Essays & Articles


Taking a Stand for Ukraine

The Service Design Network has put together a small panel (6 people) of designers–two from Ukraine–to talk about the design community’s solidarity with the people of Ukraine and to raise money for World Central Kitchen, a charity that delivers vital relief.  See  

I am one of the six people: my talk is below (updated May 6, 2022 to reflect the changes I made when I gave the talk).

Design for a Better World: Taking a Stand for Ukraine


The key issues we are facing today are not the physical, chemical, and biological destruction of the earth but rather human behavior. The solution is not to be found in technology. It is not to be found through traditional design methods. It is to be found in a deep understanding of human behavior, in politics, governments, laws, and regulations. What is the role of the design profession? Worth thinking about!

We are here today to discuss a major crisis — an inhumane, destructive war against a country that I have visited and that I admire. The key issues are politics, the role of governments, laws, and regulations, and most importantly of all, human behavior.

The solution to the war in Ukraine is not to be found through traditional design methods. It is to be found in a deep understanding of perverse human behavior, in politics, governments, laws, and regulations.

The Ukraine problem is actually a design problem, just as the ailments facing the societal and ecological foundations of the globe are design problems. The causes were designed by people over a long time period, designed in the sense that they were the result of intentional actions by many people over extended periods, sometimes well-intentioned, but ignoring the many side effect both expected and unexpected, intended or unintended. People who were designing courses of action, often without any understanding of the long-term impact of their decisions, and in some cases, deliberately ignoring the long-term because, after all, that is the future, which means for someone else to worry about.

What is the role of the design profession? This question requires a breakdown into three phases:

  1. Adaptation: Working to adapt to the trauma, fear, and deprivation caused by war.
  2. Recovery: Rebuilding with an eye toward prevention of future wars as well as better adaptation to any that might arise.
  3. Prevention: What could designers have done to have prevented the war in the first place?

1. Adaptation

In the seminar on May 5, 2022. we were told of the wonderful efforts going on in Ukraine by the design community, working to minimize the stress of air-raid sirens (including making sure the all-clear siren was noticeably different from the “danger warning one: They were originally the same sound, increasing fear at the termination of the alert rather than decreasing it). These elements are wonderful, excellent, and important. Many of these efforts focused on functionality and the need for clear, timely communication. Oleg Koos, the designer talking to us from Kyiv about the truly wonderful ways in which designers banded together to help the population seemed to apologize for the lack of aesthetic quality. Why did he feel the need for an apology? This is one of the faults of modern design – the emphasis has been on beauty. Design is far more important than aesthetics. Is a well-designed service in need of visual aesthetic treatment? No: Good design is beautiful in its own right. The talk by Alice Rawsthorn, taken from her about-to-be-published book “Design Emergency ” (written with Paola Antonelli) describes how designers have helped in adaptation and recovery from harmful events and situations.

2. Recovery

Here, the traditional talents of the design profession can come into play, but on a larger scope than is usual. This is where many different forms of design are needed, most especially community-driven design, where the needs of the communities are emphasized, design with the people, not for them. Koos pointed out that it is much easier to feel good about helping someone than to feel good about being helped: it is harder to receive than to give. He recommended always providing the recipients opportunities to contribute, an important point (and one that was a novel point for me, but to which my own internal response was “Yes, of course”). Like many brilliant ideas, after the fact it seems obvious but beforehand, it had not been thought of.

3. Prevention

What is the role of the design profession in preventing war? Today, I am sorry to say, the answer is “Nothing.”

Why? Because the design profession has long been content to be designers of the small, positioning themselves as servants of industry, doing what their clients or managers ask for. Oh yes, designers can modify the requests in minor ways, but seldom being in a position to direct the activities in ways that are beneficial to the world. The result is that we live in an age of change with the coronavirus pandemic, the ecological crises, climate change, and the hardening of political divisions across the world. We still suffer from multiple areas of biases, prejudices, and inequity. All these are thought to be outside the domain of the profession, and even those within the profession find that the limited power of designers to initiate changes and direct activities thwarts their desires to change things.

Consider the Ukrainian crisis. Its immediate cause comes from a small group of people in the Russian Kremlin, aimed at building a new power structure around Russian-speaking people. Mind you, the citizens of Russia had little say in this.

What is the rest of the world to do? The obvious world body that should be able to stop this aggressive behavior is the United Nations, but the UN was designed to give veto power to a small group of power-holders. This means that Russia can veto any attempt to criticize or punish its actions.

The other major international group is NATO, but they were very reluctant to act at first because the industries of the world have designed an efficient, cost-reducing way of doing business that leaves them vulnerable and powerless when a major event disturbs these methods. Europe still depends upon oil and gas for energy, despite decades of warnings about their harm. And these sources of energy come from Russia.

Supply chains cover the world, based in part upon the efficient Toyota Manufacturing System with just-in-time delivery of parts, with suppliers based all over the world wherever labor costs are the lowest. A very efficient, brittle system, where one failure can have ramifications throughout the world. And between the Coronavirus reducing the availability of labor, the storms and fires resulting from the ecological crisis (Climate Change), and now the disruption in Europe’s supply chain created by the Ukrainian War, nations are relatively powerless. Despite many years of discussion about the need to eliminate dependence upon fossil fuels, Europe still relies heavily on oil and gas (and in some countries, coal). Oil and gas come from Russia, which makes it difficult for the countries to agree to curtail these purchases.

Add to this the threat of nuclear weapons. Designed during the second world war by Germany and the United States, but then copied by other nations to create, in theory, a stalemate that would prevent war for fear that it would lead to worldwide nuclear destruction. All this was carefully designed by governments and political scientists. A fear that prevents the nations of the world from direct assistance to Ukraine for fear that Russia will carry through on its threat to deploy Nuclear Weapons, releasing a world war of unimaginable consequences.

Yes, all of it is designed. What can designers do? Nothing. For this is not the kind of design problem that designers are equipped to manage. Designers do not even sit at the highest levels of companies, yet what is needed here are designers who sit at the highest levels of governments and powerful international coalitions. There are few if any designers able to play a role.

Designers can do as we are doing today, hold a rally and raise some money. The money will be useful in alleviating some of the misery felt by the people of Ukraine but will do nothing to stop the evil being done to them. Russia will either take no notice of this rally, or notice and then ignore it, or worse of all, decide to punish those of us who are taking part through their highly skilled cyberwarfare teams who are capable of breaking into our computer systems, destroying our work and all records, and creating great financial harm to many of us, perhaps even destroying our funds and preventing any recourse.

This is a wake-up call for everyone. If the design profession is to be a part of the world’s solutions to the many problems it faces, it must first stop being complicit in many of the problems. It must stop destroying the ecosystems of the world through designs that are wasteful, and unsustainable. It must eliminate designs that trick people into purchases they neither need nor can afford, into addictive behavior and into having access to lies and other falsehoods deliberately designed to manipulate people.

Politics is a critical part of how societies govern, so designers must also understand and use politics. Design is too important a field to be left in the middle levels of power.

Designers must learn about the world, its history, and the roles that power and politics play. And designers must educate themselves to rise to the highest decision-making level of companies, universities, non-governmental organizations, and governments. It is only then that we have a chance of making an impact.