How Design is Governance

Essay by Amber Case: “At a fundamental level, all design is governance. We encounter inconveniences like this coffee shop every day, both offline and in the apps we use. But it’s not enough to say it’s the result of bad design. It’s also a result of governance decisions made on behalf of the customers during the design process.

Michel Foucault talked about governance as structuring the field of action for others. Governance is the processes, systems, and principles through which a group, organization, or society is managed and controlled.

Design not only shapes how a product or service will be used, but also restricts or frustrates people’s existing or emergent choices, even when they’re not a user themselves. My neighbor at the cafe, who now has a Mac power cord snaked under her feet, can attest to that.

In a coffee shop, we’re lucky that we can move chairs around or talk with other customers. But when it comes to apps, most people cannot move buttons on interfaces. We’re stuck.

When we create designs, we’re basically defining what is possible or at least highly encouraged within the context of our products. We’re also defining what is discouraged.

To illustrate, let’s revisit this same cafe from a governance perspective…(More)”.