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OnlineMar 02, 2018

Influence X Design Conference Sheds Light on Design Accountability

Review by Robert Passas

Image of a wall painted with colorful concentric circles. In the smallest middle circle is a written prompt "How do you influence?" and a bunch of colorful sticky notes are spread out throughout the wall.

Photo courtesy of Robert Passas

Cautiously optimistic, this years annual HarvardxDesign conference, held on February 23rd to the 24th, focused on how design can be used to generate influence, for better or worse.The conference is part of an annual design series, hosted at Harvard which began in 2012. Because the notion of “influence” is a central theme of media and research, rather than a field within design, speaker disciplines and opinions ranged widely. The event attracted designers, researchers, activists, and entrepreneurs, who engaged in controversial, pressing discourse. In a the ubiquity of tech and political tumult, the uncertainty of the future now lays in the hands of creatives and innovators who undeniably help shape the human experience.

The keynote speakers, CEO Sairah Ashman and Creative Director Cynthia Pratomo of Wolff Olins, spoke about their meticulously designed programs that are meant to create social impact. Ashman and Pratomo set an optimistic tone, discussing their past work in designing products and strategies, from simplified pesticide containers for farmers to integrative systems that protect children from sex abuse. Their initiatives showed the potential to integrate social impact from the private sector. Concentrating on the importance of research, empathy, and simplicity in design, the keynote was a call to action for designers to solve the problems of today. Leading off with an ambitious vision for the future, there was discussion in the Q&A in regards to upholding a mission and encouraging the ethic of Wolff Olins elsewhere. Whether this is can be achieved through accountability infrastructure or of a more organically progressive business culture is still open for debate.

Keeping with the themes introduced in the keynote, talks throughout the day provoked discussions around the integrity and responsibility of the designer, study of human behavior, and agency of the user. One such discussion involved writer Emily Segal of Nemesis Global and designer Louis Marino of Cognizant, who sharply disagreed on the agency of consumers in a world where we are all constantly “nudged” by experienced designers. Segal interjected as Marino shared his view on what she deemed a “neo-colonialist” view of how users perceive the information that is custom filtered information presented to them online. Specifically, Segal was more willing to grant users of platforms, such as facebook, the ability to realize that they are being pushed or pulled by corporations. This assessment runs counter to popular notions of the power of russian bots, ad placement, and addictive platform designs. Conversations like these promote thought on the role of a modern designer as an agent for change. In particular, there exists an emphasis on aligning user goals and those of corporations, where designers must reconcile industry and social goals in a world where change demands creative thought and ethics.

For more information on the speakers, visit

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Robert Passas


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