Retooling Design: A Provocation

October 8, 2015

This is a part of a larger description for a workshop I will be leading in residency at MICA.

The act of making and releasing an artifact into the public sphere is a dialogue between society and a designer about what he/she believes should exist–thus defining and shaping culture with every facture. Design at its core is a manifestation of cultural values, where an artifact exists as a culmination of commentaries about its makers and his or her tools and processes. Design is not a culturally neutral endeavour–it is literally the codifying of our own norms, socializations, dysfunctions, biases, preferences, and worldviews into the harvest of our labor.

The natural result is that designers play a large role in determining how other people experience and make meaning of their world. The enormity of this ability to influence is amplified when designers are ill-prepared to confront the reality of their own limitations and insufficient tools when designing for people who challenge the definition of normal. The infuriating part is often we aren’t asked to, continuing a traditionally paternalistic approach to problem solving.

The homogenization of personalities and approaches cemented through a relatively standardized design education and undergirded by the steadfast convention of white male practitioners results in an identical landscape of “solutions” optimized for one particular segment of society–normal. Young designers leave academies unaware of the power they hold as society relinquishes the task of envisioning the future–and the consequences that they will build it only for those most like them. Even designers who are members of underrepresented groups must be critical of formal educations whose origin centers around a world view divergent from their own. Meaning we are all tasked with understanding the sociocultural narratives that undergird our work, and our relative distance to normal.

These conditions become dangerous as the discussion of culture is absorbed into the discussion of business, leaving design a globalized commodity that empowers a few to make things for the many. We must begin to ask ourselves, how do we make for people who are not like us? How do the results of our work start to become more inclusive of a broader social and cultural narrative? What are the unintended consequences of the products we make when we lack empathetic rigor? How do we use our power to create more responsibly? Ultimately, how do we confront the limitations of our tools and processes when designing for others unlike ourselves?

Thank you to the following humans for reading drafts of this: @nczeitgeist,@pgevol, @lscott1967