04.14.22
Sloan Leo + Lee Moreau | Audio

The Futures Archive S2E3: The Blender


Do you have a blender? Do you use it? Does it make your life more convenient? On this episode of The Futures Archive Lee Moreau and Sloan Leo discuss the blender, gender roles, and power structures.

With additional insights from Alice Naylor, Dan Formosa, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, and Michelle Lokot.

Lee asked Sloan Leo about their work redesigning systems of power:
We talk about it at Flox Studio as: traditional design is about designing for, human centered design is about designing with, community design is about design by. And so it's that phrase: by us, for us. And as a practitioner who works in nonprofit management, this idea of re-constructing or redistributing power comes up. In an organization that's making a decision about their future, it normally would be made by the CEO, or the board of directors, these kind of very people high up on said hierarchy. And in the way that I work and they way that our studio works, it's a lot more about working with the people—the workers, the staff, the employees—to say, "What do you think the future should be?" And creating a transparent and equitable and accessible pathway to do that.
Lee Moreau is President of Other Tomorrows, a design and innovation consultancy based in Boston, and a Professor of Practice in Design at Northeastern University.

Sloan Leo (they/he) is a Community Design theorist, educator, and practitioner. They are the founder of FLOX Studio, a community design and strategy studio.

Alice Naylor is a a London based design historian with a background in product design, writing, and curation.

Dan Formosa is a product designer, educator, and host of the highly successful Well Equipped YouTube series, where he discusses inclusive design while evaluating (usually odd) kitchen products, pointing out where their designs and their design teams may have gone wrong.

Ruth Schwartz Cowan is the author of More Work For Mother.

Michelle Lokot is an interdisciplinary researcher and gender specialist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.


Subscribe to The Futures Archive on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app. And you can browse the show archive.

Kathleen Fu created the illustrations for each episode.

A big thanks to this season’s sponsor, Automattic.



Transcript

Lee Moreau
Welcome to The Futures Archive, a show about human centered design, where this season, we'll take an object, look for the human at the center and keep asking questions. I'm Lee Moreau...

Sloan Leo
...and I'm Sloan Leo.

Lee Moreau
On each episode, we're going to start with an object with power. Today, that object is the blender. We'll look at the history of that object from our perspective as designers and smoothie drinkers who've done work in human centered design— not just how it looks and feels, but also the relationship between that object and the people it was designed for...

Sloan Leo
...and with other humans too.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is brought to you by the design team at Automattic. Later on, we'll hear from Channing Ritter, a design director at Automattic and co-lead of the WordPress.org design team.

Lee Moreau
Sloan Leo, thank you so much for being here, it's great to see you.

Sloan Leo
Lee it is rad to see you again.

Lee Moreau
Today we're going to begin our conversation about convenience and we'll be spending a few episodes together talking about some objects that are in the realm of convenience. And I'm wondering if you could kind of share your ideas about what the relationship between human centered design and convenience might be.

Sloan Leo
There's something in both concepts both human centered design and convenience that are somehow about creating ease, creating less friction, and ways of interacting with a person and an object or a person and a system. There's this desire for efficiency, which I have a lot of thoughts about, because efficiency and efficacy are two very different things.

Lee Moreau
How do you mean?

Sloan Leo
Well, we look at human interactions as being like we should optimize them, make them incredibly efficient. And if you look at the history of how we kind of got here from industrialization to management consulting—which is what I do—you end up looking for ways to create things that are faster in terms of decision making in terms of process. But they're based with people and people care about relationships and relationships are actually deeply inefficient in terms of time, but highly effective over the long term at increasing the ability to work together in a way that's trusted. So what is efficient in the beginning is not effective in the long term. And so I think about that a lot when it comes to design and convenience and people and time.

Lee Moreau
So as you were saying that, I was starting to think like: Oh yeah, the whole notion of convenience actually is is a trap as well, right? The idea that we're making things more convenient also in the end, perhaps makes things less convenient or more inconvenient.

Sloan Leo
Correct.

Lee Moreau
So like on this topic, we are here to talk about blenders. The object for today is the blender. But we're also going to be talking about housework, broadly speaking or the work in the house. And I'm wondering in your like in your daily life, like who does the blending in your house?

Sloan Leo
My house is mostly just me. I'm dating someone sweet and so sometimes I go to their house. So it's like houses and everything is quite shared. So there's a lot of equity in how it's approached. But Lee, I want to actually just pause for a second and just say like the whole- the whole concept of housework is such a bizarre concept because it wasn't developed with people who looked like me in mind, right? Like black people in emigrating, you know, it's kind of like moving out of slavery, it's like they were like: "Well, who will be doing the housework here, necessarily?" It's like, "Who's in the house?" "What do we mean by house? What of that work is hidden, and I think how has it become from hidden and done by people who live in your home as indentured or enslaved peoples, to the place where it's like, now there's all this choice making around like: Oh, being in the kitchen is actually like a way of having social status. So I think there's this really interesting intersection in all of this around race, class, power, privilege, and visibility.

Lee Moreau
There's a lot there. Absolutely. And what I'm really interested as you kind of painted that picture is the kind of spatial image that I had in my head. I started to see different people in the space where we think of a kitchen activities taking place, who might be working in that in that kitchen. But it is not their house, right? So the space of ownership and the space of-of labor are actually completely detached.

Sloan Leo
Yes, completely.

Lee Moreau
So how do we bring it into this current state? There is no...what's our bridge?

Sloan Leo
Our bridge to make that kind of mental visual of like, who's home how did this all work?

Lee Moreau
Yeah.

Sloan Leo
I think it's now that it's still a conversation about visibility and labor. So I think a lot about how at the start of the pandemic, during lockdown, I had the economic privilege of being able to stay at home. The labor of cooking became the labor of ordering on Seamless, which I will tell you as a millennial is like the type of labor we're capable of. But there's other millennials who are actually having to do the delivering and making my life more convenient and preparing my food is actually even a third person. So there's like this weird kind of like stretched out version of the labor of making a meal that feels very much like right now is about who has the ability, the financial position, the stability, and security to say, I am going to outsource my labor to this Seamless driver, this restaurant, and create my own mini food supply chain to get to me ultimately.

Lee Moreau
And that's stretching that you're talking about is also convenient for us because we don't have to see all those things. And maybe our job as designers, or design researchers, or people who are trying to advance social agendas is that we have to make those-those aspects visible. It's the visualization that's our job.

Sloan Leo
Its making it visual. And it's it's like, I think if there's like this acknowledgment of the privilege or the positionality that we hold and where it's like: I am doing the ordering, and this person is doing the delivering, what kind of relationship are we in? And how can we as designers design for like the visibility of that power system or that dynamic in a way that is both like inspires us to action and say, is this OK with us into moral curiosity, but also doesn't make people so uncomfortable that they just shut everything down.

Lee Moreau
Exactly. Well, it'll be interesting to talk about the blender because, you know, we sort of set out to initially look at the blender really as an object in the kitchen. But as we started to dig deeper, it became a much, much more complex thing. So maybe at this point, we'll hear from some historians and some experts on the topic of the blender, people who can help us make sense of it, and this is what we've heard so far:

Alice Naylor
There are two or three key people in terms of the blender, and I'm talking about the blender as a standalone item.

Lee Moreau
Alice Naylor is a post-grad research student at the University of Portsmouth, where she is studying the design, mediation, and consumption of kitchen appliances.

Alice Naylor
And so we begin in nineteen twenty five. We have Steven Poplawski, who came up with the idea of this of this mixer. So then we have the wonderful Frederick Jacob Osius, and he came up with a patent very similar to Poplawski's, not long afterwards. And I've got a lovely quote from him which is: "Especially adaptive for soda fountain, restaurant or household use, where a fascinating and thorough mixing action is constantly visible to the operator and to bystanders when the machine is in operation." So I think the performative element, which is a really key part of my work, is quite important for the people.

Lee Moreau
So these blenders start off as mighty professional grade tools, and they start to emerge at the end of prohibition when people start to gather in the soda fountain for social events and at that point, you also see bartenders are starting to use them to make these basically this newly invented drink called the daiquiri, which we all know and love now. And as the technology advanced, these motors that are driving the blenders started to get a little bit smaller and more efficient. And then we start to see them come into our homes. So you talked a little bit about the way that you kind of maybe not use blenders in the kitchen, but sort of share labor and sort of equitable distribution of labor in the kitchen. But talk about— do you even do you even have a blender and what does it look like? Is it like hidden away in a closet?

Sloan Leo
I think like everyone who lives in New York City for far too long. I don't have any counter space Lee, so a blender is always the question of like, how important is this smoothie— considering I have four inches of blender space, so I don't have a mechanical blender. I do have one of those bartenders shakers like this silver tubes. So like for mixing cocktails, which I think is the only mixing I do because I'm very bad at making sauces. I don't know how, I don't get them. I want to. I can't. Life lamanets. But the shaker is is the place where I'm doing my, my mixing. So in that way, I am the blender. I am the labor and the shaker.

Lee Moreau
That's a beautiful image and we're going to- we, I will accept that definition of the blender for the purposes of this show. So my blender, actually, I have a blender has this it's kind of a traditional looking blender that big glass kind of globe thing on the top with a handle. It was a gift for my sister, so I am the blender person in our house because somehow it's associated with me. I have an 11 year-old child and he can use the blender under supervision because blenders are like just inviting disaster. So I do let him use it from time to time under supervision, but it's something that we don't really use very often. So let's hear a little bit more from Alice Naylor.

Alice Naylor
These three blenders, which are so omnipresent in my visual and primary research, are all very, very similar. So they have this rather beautiful kind of ziggurat style chrome bottom to it with a fluted glass blender beaker at the top, and they all have these spinning blades at the bottom. They are so similar that in a line up, you'd think every blender had committed the same crime it-it they are uncannily similar.

Lee Moreau
I mean, she's sort of describing them like trophies almost right? This this notion that they're big, heavy things sitting on the kitchen counter. They really haven't visually changed or formally changed over time, but they have changed sort of in societal terms. The the role that they play in our lives has definitely evolved. They're now ubiquitous. So provided you have enough counter space in your apartment, you could have one too Sloan Leo, I mean, this is something for the future.

Sloan Leo
I think about it a lot lately, again for the sake of sauces.

Lee Moreau
And they enter our worlds like a lot of other consumer products, do. So you have to make a tradeoff, right? It's like, do you have a microwave or a blender or a coffeemaker or something like that? But all these things have sort of implications on the way that we use our time, the way that we use our resources, and some suggestion about who's going to do that work.

Sloan Leo
It's definitely a statement, right? Like: I have a Vitamix, its said with this kind of like pretense, but also just like "I'm that kind of person." What I think is so interesting about objects, right, is the way that they're trying to communicate these much larger themes of who not necessarily are, but who we aspire to be. I feel like every household appliance, but potentially maybe especially blenders, are a lot more about who we're going to become. I will become the guy who gets up in the morning makes a smoothie, reads the New York Times, and takes a run. Like they're very aspirational objects, these kitchen appliances.

Lee Moreau
The blender actually has a place for me in design research. A few years ago, I did a project for Jamba Juice. In doing that research for Jamba Juice, it was really interesting because we would go into everybody's house and we're- these are people that were prescreened as people who like smoothies. So we know that they're into smoothies. And of course, everybody had a blender and several people had those $500 Vitamix blenders. I mean, these are substantial investments, and they would be like up on top of someone's refrigerator, definitely gathering dust. And it was so interesting because we would say, like: Well, so you have this big blender, why do you go to Jamba Juice? And they're like, you know, it's different. Like, what I can do with my blender is so different than what I can get at the Jamba Juice, and I don't have to get it dirty. And by the way, cleaning a blender is a total pain in the ass, right?

Sloan Leo
It takes all the labor you saved and puts it right back into the equation.

Lee Moreau
Exactly. And people would say, and I've made a lot of like smoothies that were kind of brown in color, like it's actually if you don't know what you're doing, you can make really horrible looking and tasting smoothies. And so it was just fascinating to be talking to people who are devout smoothie drinkers who actually had all the equipment and didn't make them themselves. And that was a really incredible learning and you see the kind of aspirational aspects of some of these objects. What people hope that these objects will allow them to do is very different than what they can achieve themselves.

Sloan Leo
Right. And it does feel like it's about health. It's kind of like I can take better care of myself if I make my own smoothies. I feel like it's somewhat in this conversation of this idea of like, I go to Jamba Juice, but I would be really healthy if I like, made my own avocado cashew milk, whatever smoothie. And then I could take it on my way to work and I'd have it at work and I'd make a better choice. So it's like, I think there's something about this, like an aspiration towards caring for oneself or like the weird kind of burden of responsibility of taking care of your meat suit, which is how I sometimes refer to the body.

Lee Moreau
We're talking about the blender, we're talking about exercise equipment, these sort of aspirational things that we surround ourselves with that either help us or help us think that we are going to be supporting our own personal evolution, let's say. Are these examples where human centered design has helped us make our our lives better?

Sloan Leo
I would say a hard no. Hard no Lee. In large part because I think, as you know, I have a bit of a critique of human centered design because it does still feel like it lacks a political analysis. And so does it improve our lives? I mean: OK, I guess if I can make my Jamba Juice blender smoothie at home and save myself some money or something, it's a good idea. But also the reason people are poor isn't because they're spending eight dollars on Jamba Juice its because we live under a system of extracted racialized capitalism. So I don't think that human centered design for an object in your kitchen is radically changing the world in ways that make it more just or sustainable.

Lee Moreau
We have some bigger things to tackle.

Sloan Leo
I would say that. I would look around and say that, yes, affirmative.

Lee Moreau
OK, I think you're going to appreciate what we're going to learn next in our in our continued understanding of the blender.

Dan Formosa
It's a lot of innovation going on in the kitchen throughout the 1990s. Lots of innovation in the kitchen.

Lee Moreau
Dan Formosa is a product designer, the founder of legendary product design studio Smart Design and the host of a YouTube series called Well-equipped for Epicurious.

Dan Formosa
Check out some YouTube videos of Kitchen of the Future. It's like watching an episode of The Jetsons. Ovens and sliding out of the counter, and dishwashers are coming out of nowhere.

"Design for Dreaming"
No need for the bride to feel tragic. The rest is push button magic.

Lee Moreau
00:15:31] So one of the things Dan is referencing here is this 1956 industrial film from General Motors Motorama depicting the Frigidaire kitchen of the future called "Design for Dreaming."

"Design for Dreaming"
Tick tock. Tick tock. I'm free to have fun around the clock.

Sloan Leo
What in the aspirational marketing?

Lee Moreau
Basically, it's put a card in, push a button and walk away.

Sloan Leo
And be able to do the things that, like your other parts of your social life or world that you're called to do. But I think one of the things that's interesting in that video is like the way we market, like: Oh, this will make things wonderful somehow. I came home, I pushed a button, my blender made a cake, and now I will go to this child's birthday party like the fantasy is beautiful in a certain way.

Lee Moreau
This does this whole little episode that we just witnessed from 1956 totally is all about convenience, right? But it didn't— was that really convenient? Let's hear some more from Dan on the blender.

Dan Formosa
I've got a phrase that, it's not just my phrase, but I find it coming to my mind a lot is that something can be engineered but not designed. And sometimes things can be well engineered but not well designed. And what that means is it works, but it's difficult to use. It's just not designed for people. And I think in the kitchen there was a lot of engineering going on.

Lee Moreau
You know, he says, something can be engineered but not designed. And rather than eliminating work, the blender actually introduced more work into the kitchen because it introduced more expectations.

Sloan Leo
You know, it's interesting like a again with the kind of like the tools that allow us to create, like create a memory, and I think in that way, I'm really excited about blenders. Like, I'm not independently excited about most things, but if it's something that allows a community to have a new set of memories or a way of working through a hard thing, like meals during times of grief, like all of that, that makes the blender fascinating. It makes any sort of kitchen object, something that allows us to spend a different kind of time together. But I don't think that they save us time.

Lee Moreau
You're trying to do a little redemption of the blender here, and I appreciate that because it could use some help. We're kind of hammering it a little bit, but you know, your suggestion is if I'm kind of paraphrasing accurately, it's it's like, yeah, maybe it's not saving us time, but it is doing something special.

Sloan Leo
Yeah, it does. It offers us something interesting. It gives something to talk about. We need a little bit of small talk at the start of every of every community event.

Lee Moreau
Yeah, we're also recognizing that these objects have the potential to dictate our behavior and can even define us. So this blender actually stands for work and labor that was expected from the sort of typical housewife. I'm using air quotes, but it's really just indicative of a lot of trends in the 20th century development of consumer products that were added to the kitchen, which is: "I take some labor that existed. I supercharge it right with the machine, put it into the kitchen and therefore that labor goes away." But we're not really being honest about what that labor is. We're not really kind of clear about it. We're just kind of supercharging it, making it faster, and hoping it's magical.

Sloan Leo
We're innovating it right, which is kind of this general speak for like, make it faster add more bells and whistles, make it in chrome, make it new. Where I again, I'm trying to redeem the blender, but I'm like, I don't know that innovation in general is necessarily the most helpful in the way we currently frame it. I think that, like the blender, if we're trying to just create a mix of foods, maybe it's better for all of us to sit at this table like you and I to chop all the things up together and to like mortar and pestle it. Maybe that actually doesn't save us time, but it does save us like sound quality. We still got the thing blended. It's a little choppy. It's a little coarser. And maybe that's OK.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is brought to you by the design team at Automattic, which is building a new web, and a new workplace all around the world.

Channing Ritter
I'm Channing Ritter, and I'm based in Brooklyn, New York. I am a design director at Automattic and I'm a co-lead of the WordPress.org design team.

Lee Moreau
Channing's work is all about contributing to the open source WordPress project.

Channing Ritter
We are a group of full time designers who are sponsored by Automattic to work on the open source project, and there are over 100 people Automattic who work in this way directly alongside the wider community of contributors. The mission at Automattic really is about making the web better, and that's what drew me to work at Automattic. So I like to ask the question: you know, of course, we can build anything we want, but should we? And I've always been really interested in that question and trying to create work related to the ethical questions of what we are building and why. I'm so passionate about helping build the open web, and that's exactly what my team is working on.

Lee Moreau
At Automattic, Channing continues to grow.

Channing Ritter
Design at Automattic is exciting. It keeps you on your toes. There's constantly something new and you will never get bored here.

Lee Moreau
Designing a better web. Join us at Automattic dot com slash design, that's AUTO-M-A-double T-I-C dot com slash design.

Lee Moreau
So let's hear a little bit more about the blender and this kind of transfer of work.

Ruth Schwartz Cowan
I'm going to do a really short project to demonstrate that it was the growth of household appliances, electric and gas, that allowed people like me to spend less time doing housework so that we could go out and be professors of history. I realized my hypothesis was 180 degrees wrong.

Lee Moreau
Ruth Schwartz Cowan is an American historian of science and technology and the author of More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology From the Open Hearth to the Microwave.

Ruth Schwartz Cowan
The overall thesis is that not just the advent of electric appliances in the late 19th and 20th century, but even the generation before that, the advent of something like the wood burning or propane burning stove did not make less work for mother. It made more work for mothers by shifting what had once been men's and children's work, and then in the 20th century, what had once been servants work onto the housewife.

Sloan Leo
Her perspective on this is like making more work for mother is is interesting to me because we do try we have this like weird tension, right, where we're trying to save the mother, but we also don't do anything for the mother. So it feels like a very performative type of labor saving. And I wonder if there's also this like as we shift away from kind of like the nuclear family of like one non-working parent, one working parent, two point five kids, and a dog type thing in a house in the suburbs that you can afford on a everyday person salary. We're moving to this place where we're trying to create convenience because we're all actually overtaxed. So I think one of the questions it brings up is like: Who is doing this push for convenience and what do they think it's going to resolve for us. Because it is advertising, but there is a worldview in here somewhere of like whose life should be made easier and how and when.

Lee Moreau
I think it's worth mentioning here, especially with you on the call, that we've been using and I've been using a lot of words like man and woman, etc. in a sort of very binary way to kind of tell this story. But the picture isn't so simple.

Sloan Leo
No, it's not. But this whole idea of like improving women's lives through design, it does strike me as outdated or just irrelevant, because how how would you do that? Like, what does it mean to have a women's experience is like, very interesting to me, but also like what, why are we gendering everything? But you know, I think the first persona that designers work from is gender. They're like: Is it for a guy or gal?

Lee Moreau
Yes.

Sloan Leo
And I think all of us like do dishes and wear pants or dresses. It all just feels. I don't believe in it. I think that's the problem, right, is that like for this conversation in a certain way, it all is very hypothetical and in a land of pretend, because gender, much like race, are social constructs that we can't actually design for because they're not real.

Lee Moreau
If we go back to Ruth Schwartz Cowan, the scenario is she's sort of depicting is this kind of transference of labor, like back 150 years ago before the introduction of a lot of these kitchen technologies. There were kind of normative gender roles like the man would go out and chop the wood, and the woman would gather up a bunch of ingredients and would assemble a lot of the the kind of, you know, the dish that would be served. Then these devices started to come into our homes and into our kitchens. And that labor was all transferred to the woman where the, you know, the traditional man would go out and make money and to sort of fuel the household. And that's the kind of introduction of this sort of typical housewife model who was the inheritor of all this kitchen technology. We don't really describe this as work that transference of labor into the kitchen, but that's exactly what it is. This is work, right?

Sloan Leo
Yeah, it's definitely work. It's interesting like, I think what's what's challenging is that I live in a different world than these folks are articulating and not just in terms of like, it's not 1950, but, you know, I'm queer, I'm trans and non-binary. I'm thirty seven. No kids. Good salary. Dating in open relationships. And so it's like even the like all of these ideas of like what happens in the home, what's gendered what's not— is like, it's kind of like relating to a different planet in a certain way where I'm like: Wow, we inhabit worlds that are so vastly different that I'm like: "How would like, how would a queer person in my community talk about the blender?" Would they even thinking about a blender? Like, I guess so. Probably.

Lee Moreau
They might not think about the blender, but they'd definitely be thinking about the implications of convenience.

Sloan Leo
Yeah, and they will definitely be a conversation about the role and like what it is to create a home and who cares for the community, who cares for the family and who has the ability to afford to, like, stay home, and not work, and make smoothies.

Lee Moreau
So I can appreciate the fact that the image mass media is not showing you the image of yourself in the life that you lead as as often as the one that I just described, and that, you know, that sort of gender normative household. And you know, this is part of a larger marketing engine, which Ruth Schwartz Cowan also talks about.

Ruth Schwartz Cowan
I have lived now for 80 years of advertisements telling me that all of these devices will create less work. For however long you have lived, you have lived with that myth also. And that's why it seems not intuitive.

Sloan Leo
I think about this, when I hear this from Ruth is— what, if we're being more efficient or reducing labor it should be allowing us to live our lives in a certain way, and what I'm struck by is how much we've been able to gain efficiencies in our labor, at home, at work. But how much are lives still feel like there's a lot of toil for so many people. And I think that that kind of obsfucation of labor or the kind of lack of honesty about who's doing the work to what end, it creates this really horrific type of social like population level gaslighting. Like your life is going to be fine, you have all these devices, you have a computer in the palm of your hand. You can do gig work whenever you want. You can make a smoothie at your own home. Why aren't you happy? And it's like, well, we're not happy because we're being gaslit into thinking that a blender is going to somehow change the world, make something more sustainable, make us healthier along with making us kind of like envied by our friends in a way that feels right and good. And they're lies. It's it's a it's a real set of lies. Sorry, blender. But you are not getting redeemed today, clearly.

Lee Moreau
So you've bought your blender. And then once you have your blender, the question becomes: Well, why aren't you making your own smoothies? Why aren't you making your own organic baby food? Why aren't you making, I don't know your own pet food. This actually sounds very human centric. We've given you a tool so that you can take control of your life and in a very simple way, do things that you weren't you weren't able to do before. But is it— who is a human centric for?

Sloan Leo
If it was human centric, what would it look like if this was even more human centric? Like it feels like the human centricity exists at a single point of interaction with the blender. So if I want a smoothie for me, Sloan Leo, then the blender somehow makes it a little easier than like smashing with a hammer, a bunch of fruit, right? But the moment it becomes an internalized expectation of I make a smoothie for me, for you, for our kids, for the dog food, the more the interaction occurs between you and the blender, the more time you have to have available to provide for all of these other people and beings in your household. So all of a sudden what was an efficiency is now a new form of like servitude to your kitchen where you're still actually being kept in your home. It still feels like the blender is a performance of labor saving, which is what I find most disturbing.

Michelle Lokot
So a feminist political economy approach is really about looking at the way in which the economic system that structures different societies and different countries can actually perpetuate inequality. And so the way the economic system is structured can lead to certain groups being more responsible for labor than others.

Lee Moreau
Michelle Lokot is an interdisciplinary researcher and gender specialist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Michelle Lokot
It affects how labor is distributed, how it's valued, who gets paid and doesn't. And a feminist political economy approach really says that labor is not neutral, it's highly gendered, and it's also intersectional. So it's not just about women or about gender alone, but also about how gender intersects with other identities and power hierarchies like race, like age, like migrant or refugee status, like social economic status or class.

Lee Moreau
So she's talking about systems of power.

Sloan Leo
Yeah, I mean, you know, you can't see me scratching my face, my chin kind of like, Mm hmm, this is interesting, this is very interesting, Michelle. You know, the thing about feminist work in general is that it does feel exciting because it feels like we could be doing something different in how we relate to each other. But the actual work that feminist theory wants done and acts with, it's like it is so hard to shift power, it is so hard to shift power within a system. And that's because if you have the power or the comfort or the ease or the privilege, you most likely are not going to give it up willingly, especially in American society, were like relinquishing power and control is seen as like a feminized or less than ideal outcome. So I think that in like this idea of how labor is distributed, a more useful question would also be how often have we been able to shift power and what has it taken? How do we actually disrupt the systems of power so that we could even consider redesigning them because everything feels so permanent?

Lee Moreau
And you're doing this a lot in your own work, right? I mean, in effect, sort of redesigning systems of power, which I know if I understand what you're doing, part of it is actually understanding the people that you're designing for or actually with on that journey. Can you talk about some of that work?

Sloan Leo
Yeah. So we talk about it at Flox Studio as— traditional design is about designing for, human centered design is about designing with, community design is about design by. And so it's that phrase kind of like by us, for us. And as a practitioner who works in nonprofit management, it does show up this idea of re-constructing or redistributing power. So it's like in an organization that's making a decision about their future. It normally would be the CEO, the board of directors, these kind of very people high up on said hierarchy. And in the way that I work and they way that our studio works, it's a lot more about working with the people who are the air quotes workers, the staff, the employees to say, what do you think the future should be? And creating a transparent and equitable and accessible pathway to do that.

Lee Moreau
Let's hear a bit more from Michelle about power.

Michelle Lokot
A feminist approach is fundamentally concerned about power. So how does power differently restructure the lives of women, men, girls, and boys of people who also don't identify according to these binaries, how does power shape their experiences?

Sloan Leo
And also what is power? I think Lee, is also part of this is like just so our audience has a definition like whether you're looking at the work of Cindy Suarez and non-profit quarterly, or Adrianne Marie Brown, this idea, like what is power is the ability to effectuate the outcome you want to like, put a set of actions into motion that create the outcome that you have been idealizing, hoping for, desiring. Right, so it's like there is a role, particularly in our design community, to remember that, that we have lots of power because we set up these systems and these objects and these structures for people, or with them, or buy them all the time. So we have to have a political analysis, which is why I think this introduction of Michelle's thinking into this conversation today is really timely and appreciated.

Lee Moreau
You know, as designers, we have struggled and I think we continue to struggle with feeling a sense of control of this power and of leading with that power. And maybe the word leadership is inappropriate here, but I don't I don't think we're very comfortable with this notion yet.

Sloan Leo
No, we're not comfortable with the notion. And I think it's also because we don't, particularly people who go to design school, there is very little context in design school having to do with power and society and issues of justice, right. Like I've been teaching at the School of Visual Arts for the last two years and last year did like, a guest critique for the product of design school and worked with all, I think they were, I don't know, 15 students, who came to me and said: Here's what I'm designing— it's a thing that does this. It's a widget is that it's a system that does this. And we talked about power and I said: Well, who are you designing for? What do you know about them? How do you relate to them? How does your power connect with their privilege and vice versa? And they were like: What? This is so interesting. I am overwhelmed. I don't know how to do all the elements of my design process with the power analysis. So I'm doing more work with them this year to set up a series of guides that are going to become practice guides for traditional designers who want to have more of a community lens. But it's just it's we have to address emerging designers, and they're much greater awareness of the societal implications of what it means to be a designer. Whereas I think for designers who are not in the early phase of their career, there is even more important urgency to get them to think about power because of the influence that they have.

Lee Moreau
It's interesting because you're talking about this notion of awareness or even orientation toward a way of working, but you're also saying there's a skill set here, and I think we've spent a lot of time thinking about empathy as like: Oh, well, empathy is really an orientation. When you turn it into a skill, you've weaponized it, but you're actually kind of flipping that on its head and saying, like, no, there's other tools that we need to get that work done.

Sloan Leo
And also, like, I don't know who first coined the idea of designing for empathy, but I would like to talk to them because I feel concerned that it was actually more about your intent and not just the impacts and the idea of like, well, but I intended for us to really feel with them and people need feeling but they also need a change in the material conditions of their lives.

Lee Moreau
It's hard to shift after that, but we're going to go back to the blender of the future.

Sloan Leo
Let's see. Let's see where it takes us, Lee.

Lee Moreau
Which hopefully has-is less about buttons and more about the nuance of the device in our lives.

Dan Formosa
In terms of the kitchen, there is a spectrum of things to be addressed.

Lee Moreau
Here's Dan Formosa again.

Dan Formosa
I guess one of the handtools is still being produced are either being created by people who I don't think I've ever been in the kitchen or by people who haven't really done their homework in understanding how these products are actually going to be used by people.

Lee Moreau
So he's talking about— let's not just focus on how things are going to literally be used, that sort of engineering way of solving a problem, but also like how will it influence behavior? Broadly speaking, how will it change society? What are the long term cascading implications of the very small moves that you make on a product, like a like a blender that affects larger communities?

Sloan Leo
Hmm. I'm making my hmm face as I do, as we're thinking about these blenders and like, think about how far away the person who first designed the very first Vitamix is from you. Like the Vitamix person didn't know you couldn't have guessed you, maybe had a persona for you. Maybe got some of it right. But like, there's so much distance between like the design team or a consultant that was hired, and then that consultant has to appease their client, which is the company, the company has to appease the shareholder, eventually the consumer needs to be involved like there are so many people involved in this gosh darn blender process that I'm like, is it even possible that they could really design the right tool for people? Or do we need like, instead of sort of mass produce blenders we need, like blenders produced by each different neighborhood, where some of the value capture goes back to the people in the community that lives there. Like in that way, you're able to maybe not have a blender with as many buttons and do-hickeys, but as designed by people who will benefit from its use and from its sale. I mean, I'm struggling with the idea that mass production is the way to go.

Lee Moreau
I think you're also struggling with capitalism there, too, which is totally reasonable. I think under these circumstances.

Sloan Leo
Under the circumstances, yeah.

Lee Moreau
Yeah. In the case of our friend, the blender, it it is, you know, we're using it as a representation of a lot of these other devices that have kind of come into our lives with the with the idea and the promise that it would make life simpler, easier and take labor away when in fact, it just kind of shifted it. It was a shell game, basically an illusion. So we were, you know, intending to have this sort of heroic episode dedicated to the blender. But the blender is a really tricky thing. And we kept running to these questions about the narrative, the bigger narrative around these tools and what they do with our lives.

Sloan Leo
Yeah, I think that this idea of like, what is the role of a tool? Is it to craft something new? Is it to create more time and efficiency? Is it about repairing something, maintaining something? And so it's like whether we're talking about a blender or a dishwasher or a wheelchair, the ability to fix the thing, make it last for a long time, or have the tool be a thing that allows you and your home to be maintained. You and your life to be maintained, to keep things going, is, is the energy we need now. And I really hope we're leaving behind the sense of like, we just need to create more things, make them new, make them better, make them shinier, make them easier, quicker, faster, bigger to sell. Because we are out of space on the planet and we should be getting to the place where we have moral outrage if anything can't just be reused, reduced, recycled.

Lee Moreau
So, you know, as we think about the future and we think about the blender kind of in this broader context, this is really not a conversation about human centered design, really however, quite often product development is framed in those terms. But what we've been talking about is something different. So I'm just going to throw something out there, which is like, is this sort of power structure centered design with an emphasis on looking at the different systems that are in place to think about how we change. But you do this in your work every day. How would you describe this?

Sloan Leo
The term power structure centered design is, I think, actually essentially what we mean when we say community design. We talk about community design as the relocation of power and decision making within a system or within an ecosystem, and to change power to move it around. It's not about Lee and Sloan or Lee and this Coca-Cola bottle. It's about how do we, a group of people relate to each other with a political lens, and I don't mean Democrat or Republican political, I mean within like a sense of power within that system and privilege and role. And I think that if we're serious about design really meeting the needs that we have as a society, as a species, as a city in New York alone or as a borough, we have to talk about community design. We can't keep searching for these, like individual rock star moments. If I never knew another designer's name for the rest of my life, it would be fine because I would rather know that I could look around and see parks being used, people voting, less trash, more recycling and less harm and less inequity. That's how I would know if design was actually using its tools for good.

Lee Moreau
Yes.

Sloan Leo
Is that I wouldn't even have to focus on, like, did you go to RISD or not? I'd say, is the world around me better?

Lee Moreau
Yeah. You know, you don't need to see the designer. You needed to see the evidence of good design.

Sloan Leo
Correct. Like, you know that they're the takeaway or the leave behind for community design is like a more just system.

Lee Moreau
As you know, in last season, we had a sort of exercise or assignment at the end of every conversation. This season, we're changing it up a little bit and we're trying to just have a sort of almost contemplative activity that we want to leave our listeners with that they can do between episodes and just to kind of think about this topic a little bit more. And so on the topic of the transition of labor or work or even this sort of notion of power structure centered design, is there a thing that somebody could do in a very simple way that would help them kind of frame or experience this for themselves?

Sloan Leo
Yeah. You know, we do a lot of mapping as designers, but it's very rare that I see a power map, which is what we do a lot with our students on our committee design for leaders program. And so I would say that if you have a map of who your user or your client interacts with or what systems they're interacting with, or what people they're interacting with, like a map around them and an understanding of in their relationship with that object, that person or that system, do they have more power or less power? Make it a two by two grid, and you can actually map a greater understanding of where that person holds influence or what they're influenced by. And wouldn't that be a useful input for your design process?

Lee Moreau
Sloan Leo, Is it possible to make a power dynamic mapping as you're describing on yourself?

Sloan Leo
Yeah. One of the exercises we did was a three part mapping process that we worked on with the continuing education department at the School of Visual Arts. Goes like this: The first thing you do is you make a map of your community. And so for this exercise, it's like, Is your community other designers in Brooklyn? And you would literally we had people draw out like, here's the boundaries of Fort Greene. Here are a little dots of all of my friends who are also designers. Map one. Map two was — what are the things that you bring to the table? So it's like a map or like kind of drawing of a toolbox. And it would make little boxes within that box of like: Well, I'm a UX designer. I work really well at Adobe. I love working in Miro. And then the last map you do is a map of where can your skill your your resource map, the thing you can do, your community map of the people you want to help. That actually creates a power map of where can I leverage my skills to create more outcomes for like the community I'm a part of? So three maps. Who is in your community? What are the tools in the toolbox? And then if you overlay those together, where is there a powerful intersection where you can create a better outcome for the people that you care about in your community?

Lee Moreau
Thank you Sloan Leo. It was really great having you on this episode. I can't wait to to continue our conversations.

Sloan Leo
Yeah, this is super fun.

Lee Moreau
The Futures Archive is a podcast from Design Observer. To keep up with the show, go to TFA dot design observer dot com or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you like what you heard and we hope you did. Please make sure to rate and review and share this with your friends.

Sloan Leo
You can keep track of me, Sloan Leo, founder of Flox Studio on Instagram at Flox underscore Studio, where you can click on our Norby to find your way to our What the Flox newsletter and keep in touch about all things community design.

Lee Moreau
Thanks again to Alice Naylor, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, Dan Formosa, and Michelle Lokot for talking to The Futures Archive. You can find out more about them in our show notes at TFA dot Design Observer dot com along with a full transcription of our show. Our producer is Adina Karp. Owen Agnew edits the show. Thanks, as always, to Design Observer founder Jessica Helfand and to Design Observer executive producer Betsy Vardell.


Posted in: Inclusion, Product Design, Technology, The Futures Archive



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Sloan Leo + Lee Moreau Sloan Leo (they/he) is a Community Design theorist, educator, and practitioner. They are the founder of FLOX Studio, a community design and strategy studio FLOX Studio is on a mission to alter the future of work by integrating community & social justice values, design thinking, and organizational development.


Sloan Leo + Lee Moreau Lee Moreau is the founding director of Other Tomorrows, a design and innovation studio based in Boston, and a Professor of Practice in Design at Northeastern University.

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