Subtraction with a purpose - "undesign" as a strategy for sustainable design

Sebastian Greger

Creating something that has not existed before is at the core of the activity named “design”. Industrial designers envision previously unseen products. Service designers develop new touchpoints and flows between people and service providers. In interaction design, it usually means the creation of new platforms, channels or interfaces to facilitate interaction.

In a brilliant (and cleverly laid out) article titled “Undesigning Interaction” (paywall; free PDF from the author’s website) in the summer edition of the ACM interactions magazine, James Pierce presents “undesign” - the process of purposefully subtracting rather than adding something, of design as “making disappear” rather than creating.

James Pierce’s article “Undesigning Interaction” is in itself a thoughtfully undesigned piece of design (in: interactions 21, 4)

The dilemma when creators understand that not creating would be best

Sometimes, not creating something is the best way to create something. The thought of “undesign” - maybe not using that term in such reflected manner - is nothing new to most designers: a designer given the task to solve a certain challenge might well come to the conclusion that creating something new is not the best solution.

Ideally (for the designer), the outcome is to take something away. Simplifying something, reducing complexity or rolling back to a previous way of doing things are design interventions that are appreciated by both clients and users. But things are more difficult if the outcome is the suggestion not to create anything in the first place - the problem being that designers are people who get paid for “creating”. Just imagine the disappointment of a client who, after a project of several weeks, is presented with “nothing” as the outcome. Even if that “nothing” may by far be the best solution, this is not what the designer was expected to deliver.

Pierce makes a distinction between “design inaction”, the unarticulated or materialized act of intentionally not designing something, and “introduced absence”, design concepts that include not creating something, and makes clear that these are - by nature - in conflict with design practice:

Design inaction and introduced absence reveal practical paradoxes while suggesting practical possibilities.

The challenge lies in getting appreciation for something that isn’t. In order to value the disappearing of something, it has to have existed before. In order to understand that something has not been created requires that this is clearly communicated (who would ever notice that the lack of traffic lights on a street crossing is an act of intentional design rather then neglect?); undesign only becomes tangible in contrast to design.

The responsibility to undesign

Obviously, the most straightforward and easiest way out is to just deliver on the request to design, to create, something. But does a designer doing so really live up to their responsibility? Pierce asks:

So why do we not also offer people designs that clearly embody things we should not value or ideas about how we should not live?

Pierce’s article pairs up well with Nynke Tromp’s column “Let’s resist the temptation to solve problems”  (paywall) in the same issue of the magazine. Tromp argues how the subject of design is not just the contemporary, singled-out problem at hand but the trajectory of development it is capable of triggering in a larger context:

Focusing on solving today’s problems by addressing vividly felt concerns will create the next generation of problems.

In (critical) reference to Victor Papanek, who in the 1970s stressed the responsibility of designers beyond the design artifact (e.g. the negative impact of mass production on societies and our planet), Tromp formulates what can be understood as a reminder that just producing what is expected does not do the power of the designer’s profession justice:

But it is the responsibility of designers to move beyond the frame of reference created by users, clients, and other stakeholders without ignoring them. It is the responsibility of designers to acknowledge felt concerns as well as known concerns. And it is the responsibility of designers to take the time to consider, and give equal measure to, concerns that nobody else expresses.

On a side note, the “Minimum Actionable Dataset” referred to in my previous blog post is a basic example of undesign in action, as are my ongoing explorations on “Privacy-Aware Design”; both are attempts to add critical, designerly reflection not just on the visible but on the implicit political component of something as seemingly unpolitical as a user database or a website interface - ultimately removing something where others prefer to add more.

A call for responsible design

So what is the designer who discovers that putting something new out into the world may not be a good idea in the larger context supposed to do? Just delivering a design because delivering an undesign does not appear practical is not sustainable practice. Or, as Pierce puts it:

In HCI research it is common practice to conclude research reports with “implications for design.” But what about the “implications for undesign”?

It is of course undesirable that all designers stop creating and start to deliver “nothing”. But if we as designers want to take responsibility for where our world and society are headed, Pierce’s call to embed undesign in design practice and Tromp’s reminder that designers should not only solve today’s problems but keep in mind the long term impact of our actions are worthwhile and highly recommended reads for anybody given the privilege to shape the future in a professional role.