Author and Media Influencer Douglas Rushkoff on Why Great Design is Bad for the Economy


Winner of the Media Ecology Association’s first Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity, Dr. Douglas Rushkoff is a teacher, documentarian, and author, most recently of Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. See him speak at GAIN Design and Business Conference, October 23–24. Register before July 15 to get the early rate.

Here, Rushkoff identifies the key prerequisite for any good design, why you should step away from your computer to create beautiful work, and how writing itself is a form of design.

You don’t have a classic design background, yet your education and work are deeply design-informed. How can designers improve businesses, organizations and their communities?

I think it’s simply a matter of serving people, rather than serving abstract business plans. Design has too long been in the service of industrialism, which is disconnecting workers from their craft, consumers from producers and people from one another. If products really brought people together, then people wouldn’t have to keep spending so much money. So, in a sense, great design is bad for the economy.

How do you use design?

Everything is design. I have to design a book—it's an experience that has a beginning, middle and end. I have to design a talk, a lesson...even a theory. The future of our species is itself a design challenge, no?

What advice do you give designers who want their work to make a real impact, and what skills do they need?

I’d have to ask the designer what is it she wants to change. That’s a prerequisite for good design: intention. All designs have embedded purpose—an intention of the human being who did the design. It’s why design by computers is so…well, empty. Like House of Cards, which was planned by big data. It’s engaging, but in a synthetic, empty sort of way.

The beauty of design, fundamentally, is the assertion of human intervention. So many designers try to make their designs look like no one was involved. I don’t think that’s necessary anymore—certainly not in a world where humans are looked at as inferior to computers. Or when we still have distaste, lingering from the Industrial Age, for signs of human involvement.

What is the future of design’s role in business, government and society?

Design doesn’t have a role, but designers certainly do. It’s their job to design us out of this mess. They’re the only ones who can. Read some Buckminster Fuller. The problems we’re facing are not real—they’re just bad design.

What does the landscape look like over the next 10–15 years?

I just hope there is a landscape in the next ten or fifteen years. We’re playing with nature and technology in ways designed to stoke the markets, but have little regard to making the world a better, healthier place. Even our “green” practices are designed more for marketers than genuine effect.