Rethinking Design Agency
Lately, I’ve heard the word agency over and over in contexts that sound new to me. I’m listening to NPR and someone will say something like “There are other things in life besides being safe, like having the sense you’re running your own life and having a sense of agency.” A few days later, someone will say “Addressing the wrong through official channels will give you a sense of agency.” And at the end of the 3-part lecture on power, the final words on the screen were from Alan Cooper, “agency grows the more you exercise it.”
So between NPR and the lecture, I was urged to unpack the word. What does a sense of agency mean?
When we hear the word agency in a design context, likely top design agencies come to mind. What I discovered is that a sense of agency is the feeling that one has of being the author of one’s actions. And in fact, agency is of great interest to psychologists and sociologists, to name just two fields of study.
Psychology tells us that a sense of agency refers to the feeling of control over actions and their consequences. A sense of agency refers to the feeling of power over actions and their results.
This sense of agency is essential for people to feel in control of their life: to believe in their capacity to influence their thoughts and behavior, and to have faith in their ability to handle a wide range of tasks or situations (Psychology Today). Having a sense of agency affects your stability as a separate person; it is your capacity to be psychologically stable, yet resilient or flexible, in the face of conflict or change.
Sociology offers another definition. “Agency refers to the thoughts and actions taken by people that express their power” (ThoughtCo). Agency is the power people have to think for themselves and act in ways that shape their experiences and life trajectories.
In the social sciences, there is a debate over structure or agency in shaping human behavior. “The core challenge at the center of the field of sociology is understanding the relationship between structure and agency. Structure refers to the complex and interconnected set of social forces, relations, institutions, and elements of social structure that work together to shape the thought, behavior, experiences, choices, and overall life courses of people” (ThoughtCo).
Agency can be in individual and collective forms. Collective agency is where we see people act together, united by a common cause, harnessing the power and influence of the group. Sometimes individuals work together, and sometimes they move independently of one another. It’s a distinction that matters. You are likely to make more headway in a difficult task working with others; and even if there is little progress, there’s at least the comfort and solidarity that comes with a collective undertaking (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
Examples of a collective or shared agency include institutions or laws established by everyone working together for status or a cause. Civil rights, and recently LGBTQ rights are examples. Within groups, you also see them working together to advance shared ethical rules, for example, doctors. You’ll see this across a variety of disciplines, including politics, social science, economics, law, and so on.
A Working Definition
A designer’s sense of design agency refers to the feeling of control over actions and their consequences, and the thoughts and actions taken by designers. Design agency can take individual and collective forms. Its hallmarks include a feeling of power over actions and their results. Designers with design agency are resilient yet flexible in the face of conflict or change.
Design has significant power to shape the world around us and to create behavior change. In history, we’ve seen design as a tool of colonialism in Morocco. Most recently, we’ve seen designers using attachment anxiety in emotional design and marketing; and in the world around of us, the world that user experience is creating, and data usage by Facebook.
Roadblocks to design agency include individual mindsets and designers as a whole.
Building Design Agency
A path to design agency rests with designers. There were strategic actions and tactical paths in our readings about how designers might go about this in a real-world environment. Design agency is all about designers having the ability to take action, to be effective, to influence our work, and to assume responsibility for our designs and what we put into the world. Developing design agency is a step in reconciling that design is political and human.
In class discussion, we struggle with recognizing our power and responsibility (design agency) as designers. It’s not going to be easy. Our call to action as we enter the design profession is resounding: be the change we want to see in the world.