Rick Griffith: Transition Design and the Space of Changes

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Processing (,.,.,.,.,.,.,) is a column by Rick Griffith. Check back every month for a new installment.

You may also listen to this piece in audio form, read by the author, here:

The space of flows, a hope of mainstreaming Transition Design

From a distance, Transition Design (as a field of inquiry or study) is the means by which we consider various complex issues, social challenges and wicked problems. It’s often deployed as a tool for planning, establishing the participants/stakeholders in their roles in the various systems in which we live, work and—for the last couple hundred years—make a big old mess. Transition Design (and the approaches it trains people towards) has become more and more clear to me as the intention to reform our actions—at any scale—into more sustainable ones.

A key aspect to the success of this work has been a special kind of objectivity (a lack of fear), the ability to make the problem visible, and to articulate the problem in ways those inside (and outside) of it could not have conceived. And even the application of some novel (often proprietary, see Monsanto) technology to the problem.

Designers like to think of themselves as problem-solvers, and we (some more than others) have managed to carve out (arguably) enviable types of influence on and inside large and small companies, organizations and institutions. Influence that has given design a seat at the table in business and governments all over the world, for decades (see RAND Corporation; see Charles and Ray Eames’ India Report).

Black people, living with embedded intelligence available only to Black and other marginalized persons whose resilience will continue to be valuable, are also interested in a seat at the table.

Because design in the United States has been so White, you might extrapolate from observation that White people (White designers) solve problems and make technologies for everyone, and you might even be right. Designers are often producing technology for people they do not know, in a place they have never been, for a life they have never had. Products, processes, technologies—not necessarily interested in solving all the problems that new design interventions create.

I think this—in all of its myriad versions of doing design to other people—has become typical, and that fact should never be ignored. It should be an ongoing concern in which all designers have some awareness. If you aren’t the audience, to some degree you’ll be putting yourself (biases and judgements) upon the audience. And that’s not always appropriate.

To that end: It really does matter what you do, who you do it for, with, and how you connect to the impact of your output.

Decent people—some of them designers—with little context or ability to solve problems without marginalizing people, are living in an ocean of garbage policy and defunct technologies and imperfect systems produced by hundreds of years of the aforementioned type of influence. I sense something that suggests that we can expect to measure systems in multiple new ways, like density: the ability to silo and bury the most important levers and switches of democracy and public policy by surrounding them with expressions of power, largely disconnected and mired in bureaucracy. These expressions of power are dependent on the discretion of people who are afraid. Afraid of losing their employment, afraid of the worst parts of Black and Brown people and Queer people. It is a dark mythology, something we are asked to revere and respect for the purpose of accepting whatever emerges from the system. An outcome that validates our own worst fears. Now, it’s also a good time to be afraid of the worst in White people. Openly.

The remedy to this is interdependence. Connection. Everyone wants a purpose, an influence, an effect. The people inside, the people outside, the people adjacent, the people who are witness to an action. Everyone. And without exception—people who are exploited know it. It’s a myth to believe they are stupid. They are loved by people who know that they are being exploited by another person, company, policy or system. Exploitation includes intentional distortions of reality for others. Some people are immune to that distortion—and for those who are not, it is through connection and community that those distortions are best challenged and disrupted.

The old way to view labor was “Big” (getting bigger), disconnected and bureaucratic. It was effective at making people fear each other. Yet the way designers like to be utilized is connected, integrated and with awareness of their impact on any product or system.

So, Black designers. White designers. Ya feel me?

I’ll just straight up say: It’s going to be more important than ever to have Black and Brown people trained to solve problems. There is relevance and importance in creating spaces for Black people to solve them, by themselves, in groups, with requisite amounts of authority and responsibility. Problems for Black people, and problems for White people, too—because Black people can have the same, if not more useful instinct, capacity, ability and even assumptions, but we will never know if you don’t let us try. Brown people, Queer people, all people.

For design to work for everyone, we are going to have to discover ways of extending the value of our design clients, who—through one action or another—seem to make the problems that we (or other designers, experts and scientists) have to solve later: problems of emissions, of equitable employment, housing, disease, industrial waste, prisons, policing, guns. All or most corporations that—with their influence—create disruptions of every type in every ecology they enter. We need to synchronize/harmonize them with the systems and practices in the various geographies they impact. Practices that have human consequences—and sometimes victims.

Maybe we don’t imagine radically interdependent futures. It’s not because it’s not possible; it’s because we have not developed a sense of the actual cost of our complex modern lives, though we are already deeply dependent. It has not been profitable to teach people to care about sustainability and interdependence. If we are going to experience radically interdependent futures, we need to be whole people, paying more attention to more things, to willingly enter the space of flows and know trust.

Transition design has already shown us that there must be inquiry, interrogation and research—a process that captures instinct, feedback and direction from the whole community of concerned persons with the opportunity to particip
ate in solving the problem. It is a very exciting proposal if it includes accountability, support, acknowledgment of interdependency and an agreement to use all these elements to define needs.

Why? Because design always speaks to a need.

If we need less, we can have it all.

In this post-pandemic cycle, this is the fundamental and emergent theme in Transition Design. It is useful at all levels for all people who are solving problems. The underlying technologies of learning to need less, sharing and allowing for interdependency (aka vulnerability) are the answer. It could also be (the true nature of) collaboration: sharing in the process—and all the outcomes, too.

—Rick Griffith

Additional Reading:

  • Designs for the Pluriverse by Colombian Anthropologist Arturo Escobar (Duke University Press)

  • The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, a 2015 book by the Chinese-American anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

Rick Griffith produces a limited-edition print to accompany every issue of Processing (,.,.,.,.,.,.,). Get the latest here.