To practice inclusion, we need to let go of designer-centered design
A graduate design student recently reached out for advice on her project to enhance a public space in northern Brooklyn. She was curious about how she could center peoples’ voices in her design processes and expressed frustration that when she tried to interview folks, they didn’t want to engage. I listened as she shared the interview questions she had prepared, her observations on the lack of seating options, and her conclusion that the space needed more benches. While she sought guidance on how to adapt her research methods to be more inclusive, I saw that the fundamental shift she needed to make was not in her methodologies, but in her beliefs.
I shared my take on her predicament: “You need to know that your project is not about benches. Every time you think your project is about a ‘thing,’ it’s not — it’s about people.” After we let that marinate for a moment, we went on to have a more relaxed and real conversation about how as designers, we need to let go and engage people as our partners, not objects, in the design process. This shift in mindset enabled her to renew her approach from a perspective of humility and inquiry.
When we as designers or researchers create predetermined solutions and then try to validate them through an “inclusive” or “participatory” research process, at best we design something that prioritizes our own ideas, and at worst we risk disrespecting and harming people we are intending to design with. More than any technique or tool, we need to ground our work in a belief that people matter —their experiences, ideas, and aspirations can and need to be centered genuinely and rigorously throughout the design process in a way that is not extractive, transactional, or symbolic.
We need to let go of our power if we want to practice inclusion. The traditions, trainings, and roles of designers are so entrenched in legacy power dynamics that it may feel daunting or disorienting to know how to start. In my experience, self-education and deep reflection with supportive peers and mentors is the way to develop and deepen a practice that examines harmful approaches and seeds new habits rooted in an understanding of power, identity, and systemic inequities. Like any meaningful change, this takes time and it takes a village. Here are a few favorite practitioners and resources I deeply appreciate and rely on in my own learning and unlearning journey:
- Let’s start with respectful communication. The Art of Communicating by Thich Nath Hanh reads as a deliciously deep and direct opus on how our words are like food: they can nourish or poison. He grounds our purpose of engaging others in alleviating suffering. He takes us beyond empathy and humility (totally helpful mindsets to embody, but we can go further!), to how deep listening can be a transformative and liberating act.
- Next, I think reading about designer’s personal learning journeys is both inspiring and healing. I love Tania Anaissie’s work and her practice, Beytna Design. I always assign this podcast (Designing for Justice) and her essay (A Design Thinker Reckons with Design Thinking) in the first few weeks of the design research and ethics classes I teach. I also love the Greater Good Blog for creating space for many studio members to share their personal journeys overcoming legacies of colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism. (Greater Good’s co-founder, George Aye, wrote this very poignant piece Surviving IDEO on his own Medium.)
- Tricia Wang is someone whose work I’ve admired for a decade and whom I use as a benchmark of criticality. I think her recent piece, The Most Popular Design Thinking Strategy is BS, is a very important and liberating read because it brings to light that without values like equity, justice, and healing, we can totally misappropriate human-centered design tools to reify existing power structures and create immeasurable harm.
- Lastly, here is a treasure of tools, workshops, and books. Beyond Sticky Notes is a book and collection of resources by KA McKercher on co-design and models of care. Everything they share is beautiful, critical, and clear. I love all the unlearning work of Creative Reaction Lab and their Redesigners in Action series. I’ve taken How Design Thinking Protects White Supremacy and Introduction to Equity-Centered Design. I also love this talk by CRL’s founder, Antionette Carroll, on Design for No Harm and her conversation on the differences between equity and equality on What’s Wrong With podcast with my friend and collaborator, Pinar Guvenc of SOUR. At 3x3, where I lead community, our team offers a spectrum of community events and foundational workshops where we dig into topics of inclusive design like examining our biases, understanding positionality and reflexivity, and how to build trust that is earned and not transactional.
We can’t be perfect at inclusive design, but we can continue learning and unlearning, and in this way, become less designer-centered and more people-centered.