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The Design Space in Digital Activism

March 2015

The history of modern design and movements for social change have often been aligned. While the Bauhaus school wasn’t the front-group of communist radicals the Nazis pegged them as, they did to at least some extent present a combination of aesthetic and political concerns - egalitarianism expressed as architecture. At the far end, Russian Constructivism held that art for social change was the highest and best kind of art, rejecting “art for art’s sake” entirely. While this attitude could (and later did) produce lifeless utilitarianism, at first it was a radical idea that produced avant-garde work which was revolutionary in artistic terms as well as political ones.

Today, the space for design in digital activism is rich with opportunity but hindered by the unique demands presented by 21st century technology. A small vanguard exists who does design as activism - see Adbusters - and uses the vocabulary of our media environment (specifically advertising and marketing) to unearth tensions and critique capitalism, American foreign policy, institutionalized racism and other targets.

On the other hand, small shops like Oakland’s collectively owned Design Action, who I wrote about in 2011, exist to serve the movement for progressive social change, for organizations who have at least a small budget and want to get the most leverage they can with it, from people who know the digital activism landscape. The activists focus on environmental justice, labor organizing, human rights work or whatever it is they do best, and rely on trusted allies to get the word out on a tight budget. Design here serves a very specific purpose, and it’s activism, not design as a discipline, that is the emphasis.

Even more often, activists doing digital communications throw something together to get the word out in the most immediate way using whoever and whatever is on hand. Organizations and individuals engaged in social change work have always had a primary need - to engage their audience and spur them to action - that trumps aesthetic concerns. This functional concern is, with the advent of the Internet, compounded with the many demands of getting web technologies to function effectively, and this soaks up a lot of attention and resources.

This introduces many more layers of complexity for the designer, whether they are professional or jumping into that role for a day. If we imagine a set of nested boxes as a metaphor for layers of complexity, an activist making and distributing a poster is a box with a box inside, while an activist running a website and email campaign is a box with two boxes, each with several boxes nested inside, each box dependent on the contents it holds. The activist/designer must contend with this complexity with every idea they want to execute. If they keep things extremely simple, they can hold that complexity at bay, but for every experiment they want to make or design tweak, it opens a gigantic can of worms.

###The Legacy of Print

Digital designers are almost always still suckers for print. Paper may have many differences from screen-based media, but it’s the two-dimensional surface that is still our foundation, where we learn about layout, use of type, and illustration. The legacy of avant-garde political print and poster art is an inspiration and influence. Print design’s experimental edge has so often overlapped with radical ideas and campaigns for social change, and been so well documented, that we easily forget the millions of bland pamphlets and crude broadsides that have also been produced and pasted on walls over the years.

The effort required to get a poster or broadsheet newsletter out may seem small compared to the current effort required to run digital communications. But before we wax too nostalgic, remember that many small political groups had to devote enormous effort simply to covering the cost of printing, or the distribution of print material. The Internet makes reproduction instantaneous and nearly-free. But there’s a trade-off, with other tasks before and after the moment when media are transmitted being more time intensive or costly.

###Using Data

Designers in the digital space have to reckon with the tendency towards data-driven utilitarianism. Web technologies also have enabled digital activists to see and measure the results of their campaigns with incredible precision, using the same tools marketers from large corporations do. This wealth of feedback is on the whole a fantastic tool, but it needs to be handled with care. It can make an organization risk-averse, as they try to repeat past successes. Web analytics will never tell you about a big success you didn’t have because you never tried something radically different.

Designers can advocate a position of being informed by analytics data but not blinded by it. There are still qualitative concerns that matter. To put it bluntly, an A/B split test of two crappy ideas can only reveal that one is less crappy than the other. Designers can suggest using analytics tools in a finer-grained way to isolate test exactly what about a past campaign worked from a design perspective. Or if they find themselves boxed in, they can try a fresh approach that integrates learnings pulled from past successes.

The ability to test ideas would ideally make for more experimentation rather than less. You can make a wild guess, segment your base, and see if it worked without gambling a whole campaign on it. A/B testing is often used for small, incremental tweaks which can have surprising impact. But with a little more effort it can be used to test big differences in approach.

###Designing Situations

Digital designers in the activism space, as in others, are thrust into the role of technologist when often times all they wanted to do is design. And by design, I mean design something in 2D: a flat plane with content written on it. But digital design is actually about designing in 3D, and third dimension I’m referring to here isn’t the 3D of video game worlds, it’s more like the invisible “fourth wall” of the theater: it’s the interaction with users, the active involvement of the audience.

Where does the real world intersect with the virtual one? How can our measure of audience involvement go beyond the usual metrics of passive consumption (newsletter open rates, blog traffic) and carefully structured actions (petitions signed) and into more complex kinds of interactions? It’s great to get enough petition signers on a campaign to signal to those in power - whether it’s a political candidate or a corporation - that people are watching them and they’ll be held accountable. But thinking beyond petitions and social media, technology has the capacity to do more to empower communities and the people who are living face-to-face with the problems faraway activists seek to change. This is where things get most interesting and also the most challenging.

In Douglas Rushkoff’s PBS documentary Generation Like you get a glimpse of the increasing sophistication of some online marketers in the entertainment and other industries who are learning to leverage new media. They have learned to use their audience as a research lab, and deputize fans as brand ambassadors, turning the social capital of engaged individuals into something that works for the company or product. They do this through a variety of techniques, including meticulously planned social media campaigns, grassroots brand placement, and even gamification - including systems of scores and rewards for those whose involvement is the deepest.

There are lessons to be learned here for the design space in digital activism. Organizations seeking to spur social change may suffer from the same inhibitions that corporations do when confronting these possibilities: the desire of leadership to be in control of the brand and message, the reticence to open things up too much for fear of losing coherence. Those are valid concerns, but the gains are worth taking some chances on. The next generation of activists are already out there, on the Internet, looking for deeper ways to be involved with the issues they care about than sharing a petition on Facebook.

###Resources and Resourcefulness

The challenges and possibilities I’ve just briefly introduced are only the beginning. Activists and their designers, or those deputized to help get out the message, have to wrestle with a laundry list of technology on any given day: databases, content management systems, web hosting services, domain names, CRM’s, bulk email systems, email design and delivery, web design and development, issues with mobile devices, issues with their own workstations, and let’s not forget print collateral as well.

The basic principle for technology adoption I find helpful is this: minimize complexity. Be strategic about dependency. And when it comes to what I’m focused on here, which is technology’s role in the design of digital communications, I feel like the best results, freedom and flexibility will come by following another maxim. A spin on “less is more” or “do more with less” - “do as much as you can with what you’ve got.” (Ok, that’s not too catchy. I’ll settle for “do more with less.”)

Many people, especially technologists but anyone trying to innovate, fall into the trap of thinking it’s the newest shiniest way of doing things that will yield the most cutting-edge results. The problem is, this can be a pretty terrible strategy unless you really know what you’re doing. Early adopters have to suffer through a lot of bugs and learning curves and hidden limitations (the latter especially with brand-new web services). You have to be prepared to be the guinea pig if you want to be in that game.

Take a moment to consider a beautiful example of the opposite principle at work. A retired Japanese man named Tatsuo Horiyushi became an Internet sensation a couple years ago when his incredibly detailed and nuanced digital paintings were revealed to have been done with Microsoft Excel.

Here’s one of his works:

Now that is how you do more with less.

I admit it may seem weird that I’m encouraging innovation in technology-based activism and then pointing to a guy who makes paintings with Excel. But this gets to my first point about the unique constraint / ease tradeoffs of digital technology compared to analog. You have to be at it for a while before you know what’s straightforward to do and what is a huge pain in the ass. I wish I could say it ever gets easy.

Hence, your ability to creatively experiment, quickly and successfully, is going to be with the simplest tools and the ones that you know the best. If you have programmers working with you who can create some radical new platform for collaboration - fantastic. If not, don’t underestimate the space for ingenuity in the digital places you’re already familiar with, but too accustomed to daily use to see with much surprise.

Actually, it turns out that a lot of tech innovation comes from people going back to old technologies and dusting them off. Animated GIFs were a passé artifact of the early Internet before viral social media revived them, and they became bigger than ever. And I don’t think anyone planned this - it just so happened this older image format that could produce soundless, jerky, animation clips was used resourcefully and cleverly by enough people that suddenly, it became the obvious medium for certain ideas.

Twitter was, speaking from an engineering perspective, a ridiculously simple idea. In Steven Levy’s book “In the Plex” he discusses how Google executives were baffled by Twitter’s success with such a simple application - one they could have had their engineers build in a couple days. It’s not the complexity of the platform, or the number of features - it’s something that fits our minds that takes fire.

It’s a weird thing, like turning the house upside down looking for your keys, then realizing they’re in your hand. It turns out that seeing new possibilities in the technologies you use daily is the ultimate new platform. And this is why there should always be at least a small space left for design thinking even in deadline-driven, resource-constrained digital activism.