What We Learned About The Limits Of Design

Design centers a massive promise: that the field can shape the world. How does it fall short?

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Photo by bady abbas on Unsplash

what are the limits of design?

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Drawing the Limits

Regardless of our insecurities, we had to pull something together. And pull together we did:

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“As they separate themselves from the world, which they objectify, as they separate themselves from their own activity, as they locate the seat of their decisions in themselves and in their relations with the world and others, people overcome the situations which limit them: the “limit-situations.”

Check and check.

The Past

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Photo by dariusz piosik on Unsplash

How do you recognize and navigate histories in your design process?

What lessons in past design work should you learn, moving forward?

The Present

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Photo by Theme Photos on Unsplash
  • We might have the ability to use certain skills: research, fixing a car, or doing exercises,
  • We might have privilege based on certain social identifiers: race, age, sexual identity, nationality, ability, educational signifiers, and countless others,
  • We might have relationships to communities we can influence; friends, co-workers, bosses, constituents, and the like,
  • We might have access to certain tools: from a tool shed to a computer, from an industrial kitchen to a dentistry office.

“The perspective I use to help make sense of the world — and feel free to use it wantonly — is that the limits of design are, policies.

That is a limit design as a profession and practice fails to appreciate, possibly because of ego. Design is about programs and tools and the link, whereas policy is about behavior and control. Who makes, implements, and enforces policy is another matter, which most designers and much of the design profession rarely considers.”

— Danny Spitzberg

Here’s what I asked my group of thinkers:

How do you think about how the loss of control affects what, and how, you design?

How does your positionality limit your perspective of the consequences of your designs?

What capacities do other fields have that designers don’t?

The Future

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Photo by Jessica F on Unsplash

What communities offer alternative futures that lie outside of the normative design imagination?

How can you practically integrate those futures into your own work?

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How do you recognize and navigate histories in your design process?

“Do secondary research and create historical “lit reviews.” Use sociological concepts and analytic tools that reveal processes of inequality (e.g., analyzing community frames of “what happened? What’s happening? What will happen?”). The Creative Reaction Lab field guide has one activity called “Unfolding History” that does something similar.”

Alba N. Villamil

How do you think about how the loss of control affects what, and how, you design?

I think the loss of control of (and, more importantly, responsiblity for) design outcomes means that designers just cognitively move on from their design … there’s no accountability for the use / misuse of design, which I think impedes progress (read: how the guy that made the facebook like button designed it to spread positivity, but not that likes (and the lack of them) are drivers of self-esteem for kids).

Julia Huebner

What communities offer alternative futures that lie outside of the normative design imagination?

People over the age of 90; people under the age of 5; Antifa; farmers; incarcerated people…

Eugene Korsunskiy

oppressed groups — those who have HAD to exist in oppression in “limit situations” and still are dreaming, working, and resisting for a world that exists outside of these limts. (words are hard today, wow). They are the ones shaping how we can live outside system we currently exist in…

Emily Norton

Afrofuturism, people who work in speculative futures, activists and community organizers pushing for change…

Emily Gorbaty

Make space to reflect on designers’ consequences.

Designers' creations, processes, and imaginations have influenced a lot in society — and definitely, in ways that designers haven’t resonated with. We need more spaces that value, prioritize, and benefit the reflection process. Our limits keep us dependent on navigating well-worn paths of inequity, and the more we reflect on the easy, fast, and simple solutions, the more we can get out of the ruts left to us by history.

Learn from, work with, and give credit to, topics you don’t know.

It’s okay if designers don’t have all the answers! Our field has positioned creators as near-prophets across many different industries, but the outcomes of our suggestions and visions for the future aren’t as rosy as one might think. Making sure people with useful expertise to shape the world — but aren’t accustomed to the future envisioning process designers are neck-deep in- might offer processes, solutions, and empowered relationships you might not expect.

Incomplete ideas are okay.

There might be something that’s been nagging at you for the past couple of years. You feel you might not have the time, the resources, or the tools to iron out all the details. But even coming up with the query for others brings value to the world. Offering the topic as a question instead of as an airtight solution — and making your intent to learn, think, and dialogue clear — offers beautiful spaces of introspection you might not have expected.

You made it! I can’t thank you enough.

I can feel it; you have a lot to say on this topic. My ear is yours. Let’s find a reason to connect.

Written by

How does your design shift power? | http://www.piercegordon1.com

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