Overlap: Richard Farson

by Luke Wroblewski May 30, 2006

Richard Farson’s deeply engaging talk was my personal highlight from Overlap. It brought me back to my graduate studies in New Media where provocative discussions about culture, communication, and design filled the large, open rooms we used as studios.

As a result, the meeting room at Asilomar felt quite familiar, as did Richard’s tone when speaking about the profound impact of treating design as a business vs. one of the world’s great professions:

Design has become a business

  • Most designers are frustrated. This is because design has become a profession that is dominated by their clientele.
  • By orientating toward the private sector, Design has become more of a business than a profession.
  • Designers approach their clients as vendors rather than as peers.
  • This is not true of other great professions like medicine or education.
  • A profession is marked by its ability to say no. However, individual designers need the support of the profession to do so.

Business leadership & social responsibility

  • Business leadership and social responsibility are incompatible. But that is to be expected.
  • Wisdom is the ability to analyze how our actions ultimately impact humanity.
  • Business leadership is driving the corporate agenda to help build a vibrant economy. This is vital to democracy. As a result, the real social responsibility of business is to make a profit.

Design can help

  • The big danger facing us today is becoming a commoditized society.
  • Only 2% of custom homes are built by architects today. Architects used to socialize with presidents!
  • We have lost journalism. One of our great professions is now run by big corporations and focuses on celebrity “infotainment”. In the same week, 450 stories centered on the Michael Jackson trial, while only 6 mentioned the Downing Street memo.
  • Being dominated by our clientele instead of being peers is a dangerous situation for designers and for the world. It ultimately leads to the fragility and failure of core social structures.
  • The capability of design to build sustainability into our products, and improve our community and homes has been known for a while. We have proven methods at our disposal.
  • If designers used professional judgment they would exercise wisdom and work toward meeting needs (social) vs. meeting wants (business).
  • Because designers determine situations, their ability to enact change is greater than other professions. Situations are more deterministic for how our society acts than anything else.
  • Context informs almost everything that happens in an environment. “No one smokes in church”

For those interested, Richard Farson’s great essays can be found on his personal site and Steve Portigal has short-listed some of Richard’s concepts on the Overlap blog.