Out of Print

Grief and Resistance in Design

by Karina Abola
Art by Tim Lopez.

Creating through disillusion, desperate for hope.

All I’ve ever wanted was to use design to make the country a little better. It sounds just as naive as when the idea first came to me. It’s an oddly specific dream to have so young, a combination of what I thought were two unrelated ones. I was that kid that admired Jose Rizal a bit too much, but would obsess over fashion and magazines after school. When I got older, life led me towards two separate paths. I found spaces that felt the same way about change, while I tried to find my way in design.

Through the years, I learned how design is deeply beautiful. It is the most fascinating thing that makes up our daily lives. It is our ways of being, thinking, and seeing brought into some kind of concrete form. Design embodies our dreams and our politics. It is our values brought to touch, our identities clothing us and sheltering us. Design is culture, the manifestation of everything we share.

Slowly, design also became the way I learned about people and the world. It’s what I’ve come to love the most about design. And it’s been my life’s pleasure to understand the Philippine condition through its beauty in whatever way, and to help create more beauty through how I’ve understood it. The deeper I went, the more I understood that design is not only beautiful, but also hopeful. Designers routinely imagine things that do not yet exist, things that might make things better, then bring them into existence in the hopes that they will.

It is at this point in my life where the two dreams really started to converge. I started to believe that we could literally create a Philippines that did not yet exist. If all of Filipino design created things that made our country better, even just a little bit, we would eventually get there. I anchored myself onto our indigenous cultures, including what it means to be indigenous to Manila and the Philippines on the whole. I learned that it’s through the lens of our people that we can best design for us, that we can best create and co-create responsibly, regeneratively, to help cultivate Filipino lives that can thrive.

But the last few years revealed a lot of hard truths. It got clearer and clearer that there’s only so much design can do. So I grieve, hand on my chest, for the kind of design I thought I was part of, and for the kind of Philippines I thought I’d be able to help build.

My grief for design coincides with my grief for the world. The relentless battery of crisis after crisis showed the sheer insufficiency of anything we’ve been trying to do. Sometimes, design is just not it. And after years of being told design could change the world, that you could change the world, this truth was a little hard to bear. What dent could one design project make against our crumbling social systems? What can one campaign really change? Can this brand really forward the cause it says it does?

A lot of books will say this is because design was born from capital. It is bound by it, it is defined by it, and it carries the sins of the system it sustains. How heartbreaking is it that not only is design limited by the conditions of its birth, but also that it is part and parcel of what keeps these conditions going? Design props up a string of things capitalism created to destroy — overconsumption and the destruction of our planet and the communities that knew how to coexist with it; propaganda and the destruction of democratic societies that knew how to coexist with each other. There is only so much agency designers have against this system of oppression, whose origins are so old and whose end is so unimaginable, neither is in sight.

That designers have so little freedom, creative or otherwise, is perhaps one of the most important things I’ve learned. I don’t know why I ever assumed our creative efforts could bring down oppression. Oppression that is systematic, planned on, decided on, across countries, across colonies, over centuries, generation after generation. Why did I ever believe design could do anything about that? Why did I ever believe I could do anything about that?

There is no truly ethical design under capitalism. I know, it breaks my heart too. What else have I been designing under, if not capitalism. This is a (spoiler alert) The Good Place situation that’s hard to escape.

And yet, we keep going.

“How heartbreaking is it that not only is design limited by the conditions of its birth, but also that it is part and parcel of what keeps these conditions going?”

I’ve spent the last year interviewing people who’ve used design to help in some way. Some grieve as I do, some are disillusioned to some degree, and some just simply see what we can and can’t do. But all of them, despite it all, push on. What I’ve learned is that they’ve created a gentle space for experimentation, a little pocket of resistance that carves away, bit by bit, at the conditions that bind us. They resist by simply doing what they do everyday, designing the best way they know how, and subverting how people think design should be done.

Jowee Alviar of Team Manila and Tasha Tanjutco of TAYO both root down on Filipino culture, indigenous, rural, and urban, and resist against Western-dominated design by telling stories that are our own through voices that are our own. Independent artist and designer Karl Castro uses his creative practice towards justice, through a critical application of his multidisciplinary background towards the restoration of dignity.

Instead of competition, these designers prefer collaboration and participation, honoring various disciplines, knowledges, and wisdoms that only enrich what they design. Dan Matutina of Plus 63 prefers to explore and experiment, working with a diversity of creatives and researchers. Tasha, along with Corinne Serrano of And a Half and Nikki Solinap of Dapat, embed themselves in communities to design with people, making solutions as democratic and grounded as they can be.

Karl also sees design as part of his activism, contributing his creativity to critical movements and trying, as much as he can, to expand design outside capitalism. Many of these designers may also be doing the same in subtle, but important ways. All of them try to build equal, collaborative relationships with clients, respectfully insisting on the dignity and value of what they do, resisting the whim of capital. They design independently, in the periphery of, instead of inside corporations who pursue profit at all costs. Some try to depend less on systems of capital, seeking imperfect but existing tools, such as grants, to sustain themselves.

As much as they design for people, they also design design itself. Jowee championed pioneering creative legislation, was founding president of the Communication Designers Association of the Philippines (CDAP), while continuing to advocate for Filipino design. All the designers I’ve mentioned have worked with the government in some way, helping develop the Filipino design community overall. Dan, Corinne, and Nikki have helped normalize almost a radical care for their employees, with 4-day work weeks increasingly common, worker-owned studios being explored, and alternative streams of income being welcomed and encouraged. These are the designers who take care of other designers, instituting protections, structurally caring for them, and cultivating collaborative communities and systems where they can grow and resist together.

I’ve found that, despite being born from capital, design can be a gentle yet subversive space. Design has held my hope and my grief through the years, but because of what I’ve learned, it now also holds my resistance. And so with these designers, against all odds, I just keep going, towards maybe one day sharing this space with more people.

The greatest thing I’ve learned about hopelessness is that, sometimes, it’s not about getting rid of it all, but learning to live with it. These designers have taught me to move forward, not with defeat, but with persistence. It is almost not about what design can do to save us, but just what design can do to help. As designers, design is what we can give to the grand, impossible project of our liberation. And so despite the hopelessness, we persist, if only because there’s so much more work left to be done.︎

Karina Abola is a design strategist and researcher, currently studying design and ginhawa.