Designers as power brokers

Flag stating ‘Information is Power — if you understand it’

I put this flag up in work a couple of weeks ago. It caused a bit of a conversation and people had different interpretations of what it meant. I thought it best to explain the way I intended it.

The piece initially came about after a workshop I did with the students at Cardiff School of Art and Design on their module called ‘Information is Power’.

The concept of power is a complicated thing. It means different things to different people. Often power is treated as a zero-sum game. So for someone to have power or feel powerful the notion is that there must be someone on the opposite side who is being disempowered because of this.

As a designer in government my role is to give power to those people who often feel disempowered. This might sound grandiose but it’s why I go to work and do what I do.

If people feel like they understand the information being presented to them — in our case by government — then they feel able to better make a decision about what to do. I’ve seen this time and time again with user research participants, who can go into a session expecting something to be really difficult. When the thing they’re doing turns out to be easy and understandable their demeanor immediately changes and they feel more confident and empowered about the process they’re going through.

Just giving the information to the user isn’t enough. This empowerment only comes about when this information is given to people in a way that they can understand it. This is hard to achieve and some organisations simply wipe their hands of this second part.

As designers in government it’s up to us to make this information understandable. We need to redress the balance between the powerful and the disempowered in our society. Fixing impenetrable information is a good place to start.

Organisations like Projects by if have written extensively on the subject of how we can put power back in the hands of the user. I’d recommend a sift through their blog.

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