Conventional design education believes that by training the mind and the hand, a designer can solve just about any problem. In many ways, this works beautifully. Designers leave their schooling prepared to work for commercial clients with business problems that need solving. But the design industry is changing, and a growing number of designers (graphic and communication, industrial, UX and UI, architects, urban planners, and service designers to name a few) are working on social issues with greater and greater complexity.
This change is starting to expose a dormant weakness in design education that’s been lurking for decades. For all the talk about being human-centered, one very human factor often gets overlooked?—?a basic understanding of how power operates in relationships between people. This lack of understanding by design students and design teachers results in wasted funding, poorly prioritized projects, and broken promises to the very communities that are being served.
The gap no one’s talking about
When designers work on complex social sector issues, they often enter situations with power inherently given to them (even if they don’t realize it). They’re seen as the ones with the newest knowledge, the ones with solutions, the innovators. Couple that with many design disciplines strongly skewing towards being male and white, and you get race and privilege thrown in too. Thankfully, most designers know not to outright regard themselves as “saviors,” but there’s still an unarticulated sense that innovation is being bestowed onto needy communities by the largesse of the designer. This phenomena is just as prevalent in rural Illinois as it is in rural Malawi.
My design education happened in the mid-to late 1990s, and discussions of power never came up. Admittedly, design was rarely given a role in social issues then either. But consider this: there’s still a huge number of working mid-career designers and design educators like me, who don’t understand the role of power. Like a bolus of ignorance working its way through the system, this gap in understanding may be getting passed on in our classrooms and in our studios.
While many design educators don’t explicitly talk about power in their classes, they do talk about users or consumers or even clients. This is a great starting place as it at least acknowledges that a) another audience other than oneself exists and b) this audience has needs different that one’s own. In many ways, human-centered design has established empathy as a baseline in design education and gives credence to having enough humility that the designer might not have all the answers. But being empathetic can sometimes fall short when the project gets more and more complex.
As it’s commonly taught, design?—?without adaptation for use in the social sector?—?would infuriate students who are taking social work or public policy 101 classes. Thankfully, there are design educators and institutions who have the self awareness to know this, and are actively filling this gap. I’m glad to say my school is amongst this group. (See the end of the post for more resources.)
But as more and more designers pour into complex social situations (whether new graduates or seasoned professionals), this unintentional blind spot can be disastrous. Perhaps this would explain why it’s taken the design discipline so long to get a credible foothold within the social sector. Why would an executive director of a non-profit expose their staff to a hubristic designer, let alone to the population they’re serving?