Design’s Power

Power. Power is hard to trust, and so explosive.  Growing up, I’ve always associated power with people like my teachers, principals, parents, older sister. Growing up in the Vietnamese community power is strongly associated with roles, and traditionally we rarely even stopping to consider the person in that role. As I grew in size and thought, I was so confused and lost when I was first told that I have choices.  Middle school and high school was the most confusing. Not only was my body being flooded with hormones, new concepts, ideas, and fact but I was starting to discover that there was a power behind my choices. Before that, the only option I had was to either be a good girl or a bad girl.  Up until I was 20, I unwittingly gained the power of authority and choices as life changes. At 12, I discovered the power of opinions, it mostly got me in trouble with classmates, my family, and administrators.  At 15, I had the power of role-model thrust on me when my first nephew was born. I had little purpose, control, and intention behind this power. As a result, the power of authority wained as my nephew got older and realized that I am just as much of a kid as he is. And at 16, I got the power to move, with driving baby!  What was nice about that time was how mostly inconsequential the mistake made were. Where power gets scary is when there is more at stake, more people pay the price, or if the error is not fixable.
For the earlier part of adulthood, I was perplexed if this role attachment to power and authority is something unique to the Vietnamese culture. Over the years I have learned that it’s not. Today, it is hard to ignore the reality that it is the utmost importance for us as individuals to learn the skills to define what is right and proper, to assess the current state of the world and then to diplomatically make a stance to shape the world around us.
As I continue to explore design not just as a practice, but also as a way of thinking — processing information and assessing my actions — there is the pressing question of what is design’s power?  And I say pressing because design, particularly the AC4D flavor of design, is a tool kit that enables you to take in as much disparate information as humanly possible, understand what it all means, define the problem we see, organize and communicate it back to stakeholders in a way is easy to swallow. If done well, we can pull back the covers on issues, and motivate others to act towards a solution. The ability to move people to work should never be something taken lightly.
We have seen and felt the discomforts of our history when it comes to impressing one’s way of thinking and being on another. In one example, we see post-colonial Morocco struggle with their identity as a nation and individuals after the French left in 1956
“After the French left in 1956 and Morocco regained its independence, the divide between the ‘indigenous wealthy’ who had received good services and the ‘indigenous poor’ who received none at all became part of the structure of society. This division left an undeniable impact. At the socio-cultural level, it had severe direct consequences on people’s definition of themselves, their identity and their relationship to urban space as well as to what became later cultural heritage, while ‘modern’ urban space was perceived as superior in opposition to traditional, more functional.”
— Assia Lamzah, Urban design, and architecture in the service of colonialism in Morocco
In this case, the urban architectural design had a direct impact on try created the visual difference in Morocco’s social, economic disparity.  Where design is today, the inequality and effects created by design is harder to see we continue to move into a tech direction. Designers have built such delightful interactions for software, it is hard not to want and need the functionalities technology provides. The last time I went to get my hair done, I pre-paid with a Groupon and then tipped the service provider using Venmo. The ease and convenience of technology have fundamentally changed the way we interact in the real world and shift the way we think.  Recognizing that there is a massive shift in human behavior, it is essential to ask, “Who hold this power? How are they using? What direction are they moving us?”
We have even seen convenience make us handicapped as adults, hence the term ‘adulting.’ As technology grows and develops more products for convenient consumption, we lose the practice of learning how to do for ourselves. I often see this when it comes to food choices. When someone wants to lose weight, they don’t have a foundational knowledge of nutrition and fitness to pull from to change their lifestyle, they download a running app and a calorie counter app. When someone doesn’t know to pick produce, and cook dinner, they subscribe to a meal service plan. I still struggle with spelling, because I learned to write term papers in the age or Microsoft word. Even as I write this piece, I have built-in spell checkers catching my typos and mistakes. Tim Wu says it best in his article “The Tyranny of Convenience.”
“Convenience decides everything.” Convenience seems to make our decisions for us, trumping what we like to imagine are our true preferences. (I prefer to brew my coffee, but Starbucks instant is so convenient I hardly ever do what I “prefer.”) Easy is better, easiest is best. Convenience has the ability to make other options unthinkable.
— Tim Wu, The Tyranny of Convenience
The list of less visible powers is endless when we consider how has designer use their toolbox (aka design) to shape the world, smart decides to track and to report on our behavior and movement, our pattern of thinking and idea, our beliefs, using our own psychology to prevent us from unsubscribing to a service.
Power displaces people and things. This shift causes a cascade of changes to all other people and elements in that environment and reshapes the world, sometimes for the better, sometimes for worse. Design has always played a role in fueling these changes though building things. So does it make design unvirtuous a profession? NO, I think the designer makes design an unvirtuous.  Design is a toolkit, the person using the tools is who shapes the outcome. And No, you don’t get a free pass for not being aware of what is going on. If you are making things, you are responsible. So how does a designer begin to navigate this space of ethics, and responsibility? There are people and entire companies currently working on that.  If you search for the turn design ethics a massive list of products and articles are available for you to pick from.
I’d like to share my thoughts on how to learn to use the power of a designer’s tool kit ethically and not for evil. Power is the ability to move things, objects, people, ideas, groups, feelings.  In its raw form, power is directionless motion. Design is a powerful tool that can be used by both caring and unscrupulous people.  We need to:
  • Ask infinite why’s?  Be mindful of who we are working with to build things, and ‘WHY’?
  • Play the devil’s advocate. When you ask ‘What value is gained,’ you MUST also ask ‘What value is lost?’
  • Move low. Move slow so that you don’t miss critical negative responses to your ideas.
  • Put the kibosh on bad ideas. Ideas don’t grow on their own, they require people to nurture and Sheppard them into the public areas. The moment you suspect there is something evil with your design toss it!
  • Embrace challenge. Adversity and challenging things and ideas only add to your own complexity and ability to understand the world. Sometimes you can only grow and learn by admitting that your cup is half empty.
  • Define What is Good.  The designer is what shapes the impact their design has. You can’t create an impact for ‘good’ unless you have a clear and coherent understanding of what ‘good’ looks like.
  • Continuously Update your definitions. Good and bad is a dichotomous concept. One can’t exist without the presence of the other. So when you are moving through the world taking what ‘good’ looks like, don’t reject what ‘bad’ looks like. Instead, observe it, use it as a resource for what not to do. Then update your own definition of what good is.
  • Expand the narrative. Self-fulfilling prophecies is not a phenomenon, but a human condition. This is because of the narrative we consume and tell influence not just our thinking but each other. When you consume narratives of limited genres you limit your insight on the world.
Entering into the space of design should also come with the requirement to be able to consider, hypothesize about and make decisions based on the potential impact of your new idea. You can bet that what I have written today, will continue to grow and evolve as I journey further into the world of design.  When I think about the potential of design ideas, I am reminded of my friend’s attitude towards teaching children. In telling me about how his 3-year-old son is starting to learn to use the toilet properly, they also told me their concerns about this kid discovering the magic of things other than toilet paper disappearing into a swirling hole of water. Perhaps designers can take a page out of the parenting’s playbook, when you introduce a new way of doing things, always anticipate how it can be destructive, and only then can you start to be a responsible human and designer.