#111 / 2016

Can designers help ditch the alligators and drain the rhetoric?

Beyond Neoliberalism: A World without Work

The hatred, bigotry, xenophobia and divisions propagated by the recent US presidential campaign dismayed designers worldwide. Many of us link this surge in regressive thinking to the exponential growth of neoliberalism (a form of capitalism on steroids). Since the 1970s, neoliberalism has insidiously debased our political institutions and encouraged income inequality. Anyone involved in the design process understands this lack of fairness and inclusivity is the antithesis of good design.

Disturbed by the growing disconnect between large segments of society, designers look to expose the root cause of the problem and develop solutions. Some point to a "divide" between urbanites working at expanding "digital" sector jobs and "analog" workers in smaller communities coping with factory closures.

This schism becomes evident when comparing furniture manufacturing and software publishing sectors. US Census Bureau data show furniture industry employment in Trump-won states doubles that in Clinton-won states. Conversely the number of software publishers in Clinton-won states doubles those of her rival.


In States Trump Won

In States Clinton Won

Furniture Industry
Employees (NAICS 337)



Software Publishers
Employees (NAICS 511210)



Michael Mandel of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) underscored the dichotomy in November 2016: "While there are many factors going into Trump’s election, on the economic side, there was one reality: The members of the Physical [Analog] Nation finally got tired of suffering while the Digital Nation soared."

The graphic below supports Mandel's analysis. From 2002 to 2014 about 250,000 US furniture industry workers lost their jobs largely as a result of digital automation and neoliberal CEOs offshoring jobs to China.


US Furniture Employment vs. US Chinese Furniture Imports (2)

British author George Monbiot points to many reasons for neoliberalism's success: " . . . one of them is that we [progressives] have simply been outspent. Not by a little, but by orders of magnitude. A few billion dollars spent on persuasion [by thinktanks, bloggers and fake citizens’ groups] buys you all the politics you want."

Other writers on contemporary economics (see sidebar) blame neoliberalism's advancement for generating a "one per cent" addicted to short-term profits. These authors use the term "financialization" to describe how this small elite extracts value from economies while ignoring the importance of sustainable local manufacturing, research and development, long-term employment and equitable incomes.


Yanis Varoufakis, Greek economist, academic and politician

"Think of a basic income as a dividend that goes to the collective that was responsible for collectively producing the wealth." YouTube lecture

The Atlantic's editor, Derek Thompson, quotes commentators who believe over the next two decades that machines could perform half the jobs in America. Others (see insets) question the life expectancy of the full-employment myth. They suggest solutions founded on spreading the wealth new technology generates through shorter work weeks or providing a basic income (also called a guaranteed annual income) to everyone (3). Commenting on this "post-work" world, Thomson says, ". . . it would be a future not of consumption but of creativity, as technology returns the tools of the assembly line to individuals, democratizing the means of mass production."

While democratic societies adjust to the necessity of finding an alternative to neoliberalism, design thinking can help with the transition to Thomson's future. Designers, design organizations, trade shows and educators could minimize the analog/digital divide by connecting with rural manufacturers to facilitate new product development. And desk-bound city-based creatives could expand their knowledge of materials and processes by accessing the technical resources of distant manufacturers.


James Livingston, history professor, Rutgers University, New Jersey

"Every experiment done with a guaranteed annual income [in the 1960s and 1970s] showed it had no effect on people's willingness to work." NPR Interview

As transportation and international labour rates increase, the recent trend toward reshoring jobs will continue. Designers with skills attuned to local resources (human and material) will be in demand — not primarily to make more "stuff" but to help define needs and find sustainable solutions. Lower consumption of cheap imported products, with dubious environmental pedigrees, will result in our need for more local designing/making skills.

In 2011 British design critic Stephen Bayley told an If Conference, "People who make things tend to be more contented, more satisfied, more confident . . . and frankly better behaved people."


Jenna van Draanen, Basic Income Canada Network

"With everbody having the right to a minimum level of income security (we're not talking luxurious) . . . it will have effects in housing and education as well." YouTube interview

In a post-work world, citizens with a "free" basic income can volunteer to "work" at tasks of value for their well-being and their community's, such as at Makerspaces, Fablabs, tool libraries or community workshops like Baltimore's Open Works or Greenboro's Forge. In cooperation with designers, cities and towns will lessen their dependence on imported products and develop manufacturing ventures based on local sustainable materials. For example, furniture manufacturers can produce cabinets designed with sustainable local wood species, chairs with recycled felt, 3-D printed hardware with salvaged plastics or street furniture with reclaimed aluminum.

To serve the needs of post-work citizens and fix the analog/digital divide, the education sector must adjust its curriculum. Design schools need to encourage students to develop hands-on three-dimensional making skills that complement computer-based digital solutions.

American graphic designer, Milton Glaser, sums ups the challenge and solution: "For many years the design profession has been looking for a larger purpose than making things look good. Our next role is to be part of a process that heals our country and creates an atmosphere of generosity."


(1) US Census Bureau data (calculations exclude Maine and Washington DC)
(2) US Department of Commerce (Annual Survey of Manufactures)
(3) Inventing the Future Postcapitalism and A World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams

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