Reimagining Design Thinking: How the Groundbreaking Georgia Election Wins Demonstrate Inclusive Innovation
Applying the strategies of LaTosha Brown, Stacey Abrams, and Nse Ufot in the 2020 Georgia Elections and Senate runoffs to the design thinking practice
What is design? Many think of design as purely aesthetic or functional products, but design is actually solving problems. The implications for problem-solving reach far beyond developing innovative tools, like rideshare car apps, but also include essential democratic processes, like casting a vote.
As a Black female designer, I watched in amazement as voting rights activists LaTosha Brown, Stacey Abrams, Nse Ufot, and other nonpartisan BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) organizations shattered voter suppression for Black and Brown communities. With multiple, diverse teams and thousands of volunteers, these activists mobilized record voter registration and turnout in the 2020 presidential election and recent Georgia senate runoff, turning Georgia blue.
Many designers aim to achieve a similar scale of success when attempting to solve social and systemic issues through design thinking. In this five-step process, designers empathize with users, define the problem, ideate concepts, prototype, and test their solutions.
But is the five-step design thinking process enough to solve ambiguous issues like global warming, education, healthcare, and security?
As Maggie Gram states in her article with n+1 magazine, “Design isn’t magic. To address a wicked problem is to look for its roots — and there’s no hexagon map for getting there.”
Truthfully, designing solutions to these “wicked” issues is messy and challenging. Without understanding the complexities, incorporating historical and socio-economic contexts, and involving the people it serves in the entire process, the solutions are limited and ineffective.
Brown, Abrams, and Ufot understood the complexity of casting a vote as a Black person. With others, they redesigned a system of voter suppression, by combating the issue on the grounds, through legal entities and funding. Through these elections, these communities, who are often disenfranchised by the voting process, finally felt like their voices matter.
We should examine their success and implement some of their tactics in our future design strategies.
Here are three thematic takeaways from these brilliant women to create inclusive innovation and radical social impact in design thinking:
Our Expertise is a Resource, Not An End-All Solution
Some designers exalt themselves because of their education, accolades, role, or whiteness.
We say to ourselves, “We are the experts.” But are designers more knowledgeable than those on the grounds with lived experiences?
Creative Reaction Lab webinar, How Traditional Design Thinking Protects White Supremacy, refers to paternalism as a superior attitude towards people of different or lower professions or academic status. Having superb knowledge of design and technology does not make designers experts in solving intricate social problems.
In a recent interview with Jemele Hill, Brown, co-founder of Black Votes Matter, spoke about her community-building strategy. Brown states, “Why folks aren’t able to reach people in our community is because they never think that we have anything to say. They don’t listen…so part of the work even when we are organizing on the street is to literally be a space to listen to others.”
Brown listens to eligible voters’ concerns, but she also considers viewpoints from formerly incarcerated individuals and children to build, in her words, “a collective power.”
Involving the people our designs serve and experts in other related fields throughout our entire process helps us understand the intertwined problems and co-create better solutions. As designers, we should humble ourselves and realize that our insight in strategy, design, and technology is only one piece to the puzzle.
Research Historical and Socio-Economic Context to Aid Creation
One of the problems on election day is hours-long waits, primarily in communities of color, especially Black communities.
Data shows that voters in Black-majority communities wait for 29% longer at polling places than in white communities. However, many experts continuously try to analyze the cause without investigating the historical and social-economic context.
In a design context, we focus on a few journeys or personas to explore the voting process, but we need to dive deep into the ecosystem to understand systemic issues. If we would also explore the historical context of the data, we would learn that the problem is a tactic in voter suppression, resulting in deterring 500,000 to 700,000 people from casting their vote.
Abrams’ Fair Fight campaign understood from research and lived experiences that illegal voter registration purges, exact match policy, inadequate equipment, and closures of polling places in Black and Latino neighborhoods were the causes of the long wait times.
Thoroughly understanding the history of discriminatory voting laws and practices, Abrams attacked the problem at its source with a civil rights lawsuit against the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office and Georgia Board of Elections, challenging election policies and procedures.
Our responsibility as designers is to let research and expert knowledge guide our ideation and prototyping decisions. Not studying and understanding this information may lead to designs that cause more damage to the current problem.
A Simple Solution is Sometimes the Most Effective
Designers often push for solutions with the coolest ideas or latest technologies, but is it the best solution?
Natasha Iskander writes in Harvard Business Review, these concepts “make the process that is deeply informed by social and economic structures seem merely technical or aesthetic, which are not necessarily the best — but favored by the powerful.”
As designers, we must pursue the concepts’ value by weighing the impacts on users, the system, and society.
During general elections, national and local organizations strategize tactics to assist eligible voters with fixing, or “curing”, their ballots through creating websites or sending text messages, which was effective.
Ufot, CEO of New Georgia Project, took a vigorous approach for the Georgia senate runoffs. She utilized thousands of volunteers to go door-to-door to eligible voters with potentially rejected ballots. The personable strategy cultivated resourceful conversations and provided necessary materials to help cure their ballots.
Ufot continues this proactive approach, meeting potential voters at toy drives, bike rallies, churches, and barbershops. She understood the young and BIPOC constituents’ beliefs in the vote and barriers used in the voting system, so she created a personable process in registering votes, resulting in the registration of approximately 7,000 voters in Georgia runoffs.
Innovation should improve efficiency and bring delight to daily life and society, and if the new technological capabilities or prototype does not contribute to them, it’s useless. A simple solution is not easier or less innovative, but it does focus on the elements needed in our design to make the most impactful change.
The fact is simple: Designers are not the saviors of these social and systemic issues. However, designers have and will continue to create innovative tools that contribute to solving aspects of these problems.
To make inclusive design and systems, we need to revise our design thinking process and not repeat the existing oppressive conditions. Let’s utilize the lessons from these Black women leaders and other BIPOC organizers in the Georgia elections as a guide to making a radical change.