A conference that asks the tough questions about ID

Buckle up, this here’s a long one. I think it’s important though, so I hope you’ll take a read.

Unless you’ve been living under the rock for the past few weeks/years/decades it’s pretty clear there are systemic issues around the world and particularly in the US regarding inequality (economic and race-based), climate change, and waste, and ID is mixed up in all of them.

I’ve been able to attend a few design conferences lately the most recent of which was IDSA’s first inaugural Sustainability Deep Dive, in which some of these topics were briefly touched on, while others were tip-toed around as to avoid ruffling any feathers.

While I appreciate that IDSA is starting to prioritize sustainability, this conference seemed desperate to stay optimistic, to the point that it refused to reflect deeply on our roles as industrial designers in bringing the Earth to its current state (this is to speak broadly, there were several speakers who started to breach these topics, like Leyla Acaroglu and her work with Unschool).

The lectures often focused on case studies about companies or products that moved in the direction of sustainability; the transition to using a new material, a product redesign that reduced waste or eliminated a harsh chemical, and these are all great moves. But they rarely questioned the decision-making processes themselves, or the framework that is already established. Almost every story had an asterisk; the ideal solution was passed over for something more palatable to the CEO, product manager, marketing team, etc.

We often speak about the pivotal role of industrial designers in the product cycle, that because we directly touch the creation process we can have immense impacts on how our products perform, as well as how they’re produced. Yet we fall back on excuse after excuse as to why we cannot exact the change we believe in in the products and corporate cultures we create, and so instead relegate ourselves to a cog in a machine run by shareholders, CEOs, or managers who “don’t get it.”

So which is it? Are we as influential as we say we are?

Because it isn’t only sustainability where we seem to dodge the tough questions at these conferences; why do budget brands struggle to attract industrial designers? Why do so many design awards go to designs intended for the smallest of economic classes? Why are so many design firms (white) “boys clubs?” Why don’t schools, hiring managers, or the designers in general take the time to teach and reward quality storytelling for designers that are focused more on transformative products over form explorations?

I believe it’s time we had a conference for industrial designers that confronts these issues head on; when it comes to waste and inequalities, are we part of the problem? And if we are, we need to explicitly call out where and why, as well as how we can move forward; no vagueries or platitudes.

These conversations don’t have to be overwhelmingly negative, they just have to be unabashedly honest. This conference should make us uncomfortable, staying away from case studies that we can brush off as separate from our own business sectors or company cultures. And we as attendees must be willing to take this public critique with grace and introspection.

If we don’t, I’m afraid we’re not the influential profession we claim to be.


Thanks for reading, I know this conversation won’t be easy and I don’t intend it to be but I hope you’ll take the time to respond with your thoughts, whether you agree or disagree.

What we really need to avoid is paying lip-service without laying the ground work for real change. I envision talks that propose strategies for enacting change, bold challenges for how we might eliminate these as choices and instead make them baked into our process, proposals for new systems, new business strategies, storytelling/debate techniques on how to shift dialogues, etc.

What would you like to see discussed at conference such as this? Who would you like to see there?

A few nominations of my own (I haven’t discussed this with either of them, I simply admire their thoughts and strategies):
Kat Reiser of Rise Design (asking hard questions on how to design [or not design] for contexts/situations we don’t understand)
Carly Hagins of Western Michigan University (perhaps to speak about the changes needed in industrial design education)

All good questions. I think this would be a great focus for a conference or series of conferences. I think Advanced Design has been doing some of this work in their Lens series as well.

Thanks Michael, Advanced Design is doing a great job of tapping into a younger generation of designers and I’m glad to see the group transitioning to some really substantive topics with the discussions/conferences that they host.

The other part I’d like to bring up is finding a variety of voices for this type of conference, ones that we may not have heard speak before (if you follow a lot of podcasts/conferences there are a few voices you tend hear quite a bit, passing over some really interesting perspectives for “known quantities”).

I truly understand why so many of these topics get avoided at these conferences and in brainstorms (or at least spoken about tentatively), but I also am trying to recognize the unique position that I am in to advocate for them and, to be honest, say some things that might rattle or offend some people. I’m young, I don’t have a family to take care of, I don’t have a mortgage or tuition to pay. All of these things allow me to put my neck out a bit further and advocate for some more extreme changes than some designers because I’m only risking myself.

This is happening right now RE race and design: - YouTube

Josh, these things are happening, you might just have to go find them.

imo, this is the head of the nail. ID influence is minimal, and is certainly not the decision maker. That said, I think the simple reason for that is “we” tend to sit in a bubble as you pointed out with the structure of ID companies, universities and design “awards”. When you put together a bunch of minimal influencers at a conference, at best you will get a little saber rattling.

A conference would be a place to get those decision makers in one place and ask them how excited are they to solve the problem? Or do they even see it as a problem? Because quite frankly, if there is no problem, why would anyone spend money on its “solution”? Imagine a conference where you have a majority of fortune 500 CEOs, CFOs, etc. where this was the focus and they were forced to have a transparent discussion.

@iab I definitely agree that this kind of hard-hitting conference would need those big voices there (CEOs, CFOs, etc.) especially those that don’t seem to be interested in confronting these issues. That might be the hardest part, how do we get them to listen (and invest!!) in structural change and avoid being an echo-chamber with the design voices that we already have on board? How do we equip those voices in our community that have influence to make real change, doing more than just allowing them to empathize, but also to act? Maybe a conference once a year where everyone knows going in that the gloves come off, it’s going to hurt, but at least they’re prepared for it and ready to engage.

In regards to our community’s influence, I do think industrial designers are looked to and deferred to as experts in certain areas of product creation, and those are where we could start to make a difference if armed with the right persuasion techniques, leadership that enables big changes, and maybe a bit of solidarity across brands.

To toss out a few more ideas of the kinds of questions that I think are worth talking about:


  • Currently, design schools graduate a majority white, and in ID, majority male work force. That means that statistically, the top candidate for an entry-level position is likely to be white and male. In this case, systemic racism stems from the person doing the hiring (senior designer, director, hiring manager, etc.) acting “color blind” and saying they are choosing candidates purely on merit or “fit,” and statistics doing the rest. After all, there are only so many industrial design jobs to go around.
    How should those people doing the hiring work to diversify their workplace when statistics lead to white and male design teams?

  • In our current state, the industry is mostly white and male and most designers are aware of and avoid the concept of “cultural appropriation.” In doing so, we default to “universal design” that is usually based on European and Western ideals of beauty.
    How does a group of mostly white and male designers expand their ability to encourage diversity of form, texture, features, etc. without virtue signalling or appropriating other peoples’ cultures? Can we expand the accepted definition of “universal design?” If so, to what?

Economic inequality

  • We’ve all probably worked on a product line where there is a “premium” version and an “affordable” version. It’s often considered industry practice to remove features from the affordable version not only to reduce its cost, but also to make the “premium” version appear to be worth the extra cost. In doing so, we withhold features that we could include (a certain color or surface finish is a common one, but also software features, a more the more exciting form language, etc.) from a certain economic class solely to justify the premium product’s existence and potentially leading to higher profit. These little withholdings lead to a lower quality of life for a large group of people that isn’t fully driven by cost.
    How can we as designers work to create the best possible products at all price points, even to the detriment to “premium” lines? Can the most exciting product lines also be the most affordable?

  • Designers that prioritize company profit, shareholders, market share, etc. are the most likely to be rewarded by executives that share the same priorities. This is a side effect of public companies who drive much of design work (either through paying in-house designers or consulting groups) and the fiduciary duty they have towards their shareholders’ investments.
    How can we encourage and reward designers who prioritize ethics, long-term sustainability, antiwaste initiatives, etc. in their careers? Do we need a new business model for a new category of product companies? Can not-for-profit product companies exist and if so, how would they operate?

General ethics:
- Is it time for a “Designers’ Hippocratic Oath?” (this idea was brought up briefly at IDSA’s Sustainability Deep Dive, but I’d love to take it more seriously). A semi-legally or fully legally-binding document that designers must avoid doing harm in their work, especially in regards to our Earth and our communities as a whole and not only the health of the individual. If it is, what should that look like? How would it be implemented, disseminated, agreed upon?

These are all questions that I legitimately don’t have answers for, but I’d love someone with expertise in these areas to not only inform me, but also help create road maps that we could all act on. To tell me I’m asking the wrong questions and push me in the right direction.

This is just me spitballing, what questions are out there that I don’t know about? What problems do we understand (or are starting to understand) but don’t have large scale solutions to?

To build on iab’s point, you aren’t going to get a bunch of C-suite executives in the room to have truly meaningful conversations around this. I’ve met a lot of executives in my years working and I have yet to meet one that “Thinks different”. Any that DO think different are usually out the door within 12 months; I left a position in the C-suite after the repeated headbanging turned useless. Just like you aren’t going to get a bunch of politicians in the room to do the same thing. (I would argue your chance for making meaningful change would likely be more successful by you running for office, and even that shows you how bleak the situation in many countries is, including the US and UK). The reason is those people got to the top seat of power by delivering on the goals of capitalism and creating and returning value to their shareholders, investors, and generating their own wealth, power and influence along the way. Who invests their blood and sweat to gain power to give it up? No one. It’s why you have senators taking funding from industry lobbies to sign snippets into 700 page bills that no one reads.

The balance of power, the cogs of the machine of capitalism are not going to be easily undone. Power is earned through wealth or violence, and as a civilization today we tend to frown on violence, but it worked great for Ghengis Khan.

As designers, our influence is not as dramatic as one thinks. We are there to shine up ideas that often come from other people, and unless there is a clear ROI on a product, why would a company do it (unless to generate press, branding, or media which benefits the rest of the companies product sales). This is exactly what people have been referring to as “Woke-washing” in recent years.

Take a look at Nike for example. Nike earns around $10B a quarter with ~40%+ margins. They sponsored Colin Kapernick early on during the BLM movement, and then once the popularity fizzled you never heard about it again. So you have to ask “was this a well timed brand and publicity stunt? or a genuine desire to shift the forces at work”.

The flipside of that if we stick with Footwear is TOMS which took on the great mission of donating a pair of shoes in exchange for each one purchased. That’s a super noble goal and they were successful for a while, but at the end of 2019 they basically gave the company up to Bain (which is known for its super philanthropic work of destroying companies for shareholder value).

In general, making and selling things destroys the planet. Most of us design and build things which would serve a use for a fixed period of time before being trashed and replaced by a newer, better version of that thing. Design for disassembly and occasionally throwing a bio-plastic in there was about the best we could do to try and reduce that impact. But the capitalist machine needs that model to continue turning, that generates income and at the end of the day that income is what feeds our families, pays for our schools, hospitals, roads, etc.

In reality, you have the option of starting a non-profit or B-Corp and try to do something which you feel will truly has a positive world influence, but doing that while simultaneously collecting enough money to feed the people on your team to make your vision a reality is very hard, or requires the very deep pockets of a philanthropist who has made money the old fashioned way.

You can take the approach that either it’s all doomed, view it as we’re all parts in a big, but flawed machine, or we burn it down and start to try something new. With the way things are going, the latter is looking like a more viable option by the day.

Can we have ‘bluefoamdust’ as the keynote speaker? So many good topics to unpack.

Probably the best exhibition or collection of work that I’ve seen recently along the lines of this proposed conference is ‘Design for the Other 90%’. https://www.designother90.org/

Excuse me while I go back to arguing about what exact shade of gray we want to use in our 2022 CMF.

@slippyfish, truly Blue Foam Dust is the perfect mix of humor and career-questioning, mid-life-crisis-at-25 existential dread

@Cyberdemon, “woke-washing” is a great term. I think a lot of what you said goes back to one of the questions I’ve been thinking about; is it time for a new business model with different incentives than a capitalist, shareholder-based model? Essentially, how can we (or a government-funded program) promote more Patagonias but also enable them to be more affordable? Despite their ethos, the name “Patagucci” still rings pretty true.

The US Federal Government and State governments give tax-breaks, subsidies, etc. to industries that we believe the average consumer should have access to (or at least ones we, at some point, believed were good for our community), and don’t long-lasting products that stay out of the landfill fit that description? Can you imagine if there was a car company that was incentivized to build an affordable car that lasted as long as possible, with no benefit to them or their partners if the cars require regular maintenance? There’s always that conspiracy that big automotive brands could create cars that lasted twice as long but choose not to…

Josh, I know all this might seem like a bunch of cynical humbug from industry vets, but think of it this way, this is feedback from people who have been trying to change things from the inside for 20+ years… I don’t look at these as “no’s”, I see them as hurdles that would have to be overcome to make real change beyond as iab put it “saber rattling” (perfect term!)

Government incentives are probably the only real forcing function that can work to achieve this OR an economic collapse so catastrophic that “value” is redefined.

Your car example is a perfect one. People buy Toyota’s because they expect them to last forever with nothing but oil. Not because they drive well, or have cutting edge technology or even look good. You want indestructible just look for a Tacoma with 300,000 miles.

Older cars like 70s Benzs or 80s Volvo’s had those qualities because the manufacturers were less worried about you coming back into the show room every 3 years. Not to mention car prices were much less based on leasing or 84 month financing. Peoples leverage of debt is far different than it was when those cars were created. Take a look at the economic situations when that was happening as well.

If the bubble pops, what people need will need to be dramatically rethought.

Sorry if I’m disgruntled and dystopian at the moment. Pandemics and unemployment will do that to you.

Fight the good fight!

Josh, I do admire your passion, and while my post above isn’t entirely reflective, yo brought it up, I am a horrible cynic.

But I do believe that in this case, perhaps youthful exuberance will overcome age and treachery (yes, I am mashing up Fausto Coppi and David Mamet). I will say it will have to come from the ground up. Government is mostly useless and lags by decades at best. And I don’t think George Floyd will have impact on capitalism, I am a believer that green trumps all colors, so business will carry on as is (barring Cyberdemon’s popping bubble).

I do offer support. You are well-written and could very well take this someplace. Again, use the design process. You have identified a problem, determine multiple potential solutions, test those with customers, refine, iterate, roll out. A word of caution, IDers completely fall off the radar for the rollout part. Please don’t fall into the trap of “build it and they will come”. Gaining acceptance of anything new is always more work than developing that new thing.

Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

If economics and capitalism is the problem, there isn’t much to be achieved by “incentivizing” other desired means to an end as the process is still the same and there will always be someone smarter that turns the incentive process into a means to subvert the outcome for other gains. It’s not a flaw in the system, it’s how it’s supposed to work.

I don’t see it as a design problem really, but more of a marketing one. Not how you can change what is valued but how you can sell the values you want at the right price. Overpriced organic is a perfect example.

It’s also important to realize the whole cycle of the system. Any company could make products that last longer, and lets say cost as much. That means less profits, less jobs and less economic impact for all. Not only the corporation, but also the manufacturing sector, retail and workers. It’s easy to say “people over profits” but what do you think pays people? If companies make things for the same price they sell them (ie. no profits), there is no incentive to do that and no money to give to people.


This is a great suggestion in my opinion. Is a conference the right answer, or just the quick expected output? I was reading something about not telling people your ideas, not to be secretive, but because once the endorphin rush comes of sharing the idea you are less likely to execute it (I wish I remember where I read this, maybe it was on here?). As an interesting look into an alternative to a conference, look what the Zero Projects has been able to achieve. They worked for the last 5 years to identify policies that reduce police brutality that are backed by meaningful statistics. They identified 8 policies (some are so obvious that they had been overlooked, some expected ones didn’t have any impact, and some other had outsized impacts) and now work with police departments to implement. If they had just held a conference maybe they would have gotten some quick publicity and the nice feeling of preaching to the choir, but would they have had the same impact?

That is a good insight. I have seen this happen recently.

Guilty as charged. Inarticulate rage only goes so far, and then there’s mortgage. Your pencil needs to be finely sharpened.

I think I might have misstepped at the beginning by putting forward a solution (a conference) so quickly, like Yo said that’s definitely the expected solution and doesn’t necessarily lead to action, which is the outcome our planet/societies need.

In some ways what I’m really looking for is expert knowledge on a variety of issues that are specific to ID, but would probably best be informed by experts in other fields (sociology, political science/law, world economics and economic theory, “futurologists,” etc.). I do think industrial design has a uniquely broad perspective on product-based businesses in particular, as well as deep insights into the product design process; we might know where we can push and pull variables to make products more durable, less harmful, create new product categories, etc. more than those experts.

What I think would be a first step to any proposal is getting insights into the root cause of the issues we face as industrial designers, in particular the ones that it sounds like many of us discuss around the water cooler but don’t have the resources to take a swing at rectifying. There’s already a dialogue starting about the downsides of capitalism (both here and throughout the US), but I haven’t heard too many solutions on the product side.

And so to be honest, the cynicism is totally welcome! The Earth, American culture, human well-being, are all in flux right now and even without the years of being in the field I feel so much frustration at how slowly Corporate America moves. BUT, and maybe this is where my “greenness” is showing, it seems like there are solutions out there, they just require us to throw out entire institutions and/or build completely new ones.

Like I said, I think I shouldn’t have been so eager to toss out a conference as the solution, but to be honest it at least succeeded in starting the kind of dialogue that we’ve started here, which is a big part of what I was looking for. Industrial designers being frank about the current state of affairs, probably being cynical, but also eventually that discussion might lead to some novel ideas.

I hope the next step is figuring out how to find those non-ID experts on some of these subjects to get informed, and like iab said start proposing and testing some new solutions (of which a conference may be one).

I agree that ID is not powerful enough to do any more than talk. at one time people discussed something similar to architectural licensing, along with the liabilities, to grant us greater influence on the mass produced world but nobody thinks that’s going to work.

the Pope just talked about how capitalism and the free market are insufficient to meet societies needs, perhaps there’s the influence you seek?