“The Personal as the Political”, and What It Means to Designers

Ines Yin
5 min readApr 4, 2021

I was a science student when I was in high school in China. And for my later four years as a university student, I was in an international school. All these mean that I had rarely heard of the term “political” in the previous 4–5 years, except for when we talked about some political propaganda posters in our fundamental design course, not to say thinking deeply into relevant questions.

I attributed this to the fact that we “ordinary” Chinese people seldom take the initiative to talk about political topics in daily life, with a tacit and implicit consensus that it is hard for us to change political decisions.

However, when I, one or two months ago, went through the article The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House written by Audre Lorde (1984), there are several sentences that triggered something for me. She states, “Let your personal visions help lay the groundwork for political action […] Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.” Actually, I did not quite understand what it means, since, as I mentioned, I had hardly ever thought deeply about political stuff in the previous five years. Therefore, I looked at another article The Personal is Political by Kelly (2017) for understanding the term “the personal as the political”.

The article of Kelly explains the term as follow:

“The personal is political, or ‘the private is political’, is the political slogan expressing a common belief among feminists that the personal experiences of women are rooted in their political situation and gender inequality.”

Kelly further provides some detailed illustration from Carol Hanisch, an American feminist, stating that “Many personal experiences (particularly those of women) can be traced to one’s location within a system of power relationships.” Also, Kelly writes that there are many feminists like Carol Hanisch who suggested that “personal experiences are the result of social structures or inequality”.

With more definition I found out from Collins Dictionary (n.d.), I feel like I finally got to know what “political” means — it is for describing something relating to the power structure in a country, society, or even a bigger or smaller area; and I kind of understand what it means by “the personal as the political” — the personal and individual experiences of people are actually rooted in the power structure and mindset of the societies they live.

So what does it mean to a designer? Why the authors of the articles like on Weaponised Design (2018) and Design justice, A.I., and Escape from the Matrix of Domination (2018) also suggested that designers have to consider the “political” in the design process?

The article written by Nona Blackman (2019) answered my questions. The article is titled Why Designers Need to Get Political. It defines the little “p” politics and lists eight examples:

Little “p” politics is about:

1. who you are, what you stand for and believe in as a human being

2. educating yourself about the nature of power and powerlessness

3. understanding the history of exploitation, injustice, and inequality

4. discovering who controls the majority of the earth’s resources and how and by whom these resources are consumed

5. fighting the impulse to surrender to apathy and/or hatred

6. giving a damn, having compassion, and not accepting for others the conditions or experiences you find unacceptable for yourself

7. grappling with the hard questions and tough decisions, instead of taking permanent refuge in privilege or a magic carpet ride to fantasy land

8. having integrity and taking actions within your control that show consistency between what you believe and what you do in your life

After explaining the little “p” politics, Blackman states the first reason why designers need to get political, which is that “designers are powerful” with the use of “visual representations of ideas and messages” like “magazines, newspapers and books, advertising, websites, television, movies, product packaging, signage, and more”. According to Blackman, these media have huge impacts on creating and constructing meaning in the world. The second reason is also important — save clients’ money and gain reputation. But relating back to the idea of “the personal as the political”, what is listed as the third reason makes a lot more sense to me, which is using talents to be inclusive. Blackman suggests that we should use our “voice and power to be an ally to those who are regularly excluded in media or represented stereotypically”, including but not limited to “older people, the disabled, the LGBTQ community, and ethnic and religious minorities”, which is in line with the idea of the scholars like Costanza-Chock (2018).

“Create work with depth and complexity” and “differentiate yourself by standing for something” are the last two reasons Blackman provides. For me, the last two means to embed meaning and designers’ own values into the outcomes they produce for making influence or communicating thoughts. And at the end of the article, Blackman offers some methods that we could use to “incorporate political viewpoint and value system into our life and work”, which are somehow aligned with the idea of Laura Forlano (2017) to “support equality and justice for humans and non-humans alike” and to “expand our purview beyond the use and their problems”. Blackman’s suggestion is listed as follow:

1. Push back against clients who have ideas that from your vantage point you understand are problematic.

2. Make suggestions based on your values, and be prepared to defend them.

3. Seek out work that reflects your values or at least doesn’t undermine them.

4. Reach out to artists and designers who create political work you admire and propose a collaboration or mentoring relationship.

5. Look for ways to use your talent to shape the world you want to live in — for example, you could volunteer to create a piece of work for a charity that does work you believe in.

I know clearly that these “manifestos” may not be applicable in all countries. However, as a designer, a female, and a person who belongs to a group of people that are usually discriminated against by the people of other countries because of several historical factors, I think we designers should at least start to consider and voice more for ourselves and the marginalized who are in a similar or even worse situation in our design works.

References:

Collins Dictionary. (n.d.). Definition of ‘political’. Available at: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/political-issue [Accessed: 04 April, 2021].

Costanza-Chock, S. (2018). Design justice, A.I., and Escape from the Matrix of Domination. Journal of Design and Science, 16 July. doi: 10.21428/96c8d426.

Diehm, C. (2018). On Weaponised Design. Tactical Tech, April. Available at: https://ourdataourselves.tacticaltech.org/posts/30-on-weaponised-design/ [Accessed: 04 April, 2021].

Forlano, L. (2017). Posthumanism and design. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 3(1), pp. 16–29. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sheji.2017.08.001.

Lorde, A. (1984). The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. (ed). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. pp.110–114.

Kelly, C. (2017). The personal is political. Encyclopedia of Gender and Society. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/the-personal-is-political [Accessed: 04 April, 2021].

Blackman, N. (2019). Why Designers Need to Get Political. Envato Tutsplus. Available at: https://design.tutsplus.com/articles/why-designers-need-to-get-political--cms-32621 [Accessed: 04 April, 2021].

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Ines Yin

MA User Experience Design; Bachelor of Communication in Media, Arts and Design