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Is AIGA a labor union?

A colleague of mine, Ksenija Berk, has posed to me a question about the necessity of  design labor unions based  on a listserv discussion among she, Daniel van der Velden of Metahaven, and myself. The discussion was generated from an article she is writing based on her completed PhD dissertation. I spent a good portion of the morning crafting the response, which I thought I would post it here.

On 7/28/08 12:01 PM, "Ksenija Berk" <> wrote:

The question I'd like to elaborate further with you and where I see a possibility for a design policy is my paraphrase of the Daniel van der Velden's question: Is now a time for a design labour union?

I will answer that questions in two ways. One anecdotally and one based on my knowledge of the US-based AIGA, the professional organization for design.

In early 2000, at the height of the US dotcom boom, I told my colleagues at Sapient that we should start a knowledge workers labor union to ensure that when things went sour, which they always do, that we could keep our M&Ms, free food and drinks, Aeron chairs, bonus compensation, message therapists, lock into high worth stock options, good medical coverage, nap rooms, flexible schedules, etc. They laughed at me saying the equivalent of, “Dude, we got it so good. What do we need a labor union for?” This is because they imagined themselves as knowledge workers, where the brand of their high paid skills would guarantee that they could always negotiate for better salary and perks. When the dot com boom crashed in about 2001 and all those perks went away as well as any semblance of job security, they came back to me and said the equivalent of, “Dude, you were right.”

The challenge is that the model of the labor union is tied to ideas of fixed and standardized labor in the Fordist mode as per Daniel’s statement. Meaning, labor unions from the industrial mode argue for fixed and incrementally increasing wages based on standardized labor descriptions and standardized hours, the safety and protection of workers, protection of pensions, and guarding against unfair firing of workers. The underlying assumptions of this system are that (1) worker’s labor can be standardized (which requires deskilling through Taylorism) and (2) that worker’s stay in one place for a significant period of time (in order to accrue things like wage increases and pensions). Your thesis is dead on that contemporary designers do not work under those conditions, as do very few people anymore.

We are in a Post-Fordist mode of capitalism defined by flexibility in the descriptions of the type of labor, the hours ascribed to it, the shift or extension of the location of work from factory/office to the “cottage/home” aided by the ubiquity of the ITC tools of production (i.e. Laptop computers and software). This reduces the need for the manager to focus on issues of safety and protection because they have no “control” over the worker’s domicile or Starbucks café and the worker would resist any control in their private domain. Workers no longer expect or intend to stay in jobs long enough to accrue wage increases and the concept of pensions is long gone. So your description is accurate of current conditions, I just think that the term immaterial worker (read in US context: knowledge worker) fails to address the role of the materiality of design’s labor which allows you to capture its value in standardized deliverables.

So what is the possibility of design labor union in the immaterial labor, post-Fordist mode?

This is where I find the activities of AIGA, which is selected because I am most intimate with it as a design organization, interesting because it seeks to provide many of the protections for design labor through the discourse of professionalism.

If the intentions of a union are to set fair prices for labor, ensure the safety and well being of its labor force, assist in the accumulation of wealth for retirement, and protect the legal rights of hiring and firing for its labor force; AIGA does most of that for its design membership.

Setting Fair Prices for Labor: AIGA just recently launched its website for the Center for Practice Management. On the site, they provide tips on how to calculate a freelance rate, set a rate for a firm, determining the various pricing models (it outlines 6), and address the challenges of low-ballers. It also conducts an annual salary survey to determine the market range for design labor geographically and by position.

Ensure the safety and well being of its labor force: There are two separate initiatives around this one. AIGA serves as a collective for reduced health insurance,  especially for its freelance designers. Its Sustainability initiatives  and section on other management issues seeks to address the toxicity and wastefulness of the design work tools (i.e. Printers, paper, ink, etc).

Wealth for retirement: There are no official initiatives around this area that I know of beyond the indirect practice management issues.

Protect the legal rights of hiring and firing: AIGA provides standard and flexible business agreement templates for designers as well as a list of standards of professional practice to inform and aid designers of their rights and responsibilities as professionals.

Other things that AIGA does is advocate for better descriptions of design practices with the US Dept of Labor so that it is more aligned with current practices, train designers on how to elevate their skills, provide discounts on designer tools like software from Adobe and fonts, etc.

So at least AIGA, and to some extent many of the American professional organizations, serves as a design labor union with over 20K members of various design levels and skills.

(Don’t let Ric know that I just wrote a long love letter to AIGA or that I called AIGA a labor union).


Design Thinking, HBR, and cultural anthropology appropriation?

I have posted before about my ambiguity with the concept of design thinking. In the past few weeks, design thinking has hit mainstream in terms of the Harvard Business Review's recent article by Tim Brown defining of Design Thinking. His opening statement and use of Thomas Edison as the exemplar symbolizes for me all the anxieties and reservations I have about the concept of design thinking:

Thinking like a designer can transform the way you develop products, services, processes—and even strategy.

He lists five attributes of a design thinker: empathy, integrative thinking, optimism, experimentalism, and collaboration, but caveats that design thinkers are not only created by design schools. So I wonder what other fields produce such personality profiles? One of which is anthropology, which is why I have such a hard time accepting the concept of design thinking (which implies a both originary, unique, and proprietary ownership of these characteristics by the field of design or as Brown posits of the designer).

Empathy, integrative thinking, experiementalism, and collaboration are hallmarks of cultural anthropology. Ethnography was developed as both the philosophical, tactical, and representational strategy for gaining empathy and demonstrating the difference of another's perspective to understanding human phenomenon. Integrative thinking is call holistic thinking in anthropological circles which drives the desire to understand things across time (thus the historical bent) and space (thus cross-cultural comparison). The field work experience is one of experiementalism where one tries many and different approaches (from observational to participatory, unstructured to structured) to figure out how to solve problems of human understanding. Even in its most colonial form, the anthropological endeavor was collaborative albeit with unequal power relations.  The derogatory term "informants" allude to the dependency relationship between the researcher and the subject populations. The only thing that anthropology lacks is a sense of optimism, but that is mostly because you often are so close to people's pain when you live with them. So does that mean that cultural anthropologists are design thinkers or are they cultural anthropologists?

If in the world of branding, you must demonstrate  uniqueness and differentiation in the market. If a cultural anthropologist meets the criteria of design thinking (without any interaction with design), then design thinking fails as a brand of design. Design thinking positions itself as the alternative to business thinking. It is a means for designers to enter the strategy game, which is more lucrative and of higher social value. I get it and directly participate in this effort by training my students to do more strategic design.

My problem is that design thinking draws many of its attributes from its encounter with anthropology, yet by calling it "design thinking" the encounter becomes more an act of appropriation without recognition than collaboration. I cannot tell you how many times I go to a conference and someone describes a complex design project, say around service design, and they talk about what the designers did strategically, until they finally, when probed, admit that 1/2 of the designers were anthropologists or psychologists or some other social scientists.

I always characterize my work and that of my students as being hybrid between design and the social sciences, design anthropology or anthro-design. The absence of anthropology/ethnography from the discourse of design thinking makes me think that  I cannot play a part in a world where I clearly play a part because the core aspect of my identity as an anthropologists is being shut out by the discourse of design thinking, which implies that you are a designer or trained as one. Or why call do they call it design thinking and not hermeneutics? But perhaps I feel threatened mostly because Design Thinking is copping the brand of anthropology and there was great value in my anthropological training that will be lost if people feel they can get it from a design department (as most are currently configured). Again, the irony is that I am providing that anthropological perspective within a design school.

Groundedness: Lack of in Chicago

One of the things that was most remarkable about my experience in Santa Fe was how relaxed I was. I mean I worked really hard on writing the book, misc. essays, tenure papers, letters of recommendations, conducting research while there, but I just did not feel as stressed as I do now back in Chicago.

The difference I think has to do with the groundedness of Santa Fe because of its earthiness and human scale of things. Jerry and I walk to the Chicago River, mirroring our walks to the Santa Fe River. During this walk, we pass by large industrial buildings, sidewalks and parking lots overgrown with weeds (the Queen Anne's lace is in bloom) and broken glass bottles, freeway overpasses, the train tracks, and there is not a patch of earth on the river walk.

When we did the Emergency and Evacuation Design project at UIC, we talked about natural and man-made elements. For earth/dirt, the man-made equivalents were glass, concrete, and steel. I am realizing that glass, concrete, and steel do not have the same grounding forces as earth/dirt.

So I will have to practice doubly hard my Tai Chi to ground myself. Now all the Taoist meditations about needing to get out of the city seems more true.

Meeting Cultures in Santa Fe

Just some quick notes on the past couple of days... My aunt, Jillane Tunstall, has come to visit me in Santa Fe. She arrived on Thursday, which has provided the perfect opportunity for me to play tourist on my last week in Santa Fe. Saturday, we attended the Taos Pow Wow. This was a really amazing and educational experience. I'll describe it in detail more when I have more time. It sounds like a cliche, but it was a very spiritual and material experience. Material in seeing all the regalia and stuff that is used to create the experience of the Pow Wow. Spiritual, because although I did not speak any of the Native American languages, they made it clear that the event was about offering prayers to the Creator and showing honor to their warriors and their communities. I really want to talk about this in more depth, but here is just a teaser of some of the images. I'll post the rest on Flickr later.
This is Bruce (Apache), who explained a lot about what the dances meant. He has been dancing at Pow Wows for a long time and is probably one of the best Traditional dancers at the Pow Wow. In the pictures we took of him, he posed so stoic, but he was smiling and joking with us the entire time.

There are several types of dances at the Pow Wow. For the men, there were the gourd, traditional, grass, and fancy feather dances. For the women, there were the traditional, jiggle dress, and fancy shawl dances.

Today, we went to the International Folk Arts Festival, which was overwhelming in the number of global vendors. We have to thank Tina, a volunteer for the Festival, for introducing us to the 5-6 vendors whom she knew. It made the experience more personal and less overwhelming for us. It also guaranteed that we bought things because its more difficult not to purchase something from someone when you feel you've made a personal connection with them.  Aunt Jill is posing with Elizabeth Savanhu of Zimbabwe. She was very warm, open, and loving with everyone.

Anyway, more later. I have to go to bed because we have a trip to Bandalier National Park tomorrow.


More than 15 minutes fame: ID@IIT student video

Gabriel Biller and Kristy Scovel, graduating students at ID @ IIT just released their video, starring me (way too much of me, I should have wore more make-up) on ethnography and interviewing called, "Getting People to Talk: An Ethnography and Interviewing Primer"

They did a really good job. It very funny. What makes me most happy is that they adopted my view of ethnography as a philosophical orientation not just a set of techniques:

The IIT Institute of Design is a graduate school of design dedicated to advancing the methods and practice of human-centered innovation. We believe that real innovation starts with users' needs and employs a set of reliable methods, theories, and tools to create solutions to their problems. Ethnography and interviewing are how we, as designers, see the world through other people's eyes and get them to tell us their stories. In the spring of 2008, we talked to professors, experts, and students about this philosophical orientation and how to actually get people to talk. To ground things a bit, we took a look at a truly universal article of clothing – denim jeans – and set out to understand: "Who's buying premium denim and why?"

So check out the video:

Getting People to Talk: An Ethnography & Interviewing Primer from Gabe & Kristy on Vimeo.

Paint by number

The last couple of days I've been helping Sister Max at the Santa Fe Antiques Show. It was really eclectic from Indian antiques, Polish film and music posters, to my favorite items in the show- these paint by number paintings. Until you've seen a whole wall of PBN's you never realize what its own aesthetic it is. Everyone kept stopping and reminiscing about it.

Oldest house in the US

Oldest house in the US
This is the oldest house in the US. It's cool to see the Adobe brick. It was built around 1610. Of course the caveat is that the Native American's had "houses" older than that. This is on DeVargas street in Santa Fe around St. Miguel's, which was built on Native American slave labor for the Mexicans. Where the Nine Graces Hotel is were the quarters for the first Spanish/Mexican inhabitants of the area.

Declaration of Independence: Rights and Values

One of the things that I am finding most interesting about my research on the values of democracy and design is how the process of the Declaration of Independence came about. This is documented in Pauline Maier's American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (Vintage Books, 1997) but also in Zinn and Arnove's Voices of A People's History of the US (Seven Stories, 2004).

The final Jefferson Declaration was really one of many that proceeded it. Many of the individual states (Virginia, Pennsylvania) and even labor unions (NY Mechanics Union) had declared Independence from Great Britain. One of the things that I talk about in the intro chapter of my book is the implicit and explicit values of American democracy represented in the Declaration of Independence. It really complicates the story:

To define the values of American democratic government myself, I went back to many of the documents of the founding of the United States government in their draft and final forms: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of the Confederation, the Constitution, Jefferson’s Notes on the Congress Proceedings, the Federalist Papers, the and the Bill of Rights. In the mark outs and additions found in the draft forms of these documents, I came upon probably the most defining American democratic value – the right to acquire and possess property.  While “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property” appears explicitly in the Virginia Declarations of Rights,  Thomas Jefferson edited the reference to property from his draft of the Declaration of Independence. Historian, Pauline Maier notes that for Jefferson and his contemporaries, happiness would include the acquiring and possession of property, and thus Jefferson’s editorial decisions “perhaps sacrificed the clarity of meaning for the grace of language.”  I propose that, in fact, the story of American democracy is the contradictions between the values of the rights of of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and the right to acquire and possess property.

Reading the drafts and debates reminds you that all of these democratic values were contested in one way or another. Its  important to remember this contestedness as we address our own contemporary American democracy.