Design Education’s Big Gap: Understanding the Role of Power

Grad students in the MA in Social Design (MASD) at MICA in Baltimore, get what’s sorely missing in design education: An understanding of power.

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?


Getting familiar with power

My understanding of power changed dramatically about three years ago, and since then, I’ve seen how power has played a hidden role, working behind the scenes, in every interaction I’ve had in my life. And now that I’ve seen it, I can’t unsee it.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be nominated to attend a very unusual conference in Mexico called Opportunity Collaboration. As part of the week-long attendance, we met in small groups each morning. The group was expertly facilitated through conversations on how we could reduce poverty and suffering around the world. No small task. But one particular morning’s discussion was specifically focused on power.

The facilitator asked a series of questions which started my journey to understanding power.

  • When was the last time you felt powerless?
  • When was the last time you felt powerful?
  • What do you love about having power?
  • When was the last time you gave away your power (deliberately or otherwise)?
  • When was the last time you usurped someone else’s power?
  • In what situations do you not trust yourself with too much power?

These questions (and others like them) had me reeling, and my answers felt raw, clumsy, and crude. It made me realize how little practice I had in thinking or even talking about power. Since then, I’ve come to better understand that power is so many things at the same time: an emotion, a currency, a source of pride, a place of strength, a sign of vulnerability, an advantage to play, a lever to pull, a tool to wield with precision or without care. And it’s been present in every relationship I’ve ever had and will be present in every interaction yet to come.

The definiton of power: the ability to influence an outcome

When you have power, the chances of you affecting a particular outcome is increased. When you have a lot of power, you can practically guarantee things will go the way you intend them. It’s easy to get used to the predictability that power affords. In contrast, when you have little to no power, you learn not to trust the odds — you simply can’t afford to take the risk of things not turning out in your favour.

So what explains this gap’s existence in a design school setting? Is it just too unsettling for teachers to broach without adequate training? Is it because power is uncomfortably close to discussions about privilege, race and historic access to power? Does talking about it expose how power is distributed in the classroom? Perhaps it’s all of the above.

Whatever the reason, a poor understanding of power will leave an emerging designer unprepared for the complexity of social issues where power has played a key role.


Power asymmetry

As a designer, have you worked on a project where the timeline looks completely unrealistic? One where you’re battling feature/scope creep? Where the budget is so small as to make it impossible to deliver meaningful results? Have you ever felt you’ve been set up to fail? Congratulations, you’ve experienced the sharp end of power asymmetry.

In those situations, we often blame the project manager, the client, or a tyrannical boss for setting such unrealistic expectations.

You might say, “Why are they doing this to me?” or “This isn’t what I signed up for!” or, “Oh great, here we go again.”

You might ask, “Why didn’t they just ask me what I think we should do?” or “I know what they are trying to do, but the process to get there is so broken—don’t they understand that by now?”

When your future doesn’t look so great and you feel powerless to change it, what do you do? You may start dragging your feet, leaving things until the last minute — finding distractions. You might start making poor choices simply because you’re thinking, “how much worse can it get?”

When you feel that you’re being set up to fail—that’s power asymmetry. When you feel a suffocating sense that nothing is going in your favor—that’s power asymmetry. When you lose hope that your actions won’t make a difference—that’s power asymmetry again.

But as a designer working on a complex social issue, have you ever stopped to wonder where the power lies in your project? At what end of power are the people you’re serving? At the wide end or the sharp end of the asymmetry? Feeling powerlessness is felt universally.

Without pausing to understand a designer’s relationship to power, one could unintentionally remind a community that they have little power to stop a project from happening.

The big shift

At Greater Good we are very intentional about understanding our relationship to power, but we’ve still got so much to learn and we know that. We went through a big change in our perspective when we started our studio. We shifted from designing solutions to designing engagements, where solutions are from all those involved not just those that went to school for design. Our skills can now go towards designing the interface between us and the community we’re serving, and in some cases, even letting go of designing the solution at all. Crazy, right?

In this case study for Chicago Public Schools, you can see what designing the engagement can look like.

During a project we did with Chicago Public Schools, teachers prototyped a new kind of job fair experience for students

When you start looking for solutions in the social sector, so many of them can only be made by the people you are serving. We believe that change is adopted by people when they were a part of that change. So in those moments where you cede control, you may experience a temporary loss of power. But the more experienced you are in understanding the mechanics of power, you’ll find that power is remarkably renewable. Power is restorative the more you give it away.

Your design work is different than perhaps your training has prepared you for. It’s different because you have to now design how people feel during the project. Someone much wiser than me once said, “You are responsible for the words you say, but you should also take responsibility for what people hear.” This is a fundamentally different way to do design work and directly stems from that shift mentioned above.


Constant vigilance

When thinking of an illustrative example, I thought I would share a time when a new client was seeking an engagement strategy for a disenfranchised community within their city. In many ways, this was an ideal project for our studio and our process — we were excited and honored to be considered. But as I started to write the proposal, I was struck by the irony of writing this post about power and not realizing that our client was giving us so much unearned power from the start—power to plan how a community works together, power to create a future strategy. As a designer, I was about to fall foul of all the same errors I’m arguing against. Dammit! It was so easy to be given too much power that it requires constant vigilance to ensure that power won’t lead to hubris.

So I stopped myself from trying to land the contract, and asked a few questions—one that deliberately ran the risk of jeopardizing the project:

  • How can we be sure that our involvement won’t retraumatize your community from previous engagements processes?
  • How do we ensure we don’t create new dependencies that lead to parasitic consulting fees?
  • How can we press pause on our process so we can get an invitation from the community, not just our client?

Thankfully, I can report that these questions were well received and appreciated, but asking these questions comes with some unsettling admissions. We’re essentially admitting that our studio does not offer a silver bullet, but we’re also acknowledging that we check for where power lies before entering any engagement.


What you can do right now

Let’s start by understanding that power is an underlying hidden mechanism in any human relationship. Everyone has a certain amount of power, and there’s always someone who has more than you and someone who has less than you. Let’s start with 3 simple sets of questions.

Check your privilege (as a designer)

  • How much privilege was I born into? (If you’re a designer, you’re statistically likely to be highly educated, white and male.)
  • How much power has been given to me in my role as a designer?
  • How much power can I give away and still be effective in my work?

What’s your role (in transferring power)?

  • When a community first hears of this project, will the communication acknowledge previous failed attempts and demonstrate a different approach, or will the communication simply resurface past traumas?
  • During the project, does the process give power to those who are typically overlooked, or does it go back to the usual suspects?
  • After the project is over, what is the community’s net power balance outcome? Will this work lead to power being drained away or will it lead to a strengthening of power for that community?

Fire up your curiosity (by asking better questions)

  • How many people have tried solving this in the past? Who’s still working on it today?
  • Why are we trying to solve this problem now?
  • Do you actually understand the question? Are you solving the wrong problem?

Whatever you do, don’t give up

Part of the reason that designers and educators don’t talk about this topic is that it’s inherently thorny. It brings up sensitive issues around class, race, politics, privilege, access and more.

Should designers get out of social impact design altogether? Absolutely not. Designers are uniquely trained to be comfortable working with ambiguity without losing hope. And that right there is a powerful asset.

But if you shy away from working in the social sector, you’ll miss out on opportunities to change the world and yourself in the process. All it takes is a more reflective approach—one that acknowledges the hidden forces at play in the world around us.

When the word ‘designer’ becomes a role and not just a job, you’ll appreciate how power is a vital factor in making progress in the social sector.

Next steps and resources

As a design educator you can:

As a current student you can:

As a prospective design school student you can review this list of US-based educators that are well-versed in power, art practice, design and the social sector:

  • Art Center College Of Design: Mariana Amatullo
  • Carnegie Mellon University: Terry Irwin
  • School of Visual Arts (SVA): Allan Chochinov, Cheryl Heller
  • Connecticut College: Andrea Wollensak
  • Kean University, Michael Graves College: David Mohney
  • Lamar University:Natacha Poggio
  • Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Center For Social Design: Mike Weikert, Lee Davis, Thomas Gardner, Becky Slogeris and Myra Margolin
  • Northwestern University: Liz Gerber
  • Pratt Institute: Deb Johnson
  • Rhode Island School Of Design (RISD): Charlie Cannon
  • Savannah College Of Art And Design (SCAD): Scott Boylston
  • Parsons School of Design: Eduardo Staszowski, Lara Penin, Lisa Norton
  • The School of the Art Institute Of Chicago (SAIC): Bess Williamson, Kate Dumbleton, Rachel Weiss, Adelheid Mers, Mary Jane Jacobs, (me!)
  • UC Davis, Center For Design In The Public Interest: Susan Verba
  • University Of Illinois At Chicago: Marcia Lausen
  • Yale, Center For Engineering, Innovation & Design: Joe Zinter

Lastly, as a non-profit leader thinking about engaging with a designer partner you can:

  • Ask them to talk about the last time they worked with a group of people that looked much different than themselves as a way to get a sense for their cultural competency. Listen closely for language used to describe the people they were serving—are they speaking from a place or respect or pity?
  • Ask, ‘Why are you working in social impact? Why now?’
  • Ask them to talk through their process for building trust with a organization with similar-sized operating budgets
  • Ask them to talk through their process for building trust with individuals within a community
  • Lastly, watch how the leaders you’re meeting with treat those within their organization who have less power (eg. a subordinate role). It’s a subtle but revealing indication of how power is distributed and exchanged within their organization.

What other resources would help a design educator? What other resources would help a design student? Who else should be on this list of design educators? What other questions should non-profit leaders be asking? Please add your recommendations in the comments!