Design, the Fourth Estate: An Unprofessional Point of View on How to Make Design Better

03 Jul 2012

It’s not something we necessarily think about on the average day, but cultural institutions have a powerful influence over the behavior of our lives. They infuse values and ideals into our identities as individuals and societies. They serve as the backdrop against which we play our lives. For all that we in the design industry tout our profession to be—world-shaping, business-changing, life-bettering—the reality is that we do not hold the same level of influence as institutions such as religion, education or the media. If we really want design to become the influencer we know it can be, it would do us well to understand what’s required—what we need to ask of ourselves—to get there.

In the Western world, the relationship between the free press and government has long generated the news and the policies we live by. The American press takes this relationship so seriously that they even consider themselves an additional branch of government: a fourth “check” to balance the system, or the “4th Estate.” Within this relationship, journalists define their purpose as heroic defenders of freedom of speech, fairness and open societies. Revealers of the truth. At their best moments, they are. Think Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, Edward R. Murrow’s coverage of McCarthyism and Woodward and Bernstein as depicted in All The President’s Men. Even WikiLeaks, despite some questionable methods and the absolutely questionable personal behavior of its founder, Julian Assange, holds true to its purpose of publishing “original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth.”

At their worst moments, however, we’ve seen the press lose their identity as a check. The imbedments of journalists with U.S. troops at the onset of the Iraq War seemed innocuous at its start, but the technique quickly rang false as the televised war began to feel more like a broadcast event than the dark and world-shifting struggle it really was.

While the American press’ use of “4th Estate” ties directly to the country’s system of government, the term can really be applied to any institution that works as a force within society. Journalism has had its moments where it has come alive with a sense of purpose. Rather than viewing their work as just a profession, trade or craft, journalists began to see themselves as part of a movement and institution. Society, in return, raised its expectations for journalists. By holding themselves to a set of ideals that guide their work, journalists elevated their trade, their work and the benefits that work brings to society. These ideals are journalism’s north star, captured imperatively in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable.

Journalism, like the design industry, is a profession full of creatives—people whose natural inclination is to search for meaning, to create connections between ideals and purpose. Journalism has also defined itself in the company it keeps, its relationship to government. The danger there is that sometimes that company is kept too close. When the press gets so close to government that it actually functions with the government, its values and ideas loosen. It becomes less dynamic. It loses its value as an institution.

Many have contended that design’s role should be positioned close to business. But, success of corporate design is rare. When we become one with business, we let go of ourselves as creatives. We lose our ability to contravene. I believe we need to work to preserve ourselves as a separate entity—a positive, human-centered influence that can help bridge the gap between businesses and the people they sell their products to. If we succeed, design will be uniquely positioned to help business serve the needs of people and the needs of their shareholders.

Just as journalists strive to be purveyors of the truth so that people can make better decisions about how they are governed, designers should be pushing business to give people better choices about what things they choose to put in their lives. And just because we think design is awesome doesn’t mean that everyone else does. If we’re not careful, we are going to find that we are talking to ourselves. So, if we really want design to do what we say it can do—whether it’s for people, the world or business—we’ve got to define our values, establish and agree on ideals and set ourselves apart. Only then can we move design from a profession of service to an institution that influences cultural change.