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As designers, we often think about the ways in which our work can make a positive impact on the world. But have you ever stopped to consider the role that ideology plays in shaping your design practice?

In this post, we’ll be exploring the impact of neoliberalism on design and the ways in which it can limit the potential for design to address complex social and environmental challenges.

We’ll also look at some strategies for pushing back against neoliberalism and advocating for alternative approaches that prioritize people and the planet over profit.

Neoliberal ideology and design

Neoliberal ideology has significantly influenced the contemporary design practice, exerting a transformative effect that warrants careful consideration due to its far-reaching social consequences. Understanding and addressing this impact within the design process is crucial for some key reasons:

  1. Social and Environmental Implications: A core principle of neoliberalism is the prioritization of profit and individualism. When unconsciously incorporated into the design process, this focus results in the neglect of critical social and environmental factors. In this way, design outcomes will unintentionally propagate inequity and unsustainability, thereby exacerbating existing societal and environmental challenges.
  2. Restrictive Scope of DesignThe neoliberal focus on market-oriented and technical solutions can inadvertently narrow the perspective of designers. This narrowed lens may limit designers from considering the broader social, cultural, and political contexts in which their work is embedded. It could also restrict the use of design as a tool to tackle complex, systemic challenges, confining its potential impact.
  3. Complexity Blindness: Neoliberalism often favors reductionism, which seeks to simplify complex systems into individual, independently operating components. This perspective can lead to “complexity blindness” in design, where the interconnectedness and interdependencies inherent in systems are overlooked. In such instances, designers may fail to fully grasp the system’s complexity, resulting in designs that do not take into account the multifaceted, systemic nature of the challenges they aim to address.
  4. Sense-Jamming: The digital age, exacerbated by neoliberal ideologies, leads to a cognitive distraction known as ‘sense-jamming.’ Our devices, intended as daily life navigational aids, act as cognitive disruptors, inundating users with irrelevant noise and marketing narratives. For designers, this environment fosters continuous engagement but undermines critical thinking, potentially misaligning design outcomes with users’ genuine needs and realities.
  5. Capitalist Trojan Horse – Desirability, Feasibility, and Viability: The neoliberal lens often construes the principles of desirability, feasibility, and viability through a capitalist framework. Desirability becomes about creating demand in the market, feasibility is viewed as technological capability within the economic structures, and viability is reduced to market competitiveness and profitability. This perspective can limit the designer’s interpretation of these principles, turning them into a capitalist Trojan horse that stealthily steers design solutions towards market-driven outcomes, potentially at the expense of social equity and environmental sustainability.

If you are not able to clearly define neoliberalism and understand its key principles and impacts, you may find it difficult to recognise and challenge its influence in your work. This can lead to a situation where your projects and initiatives are unwittingly shaped by neoliberal assumptions and values, no matter how much good intentions you bring to the challenge.

10 clues to identify a neoliberal environment

Here are some clues that may indicate a design environment that is shaped and limited by neoliberal ideology:

  1. Subjugation to capital owners: When the priorities of a design environment are mainly driven and constrained by the interests of capital owners and the pursuit of profit and growth.
  2. Disregard for power dynamics: When the design environment ignores or downplays the role of power dynamics and social inequality in shaping design outcomes.
  3. Dependence on market forces: When the design environment relies heavily on market forces to drive decision making, rather than considering other factors such as social or environmental concerns.
  4. Focus on short-term gains: When the design environment prioritizes short-term profits or gains over long-term sustainability or social impact.
  5. Illiteracy of social science concepts: When the design environment lacks an understanding of social science concepts and the ways in which they can inform design practices.
  6. Illiteracy of open, sustainable, and common-based economic models: When the design environment is not familiar with or does not value economic models that prioritize sustainability, the commons, or openness.
  7. Inflation of performative stories about change and impact: When the design environment places a disproportionate emphasis on storytelling and branding, rather than tangible outcomes.
  8. Emphasis on individualism and competition: When the design environment prioritizes individual achievement and competition over collaboration and the common good.
  9. Limited scope of problem solving: When the design environment focuses narrowly on technical or market-based solutions, rather than considering broader social, cultural, or political contexts.
  10. Lack of accountability: When the design environment lacks accountability mechanisms to ensure that the impacts of design decisions are considered and addressed.

How to approach it?

Here are three potential pieces of advice for designers looking to address a design environment shaped and limited by neoliberal ideology:

  1. Educate yourself: One of the first steps that designers can take is to educate themselves about the ways in which neoliberal ideology can shape and limit design outcomes. This might involve reading about different economic models, understanding the ways in which power dynamics and social inequality impact design, and learning about the broader social and cultural contexts in which design takes place.
  2. Collaborate with diverse groups: Another important step is to seek out and collaborate with diverse groups of people, including those who may be marginalized or disadvantaged by the dominant neoliberal ideology. By working with these groups, designers can gain a more nuanced understanding of the challenges and opportunities that they face, and can help to ensure that their needs and perspectives are considered in the design process.
  3. Advocate for change: Finally, designers can advocate for change within their organizations and beyond, working to challenge the dominant neoliberal ideology and promote alternative approaches that prioritize social and environmental concerns. This might involve speaking out about the limitations of neoliberalism, supporting organizations that promote alternative models, and working to develop new design practices that challenge the status quo.

How to act?

Here are three potential pieces of advice for designers looking to engage with a design environment shaped and limited by neoliberal ideology:

  1. Be strategic: It may not always be possible to completely avoid the constraints of a neoliberal design environment. In these cases, it can be helpful for designers to be strategic in the way that they engage with the environment, identifying opportunities to push the boundaries and challenge the status quo within the constraints of the system.
  2. Find allies: It can be helpful to find allies within the design environment who share your values and concerns, and to work together to promote alternative approaches. This might involve forming coalitions or partnerships with like-minded individuals or organizations, or joining existing groups that are working to challenge the dominant ideology.
  3. Reframe the conversation: Use design as a tool to infuse critical concepts and social science paradigms into the discourse. By leveraging this strategy, you shift the narrative from neoliberal norms towards a more comprehensive and socially-conscious perspective. Through this, you command the conversation, inspire an empathetic design ethos, and challenge the constraints imposed by neoliberalism.

The values that underpin our work profoundly shape its trajectory and impact. Understanding these values is crucial, especially within design practices, as it allows us to challenge limitations and reshape our efforts towards more equitable and sustainable outcomes. This understanding isn’t just about improving our practice—it’s about responsibly contributing to the world we are helping to design.