Question: Is it possible for design to address big structural issues, like inequality, or is it destined to the incremental tweaking of existing experiences?
Scott: There is plenty to be said about whether or not design is up to the task of addressing big, society level, structural problems. We can ask if their tools are up to the task, are there adequate means to assess the value of the work people are already doing, how do we even define structural issues?
I would say that before we can get there in a meaningful and ethical way, we must first ask what are the requisite critical sensibilities designers must have in order to make sense of the wicked problems they so desire to unravel. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and designers, the eternal optimists that they are, are chock full of good intentions. Being an eternal optimist might be the fuel needed to want to join the fray, but it can also be a powerful means of obfuscation that render the complexity of the stakes hard to see clearly.
By stakes, I mean this in a dual sense. On the one hand, there are the challenging, but perhaps more accessible, stakes of the big problems at hand. An issue like inequality has clear stakes. People’s lives, modes of governance, tools of finance, the list goes on. These are the stakes that are always seen as clearly high when dealing with big-scale social and political issues.
The other stakes I refer to, which are more sticky and difficult to parse, are the ways and means by which design approaches such problems. How do the very tools, techniques, practices, questions, habits of attention, and facts taken to be self evident, structure the kinds of outcomes and logical courses designers might take in addressing these kinds of issues? This granular level can be hard to keep in clear sight. Many in the field today, I would argue, are not even looking. It requires a capacity for both ‘doing design’ and thinking about your ‘doing of design’.
Being a trained anthropologist, I like to use the notion of culture to highlight this point. One’s culture is a system of belief and practice that, while always shifting and in negotiation, is nearly impossible to step outside of. Because of this, it can be difficult to maintain consciousness of the difference between what we perceive to be a given course of action versus one that is actually highly situated and can take many possible trajectories.
Action does not emerge from nowhere. Our work is inextricable from the muck and mire of context. Where we operate, who we work with or for, our training, our briefs, our personal history, our variegated proximity to the issue at hand, these all help to structure our ways of making sense of the world. The subjectivity of the designer helps to shape the questions that are self evident, or seem to be worth asking, as well as the kinds of approaches we seek to employ. For example, my conviction the right course of action between making the government form more efficient versus asking whether the form (in that form) should exist in the first place is laden with all kinds of social and political assumptions about what change can and should be.
So before (or perhaps in adjacency) we settle the question of structural change vs incrementalism, design would do well to cultivate tools for a greater critical sensibility to the stakes embedded in their own culture(s) of knowledge and practice.