What We Learned About The Limits Of Design

Pierce Gordon, Ph.D.
10 min readOct 23, 2020

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…