What Politicians Might Learn From Designers

Although we tend to wear a lot of black, designers generally see the world in shades of gray, continually trying to find win-win solutions to design problems, accommodating different needs, and creative resolutions of seemingly irresolvable conflicts. Because of that, many in the design community -- like many in the general public -- look with dismay upon the I-win-you-lose, polarized nature of the current political culture in the U.S. In such a black-and-white world, belonging to one party seems to mean that you can't agree with anything advocated by the other. To his credit, President Obama, who once aspired to be an architect, has tried to find middle grounds in this polarized culture and to seek win-win solutions to the challenges we face as a nation, but he has had to endure, in the process, the slings and arrows of both the political left and right. Those who see things as black or white apparently do not like shades of gray.

I realized that years ago when I served as an expert witness in a court case in which a group of people, peacefully protesting the killing of animals to make fur coats, did so legally on the sidewalk outside a department store in the downtown and yet were arrested for doing exactly the same thing in front of a department store inside a major mall. The prosecution saw this as a black-and-white issue: one protest occurred in the public domain and the other on private property. But I testified, from a design perspective, that how we define property legally does not always align with the nuanced way we experience property in our daily lives. While legally private property, enclosed shopping malls all serve public purposes in our communities.

That difference between a legal definition of the world and our daily experience of it confronts us all the time. Think about the space in front of the typical single-family house. While a property line exists between public and private ownership, that space really consists of a gradation of mostly public, semi-public, semi-private, and mostly private space. Even inside houses, we have various rooms, more or less private, to accommodate visitors, acquaintances, friends, and family of different levels of intimacy.

We all live, in other words, in shades of gray in both our private and public lives. So why do we have such a hard time accepting the same in our political life? It may be because of the temptation to mistake reality for our abstractions of it. The mathematics of political decision-making, with statistics, polls, and data surrounding almost every issue, can cause even the most down-to-earth politician to forget the reality that those abstractions represent. And that, in turn, can lead our elected officials to see things in absolute terms, as if reality had somehow come to conform to our statistical portrait of it. A refusal to compromise may seem normal in that black-and-white world, but it seems surreal and even nonsensical in the real world.

Some might dismiss such ideological thinking as just politics, rationalizing something that has become increasingly irrational. Accepting such thinking, though, may be as dangerous as the thinking itself. In design, we have learned that pushing any structure or system to an extreme can lead to its catastrophic failure, as happens when excessive loads or earthquake tremors lead to the collapse of bridges or buildings. Most people, though, don't see that the same applies to invisible structures like our political system. Look at the collapse of the regimes in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and now Libya, where the outrageous behavior of dictators and the extraordinary gap between rich and poor led to rapid political implosion. Here in the U.S., the more extreme our politics and the more unequal our economy become, the more we stress our system to the point of collapse. No one wants that to happen and so it remains up to the electorate - up to all of us - to start demanding that our representatives remember the world in which the rest of us live, among shades of gray.

Thomas Fisher is Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.