Systems design before design systems

Issue 22: Design decisions that incentivize and control.

When I started Proof of Concept, my intention was to share thoughts, ideas, and help people apply creativity to moments in their lives and careers. The majority of topics written have been about design and intentionality. These primarily manifested in topics pertaining to sketching, creating visuals, and pixels; what one might expect in a design publication. A large part of design is the systems you put in place.

On Wednesday, a group of people rushed and invaded the capitol building, and assault on our democracy which resulted in five people (including a police officer). I’m deliberately not linking an article for you to find your own perspective. Depending on how you grew up, what you watch, and the compilation of what you believe, you may call it a coup, protest, assault, riot, etc. I’m not writing this to convince you out of your point of view, for me, it was an attempted coup by people who were not happy with the outcome of an election. As I reflect on the events for the last few days, I’m not surprised this happened, and I’m disappointed that it’s not surprising.

It’s been some time I’ve had a normal work week, and this week felt even harder. Perhaps it’s because it was an event that took place in our nation’s capital, a location I believed is one of the most secure places on earth. I shared with the team that we would not tolerate white supremacy.

If you’re thinking this is a partisan opinion, think bigger. This is not a Republican or Democrat issue, but the accumulation of multiple systems of discrimination, oppression, and hatred all colliding together. It’s a combination of action and inaction.

If you’re thinking I’m writing directly at you about these topics, think bigger. These systems have been in place long before you and I were born.

If you’re thinking this is directed at all white people, think bigger. Not all white people are white supremacists, and you don’t have to be white to be a white supremacists.

It’s not that simple. The truth is we are all wrapped within systems, both in what we designed and what we grew up with. I highly recommend watching Tatiana Mac’s talk at Clarity Conf: Systems of Systems.

I’ll share thoughts from my own perspective of my upbringing, pondering systems that came before me. My parents are refugees who fled their homeland to escape a civil war of warring ideologies fought on their homeland; some may say capitalism vs. communism. I was born in the United States in the pacific northwest. I grew up believing the United States of America was infallible because of what enabled my life to be, and how grateful my parents were for taking them in. If your parents are immigrants who fled from systems of oppression, this might sound similar to you.

It turns out that because you experienced oppression it does not make you immune from participating in other systems of oppression. Imagine how many unconscious bias decisions one might make a day. Think about when that’s multiplied by every human being for the last hundred years. Now, imagine when that bias is conscious, and someone made a deliberate decision to oppress. As Dairien Boyd wrote, the system is working as designed. If you thought The Social Dilemma was enlightening around system design, wait till you read about systemic racism.

Some of you might have similar upbringings of being raised in model minority families. They might not like a narcissistic president, in fact, they might despise him. However, he talks about communism, socialism, and the threat of it. That can be triggering for people who experienced it.

This shit is complex.

When you see an event where various flag representations that include releasing the kraken, the confederate flag, South Vietnam, and even the Punisher logo, it’s a collision of representational and appropriated symbols. The swastika was not always a symbol of fascism and originally meant “well-being” in the ancient sanskrit language.

The heart of being a designer is to solve problems and innovate. When you’re designing, you are creating an intended outcome, and from the intended outcome, there are incentives that people set up. We influence so much in design, and if you’re a designer in tech, it escalates quickly.

I’ve thought a lot about my life goals in many ways such as career and the legacy I want to leave behind. This week, I have come up with one: “Do not be a contributor to oppression.” This will take an entire life’s work and beyond to unwind these systems.

Let’s take a moment to consider about all the systems around us. Recognize what you participate in, tear down oppression. Make things better, but-by-bit, moment-by-moment, and stand up against oppression. 

This problem is bigger than us, and we need to think bigger. 

P.S. If you’re looking for a book recommendation, I’m currently reading Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows