DDD Episode 005

X is Making ft. Lilly Irani

Lilly Irani: [00:00:00] That thing where designers say like, people attributed this to Steve jobs, but I don’t think he really said it is, ‘people don’t know what they want until you tell them.’ That needs to die. 

Effie Jia: [00:00:27] Welcome to Design Despite Disciplines – a podcast series from the Master of Design program at UC Berkeley, where we explore the important fissures and emerging territories of interdisciplinary design practice. 

This is “Episode: X is Making” featuring Lilly Irani. We are your hosts: Effie, Jan and George. 

Effie Jia: [00:00:53] How do designers make? Maybe fabrication processes come to mind, like woodworking or  soldering. [00:01:00] Or traditional craft practices like sewing or pottery. Today, we’re going to unpack the the topic of alternative forms of making and how they relate to design. As designers, we often think of making as the act of taking abstract concepts and creating tangible products that can be manufactured and deployed. However, what are ways of making that aren’t so obviously tangible? Can writing be considered a form of making? How about organizing? Maybe even critiquing?

 We had the opportunity to meet with Lilly Irani, a design ethnographer activist, and professor at UC San Diego to talk about these unconventional forms of making. Throughout the episode, we’ll hear from her and how writing, organizing, and critiquing can achieve design goals such as bringing together large groups of people and challenging assumptions. We’ll also hear from other [00:02:00] influential designers, thinkers, and makers to see how writing helped put humans on the moon, how web tool organized tens of thousands of tech laborers, and how the critique of design may be the key to a more diverse industry. For now let’s head into our first section. Writing is making.

Writing is Making

Jan Veicht: [00:02:24] On July 20th, 1969, as the NASA lunar module, Eagle was approaching the moon surface mission control faced a go/no-go decision. Three minutes before Armstrong and Aldrin touched down in the sea of tranquility, the computers aboard the module, started flashing warning messages. Blinking lights began to flicker within the small capsule rapidly approaching ground level. As we all know by now, that day became a small step for men, but a giant leap for humankind. Yet, it was ultimately the software, which allowed the computer to recognize error [00:03:00] messages and ignore low priority tasks. 

There was no choice, but to be pioneers. This is how Margaret Hamilton is often quoted, when describing her work on the mission. Back then, at 33 years old, Margaret was the team lead at MIT who created the Apollo programs flight software, her handwritten source code enabled humankind to land on the moon and still echoes in countless technologies we are using today. And while you can argue about the fact that writing code is just very different from writing books or articles, Hamilton’s writing significantly influenced the creation and definition of a whole new field of technical labor: software engineering.

Our featured speaker Lilly, Irani, a computer scientist herself has a very personal connection to women like Margaret Hamilton. Irani’s mother was a programmer at IBM in the 1970s, a role that was seen as secretarial work back in the day. The perception of coding has changed quite a bit within the last 50 years. [00:04:00] Though, computer science is now seen as a technical, engineering field, it is intrinsically tied to writing. Coding is writing. And writing is making.

 Both linguists and computer scientists deal with the recognition and generation of languages. As Lily describes various kinds of writing, computer science falls into a way of writing to do something to the world. Also is there a right time to make something? And when is the right time to write about something to make change? Let’s hear from Lily, how writing can turn into forms of making. 

Lilly Irani: [00:04:35] Well, okay. One. Writing is making a thing. I think there’s two kinds of writing. There’s writing to figure out what you think about something. I guess you can also make things to figure out what you think about something. For me, both could be useful in different ways. And then there’s writing to kind of- do something to the world and then there’s making to do something for the world. So I guess in a way I’m kind of taking the dichotomy of making and writing and adding another dimension, which [00:05:00] is for reflection or for intervention. 

Jan Veicht: [00:05:03] Such an intervention was the co-authoring of a letter in 2018, demanding that her former employer, Google, pull out of a controversial military program. The project researched a better use of artificial intelligence for surveillance video and imagery. This technology could eventually be used to improve drone strikes in the battlefield. The letter against AI weapons was in support  of a company internal petition which was signed by more than 3000 Google employees to end the contract of the so-called project maven. 

Lilly Irani: [00:05:35] We also worked on getting petition signatures from specific people that we thought that the decision makers at Google, like in this case, Larry Page and Sergei Brin might care about. And in fact, after a couple of weeks, Terry Winograd, who is Larry Page’s PhD advisor, agreed to sign the petition. So the petition wasn’t just ‘Oh, here’s a list of signature .’ The petition was. ‘Here’s a set of social relationships.'” 

Jan Veicht: [00:05:58] Eventually, Google did not renew the contract and stopped working on Project Maven in 2019, after a major campaign which included the petition, but also 12 employees leaving their job, months of panels and discussions among workers, press attention, and another, larger internal petition signed by thousands of workers.” As part of this campaign, writing contributed to real changes to the operations of a large tech company.

Words not only have the power to set immediate actions into work. Writing has been a common thread of change-making throughout human history. Writing, is able to define decades-long developments or thinking. Putting the right words in the right order, and being received at the right time – writing makes impact and influences societal, political, or economical change by design.

Jan Veicht: [00:06:37] When we look at the impact of writing in design, we see philosophies that span across all of these interlinked systems and have far-reaching implication into our modern society. Designer, Educator, and Activist, Victor Papanek, predated and helped to shape many modern views on what design not only could be- but what it should be. He wrote about, and argued for, that [00:07:00] ‘designers would carry a serious responsibility for the consequences their designs have on society’. Papanek’s most important piece of writing, titled “Design for the Real World’ dates back to 1971 and remains up to today – one of the most widely read books about design ever published. Back then, he made people quite uncomfortable with this firm stand against consumerism. He blamed the design profession as a whole for creating wasteful and forgettable products. And how these products were designed by lemming- like creatures, who would accept the roles as mere stylists. Papanek wrote passionately about his plea for inclusion, social justice, and sustainability. These themes of greater relevance for today’s design than ever before. And if you follow down the rabbit hole of how Papanek understood the term ‘design’, his writings speak to it as an object, or a system, which was in particular shaped to be used as a political tool and organize change on a wide- ranging scale. Half a [00:08:00] century later, the fact still holds true today that our global survival depends on the human ability to come together and learn how to redesign systems, institutions and societal structures as a whole. 

So how do we come together for a shared goal? What is the added effect of doing so as a group of individuals? We think that our next section, “Organizing is Making” could show how this redesign activity could happen through collective organizing.


Organizing is Making

Georgios Grigoriadis: [00:08:32] Fifty years after Papanek’s writing about the “real world” and its problems, we could argue that the world is facing even more challenges. There is not doubt that after several decades of little awareness, we now come to realize that change has to take place. A new era is emerging: one where we will have to address the serious existing and emerging problems of issues such as equity, racism and climate. 

More and [00:09:00] more, it appears that such change will need to happen with the help of increased community and labor organizing. That the only way to change things for the better is through the notions of community and collective action taking. That small movements will evolve into larger movements, which will help gather individuals around common causes and shape solutions for the better.

Organizing  was another topic we had the chance to discuss with Lilly. A large focus of her work is community organizing, especially in the tech world. 

Lilly Irani: [00:09:35] Sometimes you don’t have enough strength to form a union because the workers are afraid that they, you know, like one of the things that happens with these globalized supply chains is also that workers know that if this job shuts down, that somebody else is going to get hired. And so they’re afraid to push. 

Georgios Grigoriadis: [00:09:52] One of Lilly’s main interests is the advocacy for Amazon Mechanical Turk workers. Amazon Mechanical Turk services, or [00:10:00] AMT,is a crowdsourcing platform that allows requesters to hire crowdworkers to perform discrete on-demand tasks. AMT has been used heavily for the last decade in research and academia to help gather feedback or do repetitive tasks.

 In this crowdsourcing landscape, there are several instances where the workers, known as Turkers, are not treated fairly. Several employers, known as requesters, reject or refuse to pay for the work that Turkers have done for them. In response to that, Lilly co-founded a web tool called Turkopticon, which aims to address the power structures between requesters and Turkers. Turkopticon allows workers to review requesters based on generosity, fairness, promptness, and communicativity. Most importantly, Turkopticon allows Turkers to  communicate with fellow coworkers, making their working environment more [00:11:00] transparent and fair.  

Georgios Grigoriadis: [00:11:05] What is important here is the dimension of organizing beyond the specific function of it. Organizing is a mechanism to understand human relationships, to get to know your community, to communicate deeply and effectively. Organizing is a way of creating transparency  and dismantling power structures between workers and authority.  Organizing is a form of making.

Lilly Irani: [00:11:31] So then the question for me never is really about like making or not making.  When I’m supporting, organizing with Amazon mechanical Turk workers,, which is something I’ve been doing a lot more actively over the last year since learning how to do it, that’s making in a sense! Just as much as making a piece of software is making. If making can do that, you know, organizing is in some ways the making of human relationships. Having one on ones with people understanding how to meet them, where they are. Understanding the political [00:12:00] horizons that are possible based on that relationship.  

Georgios Grigoriadis: [00:12:02] Small organizational structures have the tendency to group people with shared common goals. As organizations and groups of people grow, the possibilities of impact also scale up. This growing solidarity allows for greater change to take place. There are several examples like that of project Maven, which we discussed earlier, where groups of people push back, rally for a cause and force the other side to respond. This is what organizing offers: the ability to create impact, the potential to scale up and the momentum for a movement of movements.

Lilly Irani: [00:12:39] It’s like a movement plus a movement, plus a movement plus a movement and you get a movement. 

Georgios Grigoriadis: [00:12:44] So how do we find momentum for these movements? How do we find issues to rally around? Let’s take a look at that idea with our third and last section of the podcast. Critique is Making.


Critiquing is Making

Effie Jia: [00:13:01] A voice who influenced Lilly in her critical practice is Sarah Ahmed, a British -Australian scholar who studies at the intersection of feminist, queer, and race theory. She is concerned with how power is secured and challenged in everyday worlds and institutional cultures. Ahmed says that in order to counter a history that has become routine, in which those who complain are dismissed and labeled incredible- the mere fact of making a complaint can be used against the one who complains. The person who names a problem, often becomes the problem itself. This quote became a pivotal moment in our talk with Lily: 

Lilly Irani: [00:13:44] So that Sarah Ahmed, who’s a feminist philosopher, and what it made me think of as a fellow person who is often raising red flags about things was: the problem is that those of us who raise the red flags because of our life experiences or feeling like we have to, we [00:14:00] shouldn’t be left to carry that burden alone. 

Effie Jia: [00:14:02] For both Lilly, Irani and Sarah Ahmed critique is making. We’d like to take a similar approach. One that focuses on reflective assessment and critique of society and culture in order to reveal and challenge power structures.

There’s the ever recurring story of engineers and more “technical” disciplines devaluing the work of designers. We’re often asked, “can you make this pretty?”, Implying that design is purely aesthetics and is the cherry on top of a project- when it really should be work that is conducted throughout all phases of a project. Such misunderstandings, bear the question,“how do we advocate for design?”.Design is often tied together with historically feminized disciplines such as human resources, secretarial work, or customer service jobs. Let’s listen to what Lilly has to say about this. 

Lilly Irani: [00:14:59] So the ways [00:15:00] the design would get dismissed when I was a UX designer was through feminizing design. So you call it something that is kind of related to being feminine and that’s the slam. And so where I go from that is: rather than advocating for the unique value of design as being just as good as engineering, there’s a way to advocate for ourselves as designers that could probably also be about lifting up other people and their value. 

Effie Jia: [00:15:28] Lily also references the book Surrogate humanity by Kalindi Vora and Neda Atanasoski, which traces the ways in which robots, artificial intelligence and other technologies serve as surrogates for human workers within a labor system entrenched in racial capitalism and patriarchy. It makes the argument that all kinds of work is creative, innovative, and world changing.

 Instead of advocating for design, by saying “we’re more valuable than these other professions [00:16:00] or people that do this type of work,” we should pivot our mindset to saying “we’re valuable because so are all these other disciplines”. By leveling the playing field, it is possible to advocate for many people’s experiences, knowledge sets, and concerns without detracting from our own. George Katsiaficas describes a similar idea that comes from autonomous Marxism, where autonomous social movements involve people directly in decisions affecting their everyday lives. These movements seek to expand democracy and help individuals break free of political structures and behavior patterns imposed from the outside. Autonomism is a bottom-up theory that believes in using subversive activities and self-organized action to create organizational changes.

Effie Jia: [00:16:54] Beyond the struggle to advocate for design as a discipline, there’s also a challenge [00:17:00] within design itself to bolster greater diversity and inclusion amongst its members. A quick glance at some of the most famous designers is enough to make the point:  philippe Starck, Le Corbusier, Steve Jobs, Dieter Rams, Jony Ive, the list goes on. Every few years or so, a wave of articles about improvement in diversity in the tech industry will come up. Yet, in reality, not much progress has been made. At Google in 2020, only 5.5% of employees identify as Black, 6.6% identify as LatinX, and 32.5% identify as woman. And this isn’t just a problem at Google, most industry peers have similarly skewed statistics. Although the voices and histories of women and BIPOCs are often silenced or even erased, they hold narratives of innovation and world changing work. 

Lilly Irani: [00:17:58] My mom, you know, she’s cooking and [00:18:00] she’s cleaning. And she worked as a programmer in the seventies at IBM when programming was secretarial work. And the ways that Mar Hicks is written about are Nathan Ensminger. And so like Basically you growing up, I kind of had this contradiction of like, Why is everyone’s so excited that I’m programming, but no one was excited that my mom was programming and on my mom, you know, her cleaning work because she’s an immigrant and her childcare work, you know, that she does for other people sometimes is not valued.   

Effie Jia: [00:18:28] As designers, we’re highly skilled in bringing in lots of stakeholders and coming up with a solution that works for all kinds of people. So shouldn’t we be good at synthesizing and raising up all voices? 

Lilly Irani: [00:18:42] I think the listening part of design and synthesizing across diverse points of view is the good part of what we know how to do. The bad part is the part where we fetishize the point of view that a designer as an innovator brings the situation. Cause that’s the thing that breaks the possibility of solidarity and [00:19:00] finding the common cause rather than the visionary cause. That thing where designers say like, people attributed this to Steve Jobs, but I don’t think he really said it, ‘people don’t know what they want until you tell them.’ That needs to die.”

Jan Veicht: [00:19:17] In this episode, we heard the stories of how a programmer’s handwritten code helped put man on the moon. How Irani’s Project Maven letter contributed to one of the largest tech companies in the world reconsider their ethics. How a book about design, written in the latter half of the 20th century still speaks to present day problems. How organizing tech laborers can improve transparency and fairness in the workplace and help better understand the dynamics in human relationships. And how critiquing the status quo can reveal and highlight the hidden narratives of minority innovators and designers.

Talking to Lilly Irani made us realize. Writing is making. Organizing is [00:20:00] making. Critiquing is making. And although design may typically be thought of as visual or shape-giving, design is really about creating—making!—With a purpose. It involves putting in the effort to research, connect and get feedback from clients, collaborators, and community members. Writing, organizing, critiquing, and designing is about making impact, creating change in everyday human life.

Georgios Grigoriadis: [00:20:27] The making of this podcast episode has left us curious and hopeful about the potential of writing, organizing, and critiquing. When traditional forms of design fail us or become insufficient to address a problem, we now see that it may be possible to fill, or even transcend these gaps with the power of this alternative forms of making.

So the next time you go to your desk to write a petition, or attend a community event, or critique work practices, will you consider yourself as a maker? We certainly [00:21:00] do.

Because “X is making” is a versatile, designerly lens to the world which helps us consider unconventional ways of bringing new ideas into reality.

 So what is your X? What is your Making?

Effie Jia: [00:21:17] You have just listened to “Episode: X is Making” from the Design Despite Disciplines podcast series. Over the course of the Spring 2021 semester, eight teams of MDes students researched, interviewed, presented, and produced episodes featuring invited speakers from the colloquium. We’d like to thank “Lilly Irani” for sharing your time and insights with our class.

To learn more about Debates in Design and the Berkeley Master of Design program, visit design.berkeley.edu.