Adapted with permission from the author from an original piece published on Medium.
For all the talk about human-centered design, one very human factor often gets overlooked — a basic understanding of how power operates in relationships between people.
This lack of understanding by design students and design teachers results in wasted funding, poorly prioritized projects, and broken promises to the very communities that are being served.
When you have power, the chances of you affecting a particular outcome is increased. When you have a lot of power, you can practically guarantee things will go the way you intend. It’s easy to get used to the predictability that power affords. In contrast, when you have little to no power, you learn not to trust the odds — you simply can’t afford to take the risk of things not turning out in your favour.
When your future doesn’t look so great and you feel powerless to change it, what do you do? You may start dragging your feet, leaving things until the last minute — finding distractions. You might start making poor choices simply because you’re thinking, “how much worse can it get?”
When you feel that you’re being set up to fail—that’s power asymmetry. When you feel a suffocating sense that nothing is going in your favor—that’s power asymmetry. When you lose hope that your actions won’t make a difference—that’s power asymmetry again.
I believe these three principles – which help designers understand, and react to, their inherent power – can be translated into any field where you are using the input of others to solve a problem that’s important to them.
- Check you privilege. Power is an underlying hidden mechanism in any human relationship. Everyone has a certain amount of power, and there’s always someone who has more than you and someone who has less than you. How much privilege was I born into? (If you’re a designer, you’re statistically likely to be highly educated, white and male.) How much power has been given to me in my role as a designer? How much power can I give away and still be effective in my work?
- Understand your role in transferring power. The project you’re working on is deeply integrated with the community, and bringing a new approach could be greeted with vocalization of previous failed attempts or past traumas. Remember that this history is important, and that creating a process that gives power to those who are typically overlooked (and not just the usual suspects) will result in innovative outcomes. Your job is to consider how this project, and the process that you use, will affect the community’s net power balance outcome. Ask yourself, will this work lead to power being drained away or will it lead to a strengthening of power for that community?
- Fire up your curiosity by asking better questions. Part of the reason that designers and educators don’t talk about this topic is that it’s inherently thorny. It brings up sensitive issues around class, race, politics, privilege, access and more. But designers are uniquely trained to be comfortable working with ambiguity without losing hope. That is an asset that can lead to more productive conversations. Consider: How many people have tried solving this in the past? Who’s still working on it today? Why are we trying to solve this problem now? Do you actually understand the question? Are you solving the wrong problem?
Designers can bring a more reflective approach to working in the social sector — one that acknowledges the hidden forces at play in the world around us.
The more you get familiar with the currency of power you’ll find that’s unlike anything you typically spend, use or consume. Power is restorative the more you give it away.