The Workers Tarot Deck

A working prototype by Parsons DESIS Lab at The New School

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Dramatic changes are affecting how people work. The conditions and lives of workers have been transformed throughout history as a battlefield where no right is gained without a fight. The COVID pandemic and the Black Lives Movement have exposed centuries old issues while also pushing for change. The perception of workers in society is quickly changing, as we finally reckon with the reality of underpaid service jobs being the main protagonists of the workforce. We now see and recognize essential workers, we now understand what remote workers might mean, and we brace for unprecedented unemployment. This deck wants to reveal the true face of workers of today, picturing them with candor, affection and respect.

As designers we aim at not only document ongoing transformations, but also at identifying what are the design levers, decisions and actions and objects of design that may affect workers and their work conditions. The deck is therefore meant as a critical tool to help designers understand the implications of their designs (of services, platforms, products, systems) have on workers. The cards allow for zooming out into larger ethical and political implications of service design to help practitioners define a more consequential practice for themselves. Ultimately the deck aims at creating empathy and establishing solidarity between designers and workers and delineating a worker-centered design framework.

While service design has developed user-centered approaches through participatory methods, it has not sufficiently considered services workers. It is our responsibility as designers to shift our practice into a worker-centric approach. As apps, platforms and systems are being designed by legions of designers worldwide, each feature they design affects not only users but also the worker doing the invisible work behind these services. Designers need to account not only for the discrete app or feature they are designing for the end-user, but that they are also designing the lives of workers and their work conditions.

At this stage, the cards have been designed considering primarily the U.S. workforce with just a few cards showing stories from other countries as reference, such as India, Brazil and European countries. Future versions of this deck aspire to a broader diverse, global representation. We have left a number of cards open for workshop participants to design new cards. Please document new cards you design as well as new ways of playing it and ideas for possible different audiences. This is an ongoing prototype by Parsons DESIS Lab at The New School.

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We invite designers to play with the deck by discussing recent projects stories they have worked on, re-telling these stories from the perspective of the workers involved and prefiguring professional strategies according to solidarity-based design principles. Play sessions and workshops may be organized within teams and across departments. It allows for discussion around different service industries including health care, transportation and logistics, hospitality, education, retail, public services.

While there are many ways to use the deck, we suggest starting with the traditional tarot cross-like configuration. Following the traditional tarot structure, the deck is composed of five card categories, organized in two main groups:

The MAJOR ARCANA comprises 22 cards corresponding to ARCHETYPES of service workers, the cards often tell their stories.

The MINOR ARCANA comprising four suits of 14 cards each that are the prompts for playing:

THINGS represented by the suit DIAMONDS (♦), artifacts used by service workers, the most visible design levers in relation to workers conditions, where designers can affect the most.

THEORIES represented by the suit SPADES (♠) are about theories and concepts by philosophers, sociologists and designer theorists offering useful frameworks to understand work.

HISTORY represented by the suit HEARTS (♥), gathers far or recent historical facts, both successful and not so successful, wins and losses for workers and worker movements along time.

TRENDS represented by the suit CLUBS (♣) features trends affecting the present and future of work, both threatening and empowering.

The Workers Tarot wants to demonstrate how designing (for) services is in great part designing service work and help designers reflect about the implications of their designs (of services, platforms, products, systems) on workers.