Brands are constantly telling us about their design consciousness. By “design consciousness” I mean our awareness that we – technologically savvy, culturally engaged, sometimes neurotic human beings – are creating the world of day to day experience in our own likeness, whatever that happens to be in the moment. Even though it doesn’t always feel as if we’re in charge of the situation, we are. All the stuff you see around you where you’re sitting right now, the cool stuff and the crap, was created and put where it is now by someone, on purpose, by design. That’s design consciousness.
Microsoft just launched a campaign to tell us that we’re all creatives creating the world, using the powerful technology that they provide us. It’s a beautiful minute of glossy video urgently narrated to an empty concert hall by Common the rapper, the prolific all-round artist and good guy.
“…Its not about what technology can do, it’s about what you can do with it. You’re the voice, and it’s the microphone. When you’re the artist, its the paintbrush…We have mixed reality that changes how we see the world and AI empowering us to change the world we see. You have more power at your fingertips than entire generations that came before you. So here’s the question. WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH IT?”
This isn’t the first Microsoft foray into tech empowerment. Their 1994 ad went like this:
“This stuff that we’re making. Its powerful. It makes you powerful. Take it. Gather up your ideas. Run with it. Make trouble and good things will happen. Make some mistakes. Let us do something amazing…”
C|Net’s Chirs Mtyszczyk did a commentary on the ads ( HERE).
“We humans are still in control (just). But it’s a powerful tool, one that Microsoft wants to tell you is, well, very powerful.”
Mtyszczyk neither endorses nor denies the message, though he does express doubt – notice the “just” that he nervously slips in parentheses. Technology is powerful and we have reason to be nervous about how it gets applied – by people with ill intent and sloppy design practices. Design consciousness is important because it reminds us that we ARE ultimately in control and that we have the levers of design discipline by which to exert that control – though not quite in the way that Microsoft is trying to convince us of.
Microsoft appears to be confusing technology with what we do with it, or more relevantly here, what THEY do with it, how they make money out of it. Technology is capability, capacity. It is derives from the same root as “technique”; the techniques of stone knapping and basket weaving would qualify as among our earliest technologies. What we, and Microsoft, do with it is create products, services, experiences of all kinds that have value in the marketplace, that bring those capacities to people, provide an interface with it.
Design is how we create the interfaces with technology. More than even in our technologically accelerated times, it determines what we are able to do with it. Will we use it socially, or selfishly? Will we be addicted to it, or will we use it to actually make our lives better? Will we use it destructively, invasively, disrespectfully, violently, abusively? Or will we use it to advance the better parts of our humanity? Will we use it to provide a life of dignity, beauty and delight for every single person on the planet?
Design isn’t always good. Design consciousness is our awareness though that we always have a choice.
Microsoft does make a very important point in their campaign – the design of products, services, interfaces and experiences that are driven by powerful technologies are just the beginning of the road along which we create the world of day to day experience. It continues in the hands of the users that they create those interfaces for. For we are all creators, and so, we must all be designers.
The responsibility of the designers of technology is to make sure they afford the kinds of control, the kinds of expression and the kinds of behaviors that are inclined to “bring good things to life”, to use a phrase from another powerful technology branding campaign.
Control requires us to be aware of the fact that we are, what the levers of control are AND that we know something about how to use them. We need to take Microsoft at their word, though not necessarily by using their products or services. We must demand products, of Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon and all the other tech titans that are bringing things, good and bad, to life – that really do bring forth the best of our humanity. We must get engaged in the design of the things that impact our day to day lives and the day to day lives of billions of people and in fact all kinds of life-forms whose quality of life hangs on the way we live ours.