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?

Photo by bady abbas on Unsplash

What made you fall in love with design?

Personally, the field made me feel like I could do anything. Our tools, mindsets, spaces, and creations have stewarded possibility for generations. I remember learning about how the methods of human-centered design — tactical empathy, brainstorming, prototyping, and many more — were tools available to any human that wanted to make something new in the world.

Over time, I learned more about the constraints caused by the actual culture of design. What actually happens in the design community — the artifacts we construct, the processes we develop, the people afforded power, and the spaces we develop — reproduce the same socioeconomic constraints, narratives, and half-measures that we’ve seen throughout the progression of society.

So, instead of asking about what will increase your capacity as a designer, we can ask:

what are the limits of design?

After I originally appeared on the Podcast Design Is Human, they offered the blessed opportunity to contribute a topic to the Atlanta Design Festival. Most of the other presenters offered business advice, opportunities to check out their design space or tools, and other topics familiar to the design industry. However, most of my contributions I would have spoken about would either be recycled content. When you’re sensitive about your art, it’s hard to show it to the world. It’s even harder when it isn’t even fully formed.

Therefore, I treated the space like a testing ground: instead of offering a secure collection of tools, tricks, and solutions, I offered space for people in the design community to think about, critique, and dialogue about topics few of us had considered in the first place.

That was the purpose of the presentation I gave to the Atlanta Design Festival community on Sept. 30. Even though I offered thoughts, frame, and questions to the world, it didn’t affect the fact that I felt like I was selling an incomplete bill of sale. How did I, a self-proclaimed designer, have the gall to offer an incomplete product to my audience?

Drawing the Limits

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

Building Foundations. First, I started with the sage Friere’s words on the purpose of humanity, and how it’s tied to design:

“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.

So, what keeps people from understanding and transforming the world towards their wildest dreams? The past, the present, and the future.

The Past

Photo by dariusz piosik on Unsplash

Designers love talking about what we could create. There isn’t enough conversation about how the past affects those restrictions. Design artifacts — like the speculum, defensive architecture, artificial beaches, and countless more — hold histories, experiences, and assumptions about how the world works that designers implicitly use to inform what should exist in the future. Rarely, however, do people think about how that past keeps things from changing for the better.

Here’s a direct example: Our service economy, during this pandemic, is run by the gig industry. How gig workers get paid, most of the time is based on how much they get tipped. Did you know that the tipping industry was created in the wake of the Civil War, so former slaves wouldn’t be paid a livable wage by their employers? Ask yourself: how does that history affect what business models, what products, and what protections thrive in today’s society?

So, here’s what I asked my group of thinkers:

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

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

The Present

Photo by Theme Photos on Unsplash

Sure, a designer’s professional capacity is determined by what they’ve made. But most of the bread and butter — the designer’s day-to-day — thrives on how they design. Meaning, the process.

During most of my design projects, I held the process in high esteem: Me, I’m a facilitation methods nerd: I love looking for new activities, tools, and mindsets to help a collection of people understand, brainstorm, decide, imagine, and test new possibilities. During most of my projects, however, I kept getting frustrated at how my projects rarely, if ever, affected the world in the way I imagined. People, organizations, limited historical understanding, all types of things kept me as a designer from fulfilling the promise of actually shaping the world, turning much of my activity into unintentional design theatre.

This is exactly why I wanted to hold space for the limits that ‘designers’ actually have on the world. While engaging in the process of design, we have capacities — ways that we leverage our power and influence — to help shape the world. Those capacities can look a few different ways:

  • We might know certain fields, topics, and communities,
  • 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.

Each one of these capacities offers more ways to shape the world we’re a part of, but they each have limits. What we can do to strategize about the world we’re a part of is limited by our capacities we have access to. Similarly, designs have social lives separate from designers: once we finish making, we have little bearing on what other people want to do with our creations.

Danny Spitzberg warmly offered some insight I wanted to share on this topic:

“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

Photo by Jessica F on Unsplash

Designers are stewards of possibility. But, which possibilities are we imagining in the first place?

Designers, futurists, science fiction writers, and countless other fields — thought much more implicitly — use the story to shape what the world could look like in the future. Stories are immensely powerful: since time immemorial, it’s how humans have analyzed, understood, communicated, incited, and evangelized our values and understandings about the world. However, like most everything else in our present society, certain story types dominate more than others.

Privileged people are more likely to be protagonists in these stories. They’re more likely to receive collective empathy, and experience conflict other privileged people recognize. They use tools — genius, violence, charisma — to deal with the problems they’re facing in predictable ways. Even the structure of a successful story, to most people, only looks one way: it’s linear, it’s Campbell-esque, it garners the big bucks.

Without other types of stories, communities don't even believe other types of futures are possible. However, other stories are present today, are older than the current conception of the story, and allow for multiple possible futures in the world. The stories about the world of the future— The Matrix, Elysium, Minority Report — offer similar representations of beauty and destruction. What about communities at the margins, that offer futures separate from the world that don’t require forays into heaven and hell?

It’s why designers should learn from science fiction writers who break these norms to bend, break, and reconstruct the types of futures we aim to create.

Here’s what I asked my group of thinkers:

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

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

I should have listened to Friere. Making spaces for dialogue offered me more value than I expected. What people offered weren’t single, unequivocal answers, but how these questions reflected tensions in the design process they found in their own work.

If you’re interested in some of their answers, they’re available here. Here are some answers I deeply appreciated:

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

Here’s what I learned:

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.

Hell, my thoughts are NOWHERE near complete. That’s exactly why I’d love your input. We’re in a community, after all. Let’s see what we come up with together.

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.

we think about transformation + liberation.

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