10 March 2006

Design for social justice

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Core77 just published a highly recommendable thought piece by the Design Council’s Jenny Winhall on the power we have as designers in shaping the society in which we live.

It is a strong and well-crafted article that describes many of the reasons why I (and my partners, I may say) am involved in user experience design and are so enthusiastic about it.

Jennie Winhall, who is a senior design strategist for RED, the social and economic ‘do tank’ within the UK Design Council, claims that when one seriously starts reflecting on the many ways that design governs us, we realise, that design and therefore leadership are value-based. Designers and leaders shape preferences.

Politically speaking, design can exclude or include all manner of people in all manner of ways throughout society. Design is political because it has consequences, and sometimes serious ones.

The power of designers is that we can design things to have different consequences. The crucial and political question for designers becomes "how can we use design for social justice?".

Nowadays the world of design is changing. Design used to be done by specialists for users. From now on, in a growing number of fields, design will be done with users and by them. In this context, the designer is becoming the facilitator–the enabler–rather than the dictator of what people themselves want to do.

At the same time there has been a shift in conventional politics; a realisation that top-down policies no longer work, and that public services in particular must be redesigned around the user. Conventional policy makers are not readily equipped to do this. Designers are.

Winhall then highlights the values of user-centred design, which she describes as a "political standpoint in itself" and she goes on to say that "participatory design work, if done well, can be fundamentally democratic, giving ordinary people a voice and an opportunity to influence outcomes."

At the Design Council they call this approach transformation design. It is the design that facilitates collaboration between designers, policymakers, economists,  social scientists and ordinary people in order to solve complex socio-economic problems.

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