Is There Such a Thing as a “Design Activist”?

A recent Think Tank panel hosted by Studio O+A highlighted, approvingly, of the infiltration of activist language and values into design practice.


At Stevenson School, designed by Studio O+A, shelves of unused books were removed to make way for the hands-on, collaborative forms of learning and study that now shape a student’s life. Courtesy Kristina Cho

Architects and designers are no longer merely service providers, and it’s no longer enough to routinely fulfill project briefs. At a recent Think Tank panel hosted by Studio O+A in its San Francisco offices, panelists acknowledged this new reality, even if the discipline across the board hasn’t. But there are signs that it is catching up.

Panelist JD Beltran described recent efforts made by the Center for Impact, the California College of the Arts research hub she founded and oversees. The Center awards grants to student projects that propose workable alternatives to industry norms; upcycling is a priority, as is an aversion to toxic materials like foam core and certain adhesives. Beltran noted a ripple effect across the A&D world: Last year, the American Society of Interior Designers inaugurated the Outcome of Design Awards, which assesses projects through post-occupancy evaluations. And in 2020, the American Institute of Architects added decarbonization language to its code of ethics.

The panelists debated the impetus for these changes, but several agreed that designers have a moral and ethical imperative to lobby organizations and manufacturers, to avoid specifying certain products or brands, to educate clients, and to insert sustainable values into a project if they’re not already in the project brief. Some, like Studio O+A founder Verda Alexander, even pointed to the recourse of activism to bring about a wider consciousness among practitioners. “I’m tired of seeing pretty projects with programs that are like, oh yeah, this was the client’s program and we fulfilled it,” she said, a note of frustration in her voice. “I keep thinking to myself, ‘Okay, but could we have fulfilled it and taken on that moral imperative and tried to not only shift our own but try to shift our clients’ perspectives?”

The goal was to redesign the library so that it served modern needs even as it began a process of wooing young people back to books. Kristina Cho

Unfortunately, too often we’re relying on good actors to volunteer to do the right thing with no recourse if they don’t. One way to get clients on board, suggested Beltran, is speaking in financial terms. “Powerful decisions about whether a project happens or doesn’t happen live and die in the spreadsheet,” she said.

On the bright side, moderator and Metropolis editor in chief Avinash Rajagopal pointed out that the financial argument for sustainability isn’t hard to make. The WELL Building Standard was the first to make the financial case that making “healthy” interiors can garner the highest return on investment over time. The United States Department of Commerce’s Institute for Market Transformation for sustainability has been developing a SMART standard, and the Certified B Corporation label is also growing. These are signs that today, the bottom line is really a double- (profits, planet) or triple-bottom line (profits, people, planet), meaning there is more opportunity for architects and designers to take on the role of changemakers.

“[Designers] have in many ways abdicated our responsibilities as architects, as leaders in the world, because we’ve become service providers,” said Douglas Burnham, founder of the design firm Envelope. “But we are so much more powerful than that.”

The Think Tank discussions were held on December 4 and 5 in San Francisco. The conversations were presented in partnership with DXV/GROHE and TUUCI.

Recent Programs