Design’s cultural impact

There seems to be a bit of a furor over Jon Kolko’s piece in Johnny Holland: Our misguided focus on brand and user experience.

Personally, I didn’t take offense to the apparent slight against UX practitioners’ “focus on a prescriptive customer experience” – his description didn’t match my experience of the subject, so I assumed he wasn’t talking about me ;)

While the piece does take some twist and turns, what I heard was more of a sustainability message than anything else. Jon says:

We are, quite literally, building the culture around us; arguably, our effect is larger and more immediate than even policy decisions of our government. We are responsible for both the positive and negative repercussions of our design decisions, and these decisions have monumental repercussions.

Thinking about the cultural impacts of what we create immediately widens the frame and presents questions and dilemmas that perhaps aren’t getting enough attention – certainly not in the designs that I see in daily life, be they products, services or systems.

He extends this thought further:

For most designers, this responsibility is hidden by the celebratory claims of designing experiences. This claim almost abdicates the long-term responsibility, as “an experience” has an end, at which time the designers’ role seemingly ends. The work is meaningful only on an immediate level of craft and creation, and while designers often take pride in a product once it has launched, they do not frequently make the connection between their creations and the culture that surrounds them.

Perhaps it’s a stretch, but I don’t think it’s too much to extend this statement to encompass the environmental impact of our work – not only as a longer-term/bigger impact but also as a shaper of culture (climate change and the shift towards a sustainable economy will play a significant role in shaping culture in the coming years, as it has already begun to show).

Behavioural change is also critical to a sustainable future, as are more sustainably produced, used and re-used products and services – all aspects of design that seem to still be sadly lacking.

To me this connects to the themes in the Usability in a sustainable future talk I did at World Usability Day last month – so perhaps I’m reading into things?

In any case, I do hope that this core message of cultural impact and behaviour change is not lost in the concerns about Jon’s specific framing of UX…

Update 07 Dec 2009: Steve Baty pointed to a great response by Brian Phipps to Jon’s article:

… a brand must make the customer “better off” than if the customer purchased a mere commodity. Otherwise, what good is the brand? What value does it deliver? “Better off” means that the customer is further empowered, able to be more proactive, and further advanced along his/her desired path via the brand.