Decentering the Designer
Methods to move beyond the hero paradigm and center community in public realm design
As an architecture student, I was taught to play the role of the hero. I learned about a long legacy of designers who left their mark on the field. Their stories always centered on the individual, accompanied by pristine photographs of their great works. They reinforced a definition of what it means to be a designer — the designer — someone who, as a result of their training and creative brilliance, has the right and privilege to flex their authority over the design process.
I also saw the aftermath of hero designers, planners, and powerful public officials who used St. Louis as a petri dish for experimentation. My school was a few miles from the site of the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects and supersized highways that cut up Black and Brown neighborhoods and disrupted livelihoods. These counterpoints were relegated to sidebar conversations in my formal education, but they struck a chord with me: What right did a degree give me to imprint my ideas on others? If anything, shouldn’t communities play the leading role in determining their future?
When reduced to its most elemental form, the design process is ultimately about envisioning and implementing change. After graduation, I sought out other approaches to creating change in the public realm. I learned firsthand from grassroots community organizers, nonprofit housing developers, campaigners, worker-owned cooperative enterprises, adaptive leadership practitioners, local storytellers. I went a step upstream in the process to ask the question, how do those involved in these efforts begin to recognize — and help others to see — their own capacity to do this work? I sought out educators, some whose pedagogical approach was rooted in popular education, others in experiential learning, and others still in action civics.
In some of these spaces, designers and planners were present, but rather than being protagonists, they played a supporting role, providing technical skills in support of a vision. In many of these moments, they were absent altogether — and yet the design process was still very much alive, producing places, spaces, programs, services, and products.
What these approaches were able to accomplish went far beyond form in critical ways. They built power, by supporting a change process that was determined and owned locally by those impacted. They fostered leadership, by providing platforms for existing and emerging community leaders to enhance their leadership role and capacity, and activating latent desires to participate in others. And they cultivated social capital and solidarity, by nourishing relationships between people that had utility and meaning beyond the process itself.
These community-centered approaches gave me a mirror to hold up to the hero designer narrative: the focus on our ideas and egos over the people who use what we produce; the myth of the singular creative genius in the design process; and the exclusive prerogative to design that our profession reinforces through pedagogy, certifications, and titles — these became apparent to me as manifestations of a white-supremacy, male-dominated paradigm that is wound up tightly in the DNA not only of architecture, planning, and adjacent fields, but many other design fields. The most common approaches to design today center those with learned expertise over those with lived expertise, those who had the means to join the exclusive club of a professionalized field over those who did not, and the individual hero over the collective. When working in the public realm, the paradigm turns violent. Continuing to teach about and operate as hero designers means perpetuating this paradigm.
Beyond the perpetuation of this paradigm when the hero designer is in play, we lose out on a fundamentally grander purpose for design. I believe that design can evolve to embody a new paradigm and an expanded purpose by taking cues from the other approaches I mentioned earlier. Design can be a process for building power, fostering leadership, and building social solidarity through relationships. Doing so requires designers to relinquish their roles as heroes and decenter themselves in the design process — and, in doing so, create more space for others to step into the center.
Below I articulate four ways that evolve the structure of the design process to decenter the designer when working in the public realm. Evolving the structure of design is a baseless and superficial endeavor if those involved are not also doing the inner work to examine their own positionality, privileges, identities, and how they show up in design processes. As a white cis-gender woman from a middle-income background, I have had to unpack my upbringing, my education, and my design process to identify the ways my positionality affects my work, and where the hero designer narrative continues to sneak in. This unpacking has begun, and it will continue. While I don’t explore the work we need to do individually below, it is a critical cornerstone to decentering the designer and evolving the design process.
Although my background is in architecture and planning, I believe these structural evolutions are applicable to other design fields as well, and I invite the reader to consider how these may connect to their own practice and process. For each, I share analogous examples from fields beyond design, as well as work I’ve seen or been a part of within the design world to illuminate what it might look like in practice. However, I believe the latter examples are in many ways just a glimmer of what’s possible. I am interested in hearing from others, to push these ideas further, and to imagine evolved approaches together.
1. Hold space for decisions
Whenever I’m trying to assess who has power over a process, I look for the decision making moments. Power and control manifest themselves most overtly during these moments, and as a design student, I was taught to hoard them to myself. Yet decision making in the practice of design is rarely a secluded experience. You have to listen to and consider feedback from colleagues and clients. When designing in the public realm, community members are sometimes sought out for input or invited to attend town halls and voice opinions. Many times the facilitators of such moments, be it a community development nonprofit or a city agency, do take into account what people share. However, these moments are often timed and structured in such a way that only allows for input — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but offering input is not the same as being involved in making a decision.
Often as a designer working in the public realm, I’m partnering with organizations that have received funding from a foundation or corporate sponsor. At the very least, the funder will have expectations about how the money is used. At the most, they might have a very specific, crystallized vision for how they want funds to be used — to turn an empty lot into a play space, to redevelop a mothballed building into lofts, to design a new website that allows constituents to access resources. These ideas aren’t inherently rotten, but to know if they address what’s actually needed is a question better answered in partnership with those closest to the design challenge. Additionally, sharing funding without sharing the ability to determine how it’s used creates or reinforces an age-old dynamic wherein the designer and organization are tasked to put in the labor to bring to life what someone or something else thought a community needed.
PUSH Buffalo is a community development organization that improves housing and working conditions on the West Side of Buffalo, New York. They build homes, create jobs, redevelop community spaces, and develop neighborhood-based electricity generation systems. Their board is composed entirely of residents, and they have a membership base of several hundred local neighbors and institutions. Their board and their members have voting power, controlling the big decisions that drive strategy and determine how resources are allocated. Their staff manage the day-to-day operations, and make day-to-day level decisions.
This arrangement ensures that the work of the organization reflects the priorities of the community it is responsible to, because the organization is the community. It ensures that the technical skills of staff and contractors will be directed strategically towards projects that are of high value. Most significantly, this decision-making structure builds power, local leadership, ownership of the work, and relationships between residents who galvanize over a shared effort. These outcomes both increase the long term viability of their work and support community growth and resiliency beyond themselves.
Taking cues from the work of organizations like PUSH, decentering the designer begins by creating distance between the designer and design decisions. Creating distance means that designers design platforms for decision making that others can step into, and where others can focus on the design at hand, rather than designing every detail of the program, space, or program by themselves.
Right now at Greater Good Studio, we’re working with the Real County Community Initiative (RCCI) to identify locally-grown solutions that support healthy children and families in rural Real County, Texas. Central to this process is a design team composed of local stakeholders that convenes at major decision-making moments to determine the direction and evolution of the work: what the strategic focus of our work should be (they determined it should be about creating more and better spaces to care for children), who we should learn from (they determined single caregivers, caregivers without other family nearby, and low-to-moderate income households), and they’ll determine which concepts to prototype and ultimately pilot.
In decision-making moments, we can do more as decentered designers by holding space for others rather than holding the pen. Of course, our technical skills in research, facilitation, and design are also essential for the process to proceed, and of course, no facilitator is ever neutral. Nonetheless, the decentered designer facilitates decision making and the emergence of a locally-determined vision. They don’t drive it.
The same can be said for whoever is funding the work, be it the client or another funder. Although more and more funders are moving towards providing unrestricted funds, where beneficiaries can determine how to use them, most often funds come with strings attached, stipulating how funds should be used, by when, and towards what outcomes. In the example from Real County, RCCI is providing funding with few strings attached. It is not simply providing financial resources — it is also sharing decision-making power with community members.
There is no universal, coherent experience of a place or an issue when many people with varied lived experiences are involved. It is brazen for us as designers to try to define it so that we can design for it, particularly if we ourselves are not from that community. Not creating space for others to have direct engagement in decision making therefore adds risk to the design process, leaving questions unanswered about whether the design is actually reflective of what’s needed and desirable to its ultimate audience.
More importantly, however, is the harsh but honest truth that funding a community-based project without also sharing power with the community to determine how those resources are used is yet another form of professional predation: it’s just another example of “experts” who believe they have the prerogative to tell communities what they need and need to do, a hero designer arriving on their white horse. Without changing norms and expectations about who actually has the power in this process, funding alone falls short, and the benefits of increased resources are undermined by the reinforcement of historical, detrimental power imbalances. When we do couple resources and power in design processes, the process can become a platform for local ownership and authorship of ideas to flourish, and for local leaders, existing and emergent, to step into and grow.
2. Open up ideation
The structure of design is sometimes described as cycles of divergent and convergent thinking: first, the designer ideates many ideas and possibilities; then, the designer evaluates, prioritizes, and refines a few. Just as I learned to hold a tight grip on the convergent side of the process — where decisions are made — I came to believe that the divergent side was the designer’s domain as well.
Very rarely in public realm projects do I see end users participating in the ideation process, or asked to generate ideas. As I mentioned previously, most often in public realm projects they are asked for feedback on previously-generated ideas and near final plans, if they are asked at all. Most designers simply lack the training or exposure to precedents to know how to open up the ideation process. I also have a hunch that many assume that people who are not trained as design or artistic professionals do not have the capacity to generate the quality of ideas that they can. And on the flip side, those who aren’t formally trained in creative fields don’t often have confidence in their abilities to be creative and generative.
Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) is a methodology for sustainable community-driven development that creates opportunities rooted in communities’ strengths and potentials. In an ABCD process, community members are involved each step of the way as the primary determinants of the work. The ABCD methodology doesn’t explicitly include “brainstorms” or “ideation sessions” in it. However, central to the approach is the notion that together, people are envisioning the change they want to see — a deeply imaginative process — and then determining how to realize it. “Mapping assets” is a key step of the process, which can then be referred back to, added to, and used as stimulus for solution-making. Everyone is invited to contribute assets to the map and can suggest what could be created using them.
Drawing upon assets is a cousin of the brainstorm or generative process as designers typically think of it, with a twist: it honors what already exists. The ideas communities come up with are rooted in assets that are currently present. More than that, however, it presumes that people have the capacity to envision, to imagine, and to create.
In 2019, the state of California was gearing up to develop a statewide Master Plan for Aging. The SCAN Foundation, a longtime advocate for the need for such a plan, asked our team at Greater Good Studio to ensure that the recommendations they put forth to the governor would reflect the lived realities and hopes of older adults and their care teams throughout the state.
After conducting ethnographic research to learn firsthand from older adults about their lived experiences, we hosted public ideas workshops across the state. The workshops invited policymakers, political figures, service providers, the media, and older adults to generate ideas to include in the master plan recommendations. Stories of the older adults we learned from during research were shared, along with generative prompts such as, “How might we ease the process of navigating housing options and regulations for older adults?” and “How might we help older adults find and build strong social networks that elevate and celebrate their identities?” Over 1,000 ideas were generated cumulatively from over 500 workshop participants.
These events invited others to be the primary creative engine of the process. Of course, to claim we did not in any way inform the recommendations themselves would be false; our fingerprints were all over the process: our team framed and facilitated the events, and we reviewed, organized, and synthesized the ideas afterwards, so that they could be presented in a structured fashion in the final recommendations. But in contrast to the way designers typically ideate — by themselves, or with their project team — those fingerprints were less present. When they were present, we asked a number of local organizations we were partnering with to provide feedback. They helped us tailor and edit the overall process, the content presented at the workshops, and ultimately the recommendations that emerged from the process.
What is possible when we loosen our grip on the ideation process, and create space for others to imagine? Perhaps a better question to ask, however, is why must we loosen our grip on the ideation process? Creativity has become a commodity channeled to an exclusive few through the professionalization of creative fields and academia. Hoarding a capacity that is innate to all humans is a power play, one that reinforces the conception of a designer as a savior with almighty abilities, and everyone else as incapable and dependent. By opening up the process, we were able to produce a set of larger, more robust, and frankly just better ideas than what our team internally would have produced alone. That in and of itself is reason enough to step back so that others are centered in the creative envisioning of solutions that may affect their lives and livelihoods.
The SCAN workshops did more than simply produce value for the narrow purposes of this effort. Like ABCD efforts, these moments validated the lived experiences and creative abilities of those in the room. Many people, older adults and service providers alike, remarked that they felt seen and heard — a rarity for many of them. The workshops gave them a way to translate their experience into expertise for the benefit of themselves and others. And the workshops weren’t window dressing to the process. We genuinely needed people — non-designers by training, yet wildly creative individuals nonetheless — to show up and share their ideas. We weren’t helping them — they were helping us.
3. Work relationally
Picture this: an auditorium lit by fluorescent lights, a small crowd dispersed amongst several rows of seats, arranged to face the front of the room. At the front, a designer or planner is presenting a plan to redesign a space in the community — perhaps an intersection, a park, or a commercial corridor. After the presentation, there is a little time for questions, with one or two microphones around the room for a handful of people to ask questions. Then the meeting concludes, and everyone leaves.
It’s a pretty easy scene to imagine because, more often than not, that’s what community engagement looks like in a public realm design process. They are approached in much the same way business meetings would be: as transactions of information, with the singular purpose of discussing the particular project at hand. The power differential is on display in the way the room is laid out, with “the experts” commanding the attention of everyone present and determining how their time will be used.
Contrast that image with this one: while working in São Paulo, Brazil several years ago on a project to develop a digital community organizing platform, my team and I wanted to understand how paulistanos naturally exchanged ideas and formed community. We attended a sarau, a lively event at an open-walled corner restaurant in a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. There was one microphone, nestled in the midst of tables full of people eating and drinking. While not all saraus are political or activist in nature, this particular evening was marked by intermittent calls to action — calls to push legislators to move on a piece of policy, or to show up at a date a few days later to clean up a nearby public space — but these weren’t the only items on the agenda. People read poetry and played music, kids ran around and played at their parents’ feet, and by the end of the night, the tables were pushed aside and everyone was dancing.
This scene is a stark contrast to the scene of the business-like meeting in the auditorium: instead of a singular reason for convening, there were many, such that everyone could walk away having gotten what they came for. Instead of having an agenda set by a singular party, it invited everyone to engage in ways that felt good to them, such that everyone present could shape the formation of the evening. And lastly, instead of being a transactional experience of communicating information, it was relational, premised on forming relationships necessary to build a sense of solidarity essential for acting on the information that was shared.
In 2015 I co-founded Why We Work Here (WWWH), an experiential action civics program that introduces high school students to human-centered design and adaptive leadership as tools for creating change in their community. We worked collaboratively with school administrators and educators to design and launch a program in three adjacent districts in central Wisconsin.
These districts were committed to the well-being of their students and families experiencing the same tremendous setbacks in recent years: the loss of major industries locally, budget cuts to public education, and devastation invoked by the opioid epidemic. Our intention was to build relationships with this group so that we could work closely to build and iterate on the program together. It became apparent when we first came together that they also wanted time with each other to discuss matters that were salient across district lines. So we were intentional about what time together looked like: our meetings always involved food (at the outset when our budget was especially limited, we made chili and served it out of a big crockpot). There was always unstructured time at the beginning and throughout for general catch-up. We made sure to pick locations that were designed for relationship building, such as the local wine bar or a lodge in the woods.
As a result, they were able to shape the experience of these moments such that they found the value they sought: it could serve as a social outlet and respite from the daily to-do list; it could be a space for airing reflections on the practice of teaching for which there were few other outlets; it could be a channel for discussing ideas about how the districts could collaborate and share resources; and, back to WWWH, it could be a place where they built something together that they believed in. One of the assistant principals remarked, “The biggest thing to come of this process might not be WWWH, but that our districts — which given their small size, need to work together — are collaborating in new ways.” We took this not as a diminishment of our program, but as a testament to the power of working relationally.
When designers focus community engagements solely on the transaction of information — sharing or receiving the information we ultimately need to do our work — we make the process about ourselves, not the community. When we build agendas that prioritize the usage of time most valuable to us, again, we make the process about ourselves. When we arrange meeting spaces such that we stand in front of or in opposition to community members, we reinforce an us-versus-them paradigm and dynamic of paternalism that suggests that, because we are “the experts,” we have the authority to speak and take up space.
Instead of the business-style, transactional meeting, what if events allowed others to lead, to participate in ways they wanted to, to meet their own needs? What if, instead of the one-off community meeting to “hear from” or update the community, as so often happens, community members were engaged throughout, such that they build relationships with us, with the project, and with each other? Building solidarity and collective ownership around a project has long term benefits for the project, and relational time, as can be seen by the WWWH example, has value beyond the project itself. If we as designers conceive of the design process not simply as a means to an output, but as a community- and power-building process, our conception of what these moments can look like will be dramatically altered.
4. Share the air
More often than not, when public realm design is being discussed, it’s a trained designer, planner, or professional from an adjacent field, who is speaking. Whenever design or planning in the public realm is discussed in more public arenas, like newspapers, quotes come from the professional team behind the project. Speakers at design conferences are usually only designers, and attendees are usually only designers.
More than a decade ago, I attended a design conference on public interest architecture. Assembled in the hall were a spread of architects and architecture students from across the world, all with a shared interest in serving communities through design. During one presentation on rebuilding and community development efforts in coastal Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, the podium was shared by two people: the principal architect, and a resident who had been involved in the effort. Together, they spoke of the rebuilding that had taken place: the design of new homes, which honored the vernacular and could withstand major flooding events; the process of rebuilding, which was collaborative, transparent, and inclusive; and the significance of both the process and the final homes to residents. This presentation, more than any other from that conference, stands out in my memory because the airtime was shared between the architect and resident, and the resident’s voice and expertise was just as central to the presentation as the architect’s.
Whenever I think about sharing airtime, I think about the Highlander Research and Education Center. The organization, tucked away in the quiet hills of eastern Tennessee, has been a movement-building force for nearly 100 years. Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, the students from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, among countless others, came to Highlander to learn and build a national Civil Rights movement together. Today, the organization continues to support communities across the country to advance social and economic justice nationally.
Many now well-known people walked the grounds of Highlander’s rural campus, yet surprisingly few know the organization. It intentionally never centered itself in conversations about the direct actions taken, the strikes and walks organized, and the policy demands made by the communities it partnered with. In part, this was because it wanted to be a refuge for movement builders, and drawing attention to itself could invite threats from countervailing forces (which did and continue to happen). But primarily, it stayed in the background because of how it defined success.
“Success” for Highlander has always been tied to the increase in leadership skills exhibited by former participants: their ability to act as informal leaders for change in their communities, or assuming formal positions of leadership; achieving new goals as a result of their Highlander experience; and, as good leaders do, enabling others to become leaders, thus multiplying the effect of Highlander’s work. Therefore, not simply sharing airtime, but relinquishing it entirely to participants was necessary if others were to truly express their leadership to the fullest extent.
Several months after the SCAN community design workshops wrapped up, the recommendations were released at the California Master Plan for Aging Forum. In the audience were local and state policymakers, executive directors of social service organizations, and many older adults who participated in our research. At the outset of the forum, several of them joined the state’s Interim Director of Aging for a conversation on issues facing older adults in California. For those in the audience, they grounded the day’s conversations, which quickly went deep into policy nuances and technical details, in tangible, human experiences. For the older adults, they got the credit and public acknowledgement for their invaluable contributions to a process that could benefit millions of people.
Who holds the microphone, literally or figuratively, reflects not only who is believed to have the credentials, expertise, and power to relay an experience, but who should be bestowed credit, respect, and public acknowledgement for the work. When we hoard the mic, we dig our heels into the destructive norm of professionalism that we as credentialed experts have the authority to speak on behalf of others. Imagine if, after every boycott or other action taken by a Highlander attendee, Highlander was sought for comment in lieu of those doing the work on the ground. Leadership in the movement would have been portrayed as centralized, when in fact its strength was in its decentralization. By sharing the airtime, movement participants could elevate their stature as leaders and bring others in their circles up with them.
An increasing number of groups today, often led by BIPOC designers and educators, are imagining through their work and teaching how design can operate differently, including Creative Reaction Lab, Dark Matter University, and the efforts of my colleagues Greater Good Studio. Still, they are often considered “alternatives” and countervailing forces to the “mainstream.” For a true paradigm shift, we need more people evolving the process through their work, and more courses in design schools that ask emerging designers to grapple with the role, responsibilities, and evolved practices of designers in the public realm.
Few people would likely list “design” as a leading means for building power, community, and leadership. I deeply believe it can be — but only if we retire the outdated and destructive hero designer paradigm. The structural revisions I’ve outlined above are the tip of the iceberg, the very least we can do to evolve the design process into an experience that is transformative for the individuals and communities involved.
Deepest gratitude for those who made this piece a reality, including my colleagues at Greater Good Studio (in particular Rose Tarullo, Sara Cantor, George Aye, Christina Cosío, and Kareeshma Ali for your feedback), and my editor Oona O’Leary.