neil Brenner, a call to action: as designers, we may be experts at thinking about very specific elements of digital products – elements, interfaces, or larger scales from the product-level to organizations as a whole – but we are also equipped in our intellectual practice to think more generally about the basic meaning of design, which is essentially: how do we organize life, and how do we organize the world? “I would encourage people who are interested in that question to scale it up to the very structures that govern the planet. In that respect, the world economy is a design problem.” (Real Estates, 23)