Conservatism And Progressivism In Design Today

Conservatism or progressivism is about choosing what new inventions, ideas and concepts to follow and what not to follow. It’s about understanding the systems and making educated choices. People invent all kinds of things all the time. Some catch on with large groups of people and some don’t. But only using the fact that something is widely popular as a measuring stick to decide whether to follow that new invention or not is not a sign of critical thinking. Not following a trend could be thought of as conservatism, but there are more forms of conservatism. If you don’t follow a trend out of fear for change and you desperately hold on to the status quo, that is conservatism. If you analyse the systems operating underneath the new trend and come to the conclusion that this new trend creates a system that is not in line with how you want to live your life, with your core values, that is also conservatism.

Conservatism kənˈsəːvətɪz(ə)m/: attitudes or opinions tending to favor established ideas, conditions, or institutions

Holding on to things that are good in favor of new inventions is not necessarily conservatism if we use the common definition of conservatism above. The common definition of conservatism is about a tendency, a default of holding on to things of the past. It’s about a mindset. It’s about not usually liking or trusting change.

I like change. I change things all the time. I get bored if things stay the same for too long. But I don’t follow each trend. I:

  • experiment with the new thing,
  • analyse the systems that are created by the new thing,
  • evaluate if this makes my life better or not,
  • see if I can hack the new system,
  • see if and how I can live without it and
  • decide to participate or not.

Recently I switched back to a dumb phone after years of using a smartphone. I used this new invention, found that it added some positive things to my life but concluded that it created more damage than it did good, so I retuned to life without a smartphone. That is a different form of conservatism. It’s not fueled by a tendency to hold on to things of the past. It’s driven by systems analysis, critical thinking and experimenting. There are many things in which I stick to good things of the past: I use LPs over MP3s, I cook food from scratch over microwave ready-to-eat meals etc. I see the advantages of new inventions, but selectively chose. I don’t judge people who make other choices and hold no absolute values whether one choice is better than the other. I recognize that there is room for all choices.

Conservatism comes from Latin conservatus, past participle of conservare: to keep, preserve, keep intact, guard.

Some things are worth keeping, are worth protecting, even from popularity. Being popular is a big force in systems. But the fact that something is popular, doesn’t mean it is suitable for all. You could even argue that, if you leave judgement to all people, the quality of things doesn’t necessarily get better.

Populism ˈpɒpjʊlɪz(ə)m/: the quality of appealing to or being aimed at ordinary people.

Conservatism can be populism. Conservatism can be about closed-mindedness or about open-mindedness. The same goes for progressivism. Mindlessly following innovations is also a form of close-mindedness. It’s about challenging assumptions like “progress is good”.

Progressivism prəˈɡrɛsɪvɪz(ə)m/: the support for or advocacy of improvement of society.

Improvement is good. The questions is whether all new things are improvements or not. Sometimes it is better to keep things the way they are, and sometimes it is better to change things. Some things that might seem improvements are actually steps in the wrong direction. All new things come with benefits and downsides. If you want to change things, you first look at the upsides of new things. At some point, maybe some downsides come to the surface that you couldn’t predict in advance. Systems are complex and unpredictable. With all new things, some values of the old ways are lost. Sometimes this is not bad, sometimes it is. The best way would be to do things in a new way without loosing the values of the old ways. Not discarding the old ways, but let them co-exist with the new ways. Have a Spotify account, but also a record player. Read blogs and books.

If we take this train of though to design, we see two tendencies in the design world. There are some new thoughts about design that are getting some traction. These new ideas position design as a way to solve fundamental business problems by opening up the process becoming part of the business process. Some call it Design Thinking, others Service Design, Strategic Design or Business Design. And there are the old ideas about design that see design as making beautiful things in a closed studio setting. You could view this in terms of conservatism and progressivism, but that is not really productive. These are both views that can co-exist and even help each other. The beauty of design can benefit from a more open process and Design Thinking processes can benefit from the beauty of design.

Some things are worth keeping, worth defending. And in design this is the function of beauty, the craft of adding emotion to objects. In a business world that values performance, tasks and usability, the Design Thinking process is incredibly valuable. But it runs the risk of losing the beauty. The beauty is what powers design, what makes it truly powerful.

Some things are worth changing. And in design this is the value design can add to business. If business just sees design as beautifying interactions, it cannot tap into the true power of design. Design can dramatically improve the performance and creativity of business problem solving. But that requires the design process to be opened up and the connection of design to fundamental business elements. If designers stick to the idea of beauty from the studio, they have to way to access this power of design. If designers go the business problem solving way and trow away the beauty, they will be less powerful and not make a sustainable impact.

The most power resides in the combination, in the hybrids. If you take a look at robots. Robots can do things humans can’t. Humans can do things robots can’t. The most potent mix if humans can work together with robots. If we can keep the powers that make humans unique and add the powers that make robots unique, we can achieve the greatest wins. This is conservatism and progressivism in one. Keep things and let them co-exist with new things. get the best of both worlds. Do not mindlessly follow the new thing and discard the old. Do not fearfully hold on to the old and dismiss the new. Live boldly at the intersection of opposing forces.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn.

Strategic UX Design Consultant @ Zuiderlicht / Design Leadership Forum Member @InVision / Design Thinker / State Secretary of Integration @ Ministry of Design