Interview with César Astudillo

This post is part of a larger project on Designing Opportunity. Check out my earlier blog post for an overview of the topic.

Below you will find a written reflection from my interview with César Astudillo in Madrid.

César Astudillo, Senior Fellow of Designit Madrid, agreed to chat about the topic of inequality and design, although he was vocally apprehensive that he would have anything positive to contribute. Our discussion, which focused on design in relation to politics, coincided almost perfectly with my discovery of Open Government Data and Code for America.

Within the first two minutes of sitting down with César, it became readily apparent that he is well spoken, informed, and cynical; those characteristics paired with his drive and community-involvement made our discussion particularly engaging.

When asked to define inequality César led with, “for me, inequality is first and foremost a political concept…I think design is overrated and politics are underrated.” He quickly followed with a line of reasoning that political apathy and cynicism of politicians is “fashionable,” just as identifying as a designer is trendy.

Going in to our conversation, it seems César was of the opinion that crafting a just community is work that may be best left to politicians and government – that designers shouldn’t pretend that their for-profit work has a role in alleviating poverty. In many ways, his arguments are completely compelling, especially when considering that many designers are at the whim of large, for-profit companies to bring in revenue. However, from our conversation two seeds of potential progress towards opportunity equality stand out:

Designers should hold themselves accountable for caring about current events. What struck me about his brand of cynicism is that César very aptly identified a present reality that does not necessitate individuals to be engaged citizens. In a Clickbait and Buzzfeed world, political aptitude is often traded for shiny headlines and top ten lists. Assuming designers, with their skillset to manipulate the masses, hold additional responsibility for doing good, which César is apprehensive of, opting for “10 Tricks You Didn’t Know Cats Were Capable Of” over “The detention of Fosun’s boss shows the fragility of the private sector in China” could have serious ramifications. For example, a designer asked to craft a pay day loan experience may do customer research, but it seems less likely that they are required to understand the political landscape of banking and loans. Especially if you’re a consultant who moves from one industry to the next as projects dictate, realizing the larger ramifications of your design may not be a feasible responsibility. Assuming political awareness offers that path to differentiation for designer, which is certainly is an assumption, can designers be asked to care more about the events and laws around them that affect their users?

Design skillsets can be harnessed to mobilize masses and affect change. Most designers take offense to the request to, “make it pretty,” but César makes the argument that prettying up an interface could be more detrimental for reasons other than ego. From his vantage point he’s seen that designers are often responsible for sugarcoating things that strengthen classism. What if designers used their storytelling skill-set to shed light on a political process? At this is the point in our conversation, César said something which fully convinced me that I was lucky to be talking to him,

“As I see it, there is a small number of very intelligent people who are establishing the rules of the game in terms that will create more inequality, and as designers we can only improve the very superficial aspects of that. If we want to fight inequality, we must do politics and we must work with political activists to create awareness of what is happening, to create a narrative of why this is happening, or how it can be fought, and to get the people who want to fix that a vote, so they can go to the institutions and change that. And that is political. It can only happen within democratic means.”

His words instigated a “what if…” scenario for me: In July, I brought my car to Fernando, a father from Mexico who loves cars so much he fixes them in between being a janitor, school, and time with his family. We got to chatting about Trump, as is usually the case these days when discussing politics, and I asked him who he was going to vote for. He told me he doesn’t really care about voting. There are so many other things in his life that figuring out which candidate he should vote for in any local or national election isn’t a high priority for him. Demographically speaking, Fernando falls into the population that is anticipated to play the largest role in our upcoming 2016 presidential election, and yet, I can completely sympathize with his logic. What if Fernando realized that his vote could affect legislation that would allow him to visit his family in Mexico, which is currently hindered by our immigration system? Is there a place for designers to participate in clearly and concisely conveying election process, politician platforms, or interaction with local government?

César touched on how unification and mobilization of the masses, in place of our current intense focus on the “self,” could reform the political structures which perpetuates inequality. He cheekily mocked, “please help yourself with this self help book but don’t organize,” which alludes to a topic I continue to see pop up in literature about the ever-widening income gap revolution(As it turns out, during the publication of this article, news of Spain’s own mini political revolution is breaking.)

To hear about his opinion of Change Management, how Spanish politics spurred the Occupy Wall Street Movement and more, click here for a downloadable MP3 of my conversation with César.


A summative image of his opinion on the topic shared by César