Design with social impact fundamentals #1


Design for equity or with equity?

This note is not going to answer this question, rather it’s just a pause moment to encourage self-reflection on how the issues of power and privilege should be taken into account in the work of a social impact-focused designer.

If you are a designer who is thinking to roll-up her/his sleeves and deep digging into the land of equitable built spaces, well, … give yourself a pause and ask yourself this fundamental question: how do we, practitioners whose careers are acknowledged as creating places and spaces for people, define our relationship with power and privilege?

It might seem a redundant question in the first place. Yet, this fundamental question challenges us to ponder our core values and our passions for design. Design holds power, and we, design experts in the field of built environment, carry identities and legacies that gain their meanings and credits from this power.

Once we understand our relationship with power and privilege, then we might be able to wear an authentic equity lens and “striving for equity in a field entangled in good intentions and harmful past”. (Lorena Estrella)

I once sat and deeply digged why equity is a fundamental outcome that I am striving for as a social-impact focused designer. My heading into the equity-centered design journey rooted in people and community rather than built environments. And this reflexivity has led me to purposefully shift any “design“ opportunity as a space to reflect on inequity of communities’ well-being. I questioned myself about whether I genuinely acknowledge my privilege of sitting in the place of a decision-maker and how far I am able (i.e., eager and yet have the power) to give up this seat to those who are experts of their own assets and needs. I also questioned my level of power to shift a design agenda to a community agenda.

Yet, self-reflection, solid intentions and empathy are not enough to address the roots of institutional and structural inequities and oppersions that under-served people-regardless of their colors and ethnicity-are living with/within/under.

Even with good intentions of designers to create equitable spaces, the process might fail to reflect on the root causes of inequity and can reproduce inequitable powerful relationships. Equity-centered lens in design calls for creating liberatory processes, and this is where we designers should position our power.

Suggestion for an activity:

source: Fundamentals of Design for Social Innovation course- Design for Social Innovation Program, the School of Visual Arts.

A system of unjust treatment is built into our daily life and affects almost all activities, be it professional, personal or social life. Play this activity with your teammates or friends or conduct it as a warm-up activity at the beginning of a co-creation session. This activity helps participants understand how power dynamic and privilege works and the importance of analyzing these two concepts in order to act on liberatory process in design

1- Give the cards from ace to king to the participants without they knowing which card they had.

2- Every person should hold their card on their forehead throughout the activity.

3- The participants are asked to plan a party together while treating each other according to the label or number of the card they were given.

4- It is very interesting being an observer in this activity and see how the persons with less power and more power-according to their card or number- understarand their positions based on the threats they receive from others.

5- At the end, the facilitator should ask people to line up according to the card they think they have and the result is often surprising!

(Hint: Almost everybody would line up according to the power they assume they have based on other members’ attitudes!)

Suggestion to read:

Liberating Structures

Five conventional structures guide the way we organize routine interactions and how groups work together: presentations, managed discussions, open discussions, status reports and brainstorm sessions. Liberating Structures add 33 more options to the big five conventional approaches.


Equity-Centered Community Design (ECCD) field guide

ECCD is a creative problem-solving framework based on equity, humility-building, integrating history and healing practices, addressing power dynamics, and co-creating with the community. Pioneered by Creative Reaction Lab, this design process focuses on a community’s culture and needs so that they can gain tools to dismantle systemic oppression and create a future with equity for all.

Source: Equity-centered community design field guide (2018). Creative Reaction Lab. p.6

The little book of design research

Respect, responsibility, and honesty sound great. But they’re big abstract ideas that seem completely clear until we’re asked to define and apply them in the complicated, messy, human situations of real life. This book is a guide on how to seek and share insights about people’s lives in an ethical way.




Articles and stories from the OACC community and beyond

My name is Marveh. I am a co-creation savvy. I love sharing stories about People, Land, Roots and Design.