How does design interact with democracy? And how can we understand the actions of activist as design? Design researcher Maziar Rezai exemplifies his concept of design by act with the protest by women in Iran that are happening right now. 

Published on November 02, 2022
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Felix Kosok: Dear Maziar, you recently published Design and Democracy with Prof. Michael Erlhoff († 2021), which coincides in its title with the topic we have given ourselves this year at the DDC. But you are not just a design researcher, but also someone I would call a design activist, coming from Iran, who was active during 2009 Iranian presidential election protests and then the Arab Spring before coming to Germany to study here. So you are an expert in how people can interact with structures of power and governance – through design. This, of course, is an essential part of how design relates to our democracy. The DDC has also discussed, how design could improve democratic institutions and processes, how we could facilitate participation through design, and make politics, in general, more transparent. As a researcher in the field, how would you describe the relationship between design and democracy? 

Maziar Rezai: This perspective on design, or rather the interest in the relationship that you described, has a turning point that took off in 2017, when Victor Margolin and Ezio Manzini published their open letter to the design community: “Stand Up for Democracy!” In this letter, the two researchers describe four ways, in which design relates to democracy. (1) Design of democracy is the design of the institutions, on which democracy is built, and the processes, that you described. (2) Design for democracy tackles issues of transparency and accessibility. For them, design for democracy is focused on enabling more people to participate especially through technology. (3) Design in democracy is the term they use for projects in democratic societies that help bring about equality and justice. And finally, (4) design as democracy for them is participatory design, opening up the design process to others and including as many stakeholders as possible. This really pushed these topics into the design public. It helped to make designers realize the social implications of their design and the role that they can play in society, which I have actually researched myself. But my current research is focused on a different aspect of the relationship between design and democracy. I look at the actions of ordinary people, non-designers, and how these actions can be described as design under specific circumstances: design-actions. None of them are designers. They are activists. But what they do under specific circumstances, with tools, creativity, and improvisation, can be described as actions, that involve an element of design. Design researcher Uta Brandes has coined the term “design by use” … 

Maziar Rezai, Prof. Dr. Felix Kosok.

Felix Kosok: Or non-intentional design, if I remember correctly, right? Things that can be used for something that they weren’t designed for. 

Maziar Rezai: Correct. “Design by use” is a way to describe the design affordances, that some objects have to enable certain design actions, even though they were never designed to fulfill those functionalities. You can use a chair, for example, to hang a coat on it. 

Felix Kosok: You could also use the chair as a stage. Or as a weapon in a pro-wrestling match.

Maziar Rezai: Yes. But the chair was never designed to do that. Yet we as humans can use objects in a way, that certain design-actions can happen. The chair can be a funny example, of course. But a specific setting, where many of these design-actions take place, are protests and demonstrations. Given this specific situation and circumstances in which these actions take place, in my point of view, they can all be described as design-actions. The protests that were happening in Hong Kong two years ago, for example, involved many design-actions by activists. They used tools and materials, objects that were already there, to design their protest. The yellow umbrella in their “2014 Umbrella Movement” also, became a symbol of resistance. It wasn’t designed for that, but it was used in that way. The list of this design-actions goes on, from Ukraine to Iran, and Bahrain. I call these “design by act”: how people use designs to send their messages to the government, to the public, and to other people. 

Design by use.

Felix Kosok: I find your description of “design by act” quite fascinating. It actually broadens our perspective as design researchers on what can be described as design under specific circumstances. The intentional use of non-intentional design, using a means to an end, is something that design researchers haven’t really focused on that much. Still, I am wondering, don’t we lose the capacity to define design, when we describe everything as design? If everything is design then nothing is design in the end, do you know what I mean? I am also speaking for a design organization, for all the professional designers out there, if you like. Shouldn't we be focusing on “real” designers? 

Maziar Rezai: I guess that’s already the point: what is a “real” designer? I worked quite a bit in design activism myself. And here you’ll find many different roles, that people take on, that can be described as design. One of those roles I have called “intellectual designer” in activism. Those are a special type of designers, who are aware of design actions and know to use design and specific tools to get their messages out there – without having to design them all themselves. It’s an extension of the concept of the activist designer: professional or non-professional designers, who use their design for activism. But my concept of design by act extends the horizon of design activism even further. I know, that none of the people I analyze are professional designers. But with an understanding of the effects and consequences of design-actions we can and should describe their actions as design under the umbrella of design activism. 

Protesting woman on a power box in Iran. Vida Movahed, Revolution Straße, Teheran, 2017. Source: Twitter.

Felix Kosok: I think it’s very important to take on this perspective on certain things and actions, that haven’t been regarded as design before. In our approach to design for democracy we also came to the conclusion, that institutional politics could be described as design. In a way, politicians are designers as well. They also deal with design processes but without even knowing it. Once we analyze those actions as design we also know how to critique them from a design perspective: what went wrong? What worked and what didn’t work? And most importantly: How can we improve those processes that we get better results? Once we see the design aspect of those processes, we know how to make informed suggestions on how to improve them. 

Maziar Rezai: It’s because those actions take place in a political context. Whether they are done by professional designers or none designers doesn’t really matter in a way, as they have designed consequences in this specific context. Design is design, whether done by a professional or a non-designer. It can be an everyday behavior by human beings. But “design by act” only happens under specific circumstances, in the political context. It’s a special action by non-designers, that use their creativity to send a message. But I think that’s best explained with an actual case…

The power boxes were barred by the government.

Felix Kosok: I agree. So let’s get to the point of your current research. As you described, extraordinary circumstances can put people in the position to become a designer. Extraordinary circumstances, a state of emergency even, can force them to use the materials and tools that they have ready to hand in a creative way, to get their message across. So they become activist designers by action. This has been happing in Iran now with the women’s protest, which is the topic of your current research. Can you describe the special situation a bit?

Maziar Rezai: What is happening in Iran is not only related to hijab but also includes other aspects of life. The people's protest is about denying everyday life to the people by the governance. In other words, the color of life and happiness is missed due to the government's mismanagement of the economy, culture, and politics for more than four decades. Also, protests by women against the regime's dress code have been going on and are not new. They happened before. But when a young woman, Mahsa Amini, was arrested in Tehran for not following wearing her headscarf precisely according to the dress code and rules and subsequently died under police custody, the protests erupted again and intensified. They are ongoing, and this is what's happening right now. But my research goes back to the former protests in 2017, when women used the utility boxes for electricity on Enghelab Street, a big and famous street in Tehran, to stage a special protest. Iranian women and girls were climbing on top of these utility boxes, standing on them, and using them as a stage to take off their headscarves. They put their white headscarf on a stick and raised it up in the air in silence to protest against compulsory hijab. What they actually did, from my research point of view, is to redesign the utility boxes by use into a stage for their protest. Impressive Images of those protests were published on social networks. These protests were going on for a while. The government intervened, of course, and arrested the protesters. But they also had to stop those design-actions from happening. So they put a metal construction shaped like pyramids on top of the boxes to prevent the women and girls from climbing on top of them. They also put the boxes into strange cages. But this design intervention by the government was not the end of it. The protesters then came up with a design, a kind of improvised stool, that they put on top of the pyramids so they could stand on the boxes again. Both, the pyramids and the stools, were design-actions in a struggle against power. Further, the utility boxes became a symbol for the protests and citizens and protesters alike decorated them with graphics and street art. This whole process can be described as a design-action, that changed a utilitarian object into public street furniture and finally turned it into a symbol for the protest. The designers of those utility boxes could have never anticipated this. 

Felix Kosok: That’s fascinating, how the girls and women interacted with the infrastructure of the city to reclaim the public space for their protest. They wanted to become visible for the public and send out their message through design activism, as you described. But then the government intervened and tried to make this protest unvisible again, denying its political validity as a voice to be heard, by preventing it from happening. But this didn’t stop the protest and it’s claim from tyring to be heard, to be seen in public space, and the protesters very visibly changed the setting again. They did this by design-actions. 

Maziar Rezai: It is really the message, that’s at the center of “design by act”. In this struggle it’s as if the people and the power, the people and the government, were talking to each other in a dispute. They were having a public dialogue, which is the basis of democracy. It was a public dispute that was happening by design, “design by act” by people and “top-down design-activism” by the government. Partly, this was also a non-intentional design or “design by use”, but in a very specific, political setting. “Design by use” can happen in everyday life. But design by act only happens in the political context. When there’s a state of emergency and a certain pressure to act and use design for a public protest. 

Example of "design by act": The electricity boxes are decorated with graffiti.

Felix Kosok: A protest, that is supposed to bring a political subject to the stage, to make a political subject visible whose voice hadn’t been heard before. The visibility or even the spectacle of this design plays an important part in this “design by act”. The protesters create the possibility of women being allowed to take a stage on the streets of Tehran, even though this possibility doesn’t exist yet. But the protests act as if it were so. And then the government intervenes and tries to reverse this design-action or prevent it from happening again. But you can’t unring a bell. From the text that you published in Design and Democracy, I know that you are very critical of social media. Does this count for social media in general? 

Maziar Rezai: Yes, that’s true. I am very critical of the social networks. Especially what’s now called Meta and its platforms, Facebook and Instagram. But I am just critical of the form that social media took under surveillance capitalism. If we look at social media from the perspective of design, we can also see, how we could redesign those platforms to give us social connections and data security at the same time. We could redesign those platforms to be more democratic and not just driven by data and profit. We could redesign it as being a design that is based on values. 

Felix Kosok: But social media plays a big part in making those protests visible now, not just on the streets of Tehran or Iran, but visible to the whole world. 

Maziar Rezai: Yes, of course. They aren’t just good or bad, but also a design tool to be used – and redesigned. Social media played an important role in the protests in Iran that were happening in 2009 after the presidential election. It was the first time that Iranians were using social networks to inform themselves and using social media as a stage for their protests. After those protests and the Arab Spring the phenomenon of citizen journalism, of ordinary citizens documenting wrongdoings by the government and authorities, really took off everywhere. But even further than just documenting things, design by act uses the tools of social media to create a protest. There has been so much creativity involved in these protests, especially now, which helped to make them visible to the rest of the world and spread the message.  

Der Stromkasten als Ikone des Protests. Bild © Pelleh Studio

Felix Kosok: Creativity seems to be very important to “design by act”. Because if there’s no creativity involved, if there is no creative renegotiation of the circumstances, the protest won’t reach the necessary visibility. 

Maziar Rezai: Indeed. We do have a huge democray problem all over the world. Democracy is under threat. My suggestion of the concept of “design by act” under the umbrella of design activism can help us to see new ways to solutions to this problem. It makes us rethink the role of the designer, it questions the role of the user and it is centered around creativity and visibility. It doesn’t want to replace expert design in the context of industries and the economy, but to add another alternative next to it. If only everyone would understand themselves as being designers as having an influence and impact on our world, and not just expert designers, then we might actually find a solution together. The Arabic word for design, Tasmim, which we also use in Persian, actually means making a decision. And the one who designs, musamim, is the one who chooses and makes decisions. But if we want to combat the threat to democracy, everyone has to choose and make decisions; everyone must become a musamim.

Maziar Rezai

is a design activist, design researcher, design strategist, service designer, and film critic. Holding a master’s degree in industrial design from the Azad University in Tehran and having studied as a PhD joint student at Köln International School of Design (KISD), he currently is a PhD candidate at the Braunschweig University of Art (HBK), a guest lecturer at Institute for Cognitive Science Studies and previously a guest lecturer in the Art University of Tehran in Iran. His first book, "Design and Democracy", which results from his collaboration with Prof. Michael Erlhoff († 2021), contains twelve texts from well-known design researchers worldwide, and in 2021 was published by Birkhäuser Verlag in Basel.