Open Letter to the Design Community: Stand Up for Democracy

Ezio Manzini and Victor Margolin of DESIS penned an open letter to the design community to stand up for democracy following the SIX Wayfinder. 

1. There is no need to point out that we are now in difficult and dangerous times. For many years we were living in a world that, despite its problems, has been nevertheless engaged in a democratization process whereby human rights, fundamental freedoms and opportunities for personal development were increasing. Today, this whole picture has changed. Attacks on democracy are active in several countries, including the ones where democracy seemed to be unshakable.

2. In these new times, the design community (practitioners, researchers, theorists, students, journalists, publishers and curators who are professionally involved in design- related activities) should stand up, speak out and act.

To do that we do not have to share the same idea of what democracy is. It is enough to recognize the strong convergence between democracy and design. This convergence can be characterized in four ways: (1) design of democracy, improving democratic processes and the institutions on which democracy is built; (2) design for democracy, involving issues of access and transparency, allowing more people, especially using technology, to participate in the democratic process; (3) design in democracy, including projects that help to bring about conditions of equality and justice; (4) design as democracy, whereby the equitable and inclusive principles of participatory design set a stage on which diverse actors can come together to share constitutive power in shaping the present and future world we live in.

Design has always been instrumental as a tool for democratization, in the four ways described above, either directly or indirectly. Today, these multiple commitments should continue, and designers need to support and increase democratic practices in their respective communities and countries.

But now “normal” ways of designing are not enough. At this time it is essential that the design community takes a strong stand against the on-going de-democratization process and supports broader and richer opportunities for democracy and well being. In practical terms, this can be defined by as conceiving, developing and connecting multiple actions of resistance and proposals of new possibilities. It means using every possible arena where design has a voice, to stand up against de-democratization. It means conceiving of and enhancing highly visible and effective actions of resistance. It also means proposing and developing projects that address both crucial short-term problems such as job creation and welfare reform and long-term issues such as environmental and economic sustainability. These two threads of action should interact and support each other, resulting in a dynamic proactive resistance.

3. Beyond expressing and sharing our concern, this letter aspires to help catalyze discussions and initiatives that we know are already happening in the design community. We believe that it is important that these discussions and initiatives have more visibility and state clearly how the design community, with its richness and diversity, is standing up and taking a stance in these troubled times.

To contribute to this effort, we are sending this letter to friends and colleagues who play different, relevant roles in the design community including design associations, design schools, research centers, design publications and media, and design-related cultural institutions.

Our proposal to the community is that its members consider our open letter, and if they agree with its spirit, act in three ways:
- write a personal statement of less than 500 words
- make it public and circulate it in their networks
- organize an event in the next few months

The two of us are committed to collecting these statements and the information related to these events and to trying to find a way to give them visibility. How this last step will happen is still an open question. It will depend on how this letter is received and what new energies it generates. We hope that it will stimulate designers to stand up and fight for democratization in their own communities and throughout the world.

Ezio Manzini and Victor Margolin
Chicago, 5 March 2017
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Jordan Junge