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The irrationality of designing death

Sophie Weiner’s March 23rd piece on CoDesign is critical of Ideo’s stab—no pun intended—at redesigning death. She hits all the right notes. The juggernaut design firm lead by the nagging rationalization of Chief Creative Officer, Paul Bennett, that the death experience needs a redesign, made an ultimately failed attempt at rebranding an app called After I Go. The app was poised to tackle the handling of one’s affairs after exactly what the name implies. Why did After I Go eventually—again, no pun intended—die? Because it’s founder moved on when he realized it couldn’t be monetized.

Death Yurt tale and all—yes, there was a Death Yurt built by some Junior Designers in Ideo’s studio where they could more appropriately ponder the concept of death—Weiner focuses well on “the unrelentingly positive belief that all problems can be solved through technology and design alone.”

“If approached without a certain level of scrutiny,” she writes, “these ‘solutions’ just create more problems.”

Indeed, they do.

Ideo’s designers might have considered more closely why most people don’t want to think about death. To start: some, maybe out of fear; others, maybe out of faith. But Bennett’s After I Go design team were willing to get comfortable enough with death to embrace narcissistically redesigning the way we experience it. Therapy might be the place to start if we need to release fear and open our minds to the possibilities of feeling comfort when it comes to considering our own demise. That is, after all, what therapy is for—telling your story to someone who is there for exactly the purpose of listening to it, and then helping you to recognize and overcome the limitations you’ve built for yourself around that story. A designer isn’t needed for this, a therapist is. And clearly my wariness when it comes to design thinking need not be revised. Silicon Valley has created a design monster that I’m now fairly certain will burst right along with the new tech bubble. A vain need to reshape the human experience leading up to one of life’s greatest mysteries, and a total lack of valid consideration around the feelings of others, seem to go against everything we admire about design for social good. Designers are not gods. And while we’re immensely better than many at approaching problems from a human perspective—our greatest strength—we’re definitely not therapists or healers.

It’s easy to see where we’ve gone wrong.

I read a blog comment a long time ago from someone who said that designers are some of the most self-important people he’s ever met. There is, and has always been, some truth to this. So Bennett’s team’s lofty brainstorming sessions around After I Go aren’t much of a shock. And yet, they are. Designers can be led to considering programming an app to send texts and even gifts from the afterlife—a startlingly frightening concept when you consider it from, say, the grieving widow’s perspective—because telling a new story about death gives them the chance to be important. More important than telling a big brand like Nike’s story or designing their products. More important, even, than helping the underprivileged in third world countries. Because cracking death would make design a religion. Talk about status.

We’re at a crossroads where innovation has become one of the biggest buzzwords of the 21st century, and innovation for innovation’s sake is more common than the kind of innovation that solves real problems

In the time of crowdsourcing, or mass spec work, and the “everyone’s a designer” mentality, our profession has suffered, and creativity has become a commodity. But if designers can design the way we live and die, it would seem that our profession might win out. Only, I don’t think that would be winning. I think we’re starting to lose ourselves.

Claire Cane Miller, chronicling the results of the recent Kleiner Perkins case, wrote on March 27th in The Upshot:

Silicon Valley has always prided itself on doing business differently. Forget bureaucracy and the traditions of bigger, older companies, the thinking goes. Instead, wear jeans to work, bring your dog, don’t ask permission to try something new, and embrace failure.

That nimble approach has helped create more world-changing ideas and wealth than any other industry in recent years. But it can have a flip side—a sometimes blatant disregard for the policies that apply to big businesses, whether it’s obeying regulations, paying taxes or treating employees fairly.

The same can be said about design thinking and it’s impact on the design profession.

We’re at a crossroads where innovation has become one of the biggest buzzwords of the 21st century, and innovation for innovation’s sake is more common than the kind of innovation that solves real problems. We can continue on this path, or we can change. The old innovators were capitalists who actually produced things that society needed, like the printing press, railroads, and air conditioning, while the new innovators sell things like unregulated energy supplements and TurboTax-like apps for death. Eventually the tech bubble will burst and design thinking will be just another forgotten buzzword. Actual speculative bubble or not, we shouldn't forget that most of what's being invented is adding a level of convenience to a society already overrun with it. Our inventions are making it easier to live a workaholic lifestyle, and get fast money from people who believe in false promises. That's not sustainable—people always eventually wake up.

True innovation will forever excite me. And I still find myself with an eye toward museums like the MoMA; and design studios like Pentagram, who continue to do world-class work while operating exactly the same way they always have since being founded by a team of partners in 1972. When you create a classic, it will never go out of style.

By the way, The Atlantic has compiled a thought-provoking list of the 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel. Apps aren't on it.

Alyssa YeagerComment