Theory of Power in Design

Designers have power.
Good designers design to empower.
Good designers design positive disruptions.

With power comes responsibility.
Responsible designers are ethical.
Responsible designers remain engaged.

Power can be broken down into means of gaining power and forms of enforcing power. Organized money, people, and materials/represenations are means of power. (1) Forms of power include force, bargaining, and persuasion (2).

We began our readings focused on power with a historical analysis of the affect of French Colonization on Morrocan culture through redefining physical spaces in Assia Lamzah’s “Urban Design and Architecture in the service of Colonialism in Morocco. The ability of physical spaces to control a user is often overlooked as it is more nuanced than the digital interactions we discussed. While processing the Lamzah’s reading, in addition to additional papers she authored, I was compelled to apply this thinking to our own country and explore means of power in our own country.
402 Pres 2 power.005 Money: Check. The map illustrates GDP of countries around the world. The USA is in the top tier.
People: Check. Did you know the Department of Defense is the largest employer in the world?
Material Representation: Check. The closest millions of people around the world will get to the USA is one of our embassies; the vast majority look like prisons with armed gaurds, razor wire, and physical blockades. These embassies enforce an idea of hard-edge US power by playing on the emotions of individuals in the same vein as the Brian Cugelman discusses through examples of guilt of opting out of digital communications and services.

Good design exists in this realm: Look at the new American embassy in London. Instead of concrete blockades, there is water (known as a moat in earlier times). Security is accomplished through greenspace that the public can enjoy, creating an alluring public space.

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We were posed with the question: Are designers activists? When considering activism, protests are the first thing that comes to mind for many of us. Protests can be successful for inspiring change, but does change need to come through force? Is that how we want to affect change?  I believe good design creates an alternative to forceful activism. 402 Pres 2 power.010

In 1977, the Disability Rights protest broke records broke records and changed laws.  The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) passed; a huge victory! When  looking at this from a design perspective I see a shortcoming. The ADA defines otherness and often times design  accommodations simply emphasize this. The bigger design challenge is to create Universal Design.

Let’s look at OXO Good Grips line of kitchenwares. The line began when a businessman named Sam Farber watched his wife struggling with a vegetable peeler and set out to design a tool that was easy to use regardless of physical strength or dexterity. Today the line has grown far beyond a vegetable peeler and is a commercial success across all user types. When tools evolve its is an opportunity for users to become aware of challenges they may not otherwise have exposure or ability to empathize with.

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I’ve discussed power through the lens of physical space, physical products, now lets take a look at behavior. In most bathrooms we arrive to the sink to wash our hands and are greeted with a number of designs to alert us to conserve water. I agree, we need to conserve water. We have a number  of different faucet designs that physically stop overuse of water. And then there are stickers that make us aware of the challenges others endure to obtain water: “would you use less water if you had to carry it….”

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I visited the Denver Museum of Art last year and had a memorable hand washing experienceThinking about these designs relative to power made me zoom out and look at the larger task at hand. Sinks exist in bathrooms as a means to clean our hands. In the bathroom at the museum I stepped up to the sinks and music began playing, specifically “row, row, your boat” which may parents may know the time it takes to sing the song is the time it supposedly takes for hands to become appropriately clean (side note: these sinks were not excessively wasting water). Great design builds positive behaviors.

Designers make meaningful change in the world,  just as activism does. With the tools and techniques we’ve learned over the past 8 months at AC4D have empowered us to create change. Theory class is an essential component of our curriculum because with great power comes great responsibility.

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Power means: Gecan, Michael. Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen Action. New York: Anchor Books, 2004.

Power forms: Boulding, Kenneth E. Three Faces of Power. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1989.