Activism + Impact

From design thinking to design doing


Eight lessons from activism

By Jessica Jacobs, PhD 2021, IIT Institute of Design (ID) and Interim Chair, Design, Columbia College Chicago

We hear a lot about ‘design thinking’ these days, a phrase that appears redundant. Design is thinking. But it’s also more than that.

At Design Intersections 2019, we’ll see how design can do more than think—it can do. To accomplish this, we’ll explore how activists move us to action.

The intersection of design and activism

The definition of a designer, versus that of an activist, aren’t all that different. Of course designers define themselves many ways, but according to American social scientist and Nobelist Herbert Simon, a designer is someone who “devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

Activists are also concerned with changing existing situations into preferred ones. Understandably, we connect them more with action itself. An activist, according to Alastair Fuad-Luke—designer, activist, and author of Design Activismtakes actions to catalyze, encourage, or bring about change in order to elicit social, cultural, and/or political transformations” (emphases mine).  

Both designers and activists speak of acting in and on the world through interventions that are intended to disrupt the existing situation in order to move it to a preferred one. In design, we can see evidence of this in everything from more ergonomic toothbrushes that work for those with different abilities to complex alternative banking systems for those with different financial needs.

Visualizing Health Equity: One Size Does Not Fit All Infographic by RWJF on RWJF.org

By focusing our intention, or purpose, on equity, we can design interventions that create sustainable change for everyone.

Deploying activist strategies

Today the role of the designer is shifting from that of a service provider to someone who is shaping and facilitating design processes that impact the world. For more and more designers, this focus on social impact has specifically led to a focus on inequities. To create a more just and equitable society, we must design for systemic change.

To make meaningful impact, design needs to function as a catalyst. Design and designers must work with community members, community organizers and activists, local entrepreneurs, politicians, designers, policymakers, nonprofit organizations, corporations, and businesses.

Design can learn from activism as it seeks to activate these networks of people and organizations and create solutions that persist after their interventions.

Following are eight lessons at the intersection of design and activism that can help us promote sustainable, equitable change:

  1. Work from intention and purpose

    More organizations have moved from the traditional market-centered, client-service model to one that focuses on the organization’s intention or purpose. For example, large corporations like Microsoft have begun designing with diversity and inclusion in mind. (They’re providing resources for others to do so as well.) Some researchers take this a step further by addressing inequity with frameworks like transformation design, which explicitly seeks to reinvent systems themselves.

  2. Focus on communities and systemic change

    Designers are seeking to reposition problems with their existing clients by focusing on the design of systemic change. Firms like Artefact Group are shifting their focus from human-centered design to humanity-centered design, from individual client impact to collective impact and long-term outcomes within a system. A project doesn’t end at the design of the “thing” itself; rather, any design commission must factor in the larger context.

  3. Select partnerships

    Many designers are reorienting their firms to focus on social good by shifting the clients for whom they work. These firms are often categorized in the social innovation category as those who work with nonprofits, or socially-minded corporations. Design organizations like Greater Good Studio have developed detailed prospective client vetting processes that seek to uncover true alignment with a client in order to “design for good.”

  4. Prioritize participation and inclusion

    We need the expertise and knowledge of those closest to complex societal challenges in order to solve those challenges. Firms like Design Impact Group use participatory processes to directly engage with and understand complex problems. Design researcher Liz Sanders works in participatory design methods to explore the belief in the creative capacity of all people to solve problems.

  5. Engage diverse interest groups

    Activism is often conducted as part of a collective or movement. Design can work to facilitate and support collaboration across different groups of people with different interests. Organizations like Chicago United for Equity seek to connect multiple stakeholders in an effort to achieve more equity—city officials, neighborhood leaders, advocates, and residents. In addition, their Fellowship program creates a diverse network of artists, designers, researchers, organizers, policymakers, and philanthropists who are all interested in working for equity.

    Designers focused on equity, for example, can share knowledge and infrastructure support, thereby increasing the scale of systemic efforts. Movements offer a way to share knowledge and frameworks or belief systems. How might designers who are working toward equity connect to each other systemically, forming a movement in order to share knowledge and activate more change? Design can broker knowledge in order to scale this capacity for change.

  6. Imagine possibilities

    Activism can be thought of as an act of futuring, of speculating and probing into worlds that could be, better worlds for more people. Through critical design and futuring, designers present alternative futures as a way for us to imagine, envision, and potentially create radical new alternatives to discriminatory systems. Designers who think and work in an afro-futurist mode imagine new possibilities for social, economic and political relations, sparking conversation for activating change.

  7. Reflect

    Many equity-focused design approaches ask the designer to examine their own power, context, and subject position. In the Equity-Centered Design Toolkit, Creative Reaction Lab asks us to reflect on our own positions of power and privilege before we engage with design and communities. Designers are asked to research and understand narratives that create their understanding of the history of the situation or system in which they’re working and acknowledge the systems of privilege and power from which they’re operating.

  8. Advocate

    To achieve systemic equity goals, we need to activate vast amounts of people, organizations, and systems. To do this, we can share best practices, strategies, and methods that help us advocate for key populations. With the Disabled List, Liz Jackson highlights the inequities that disabled people face each day. By speaking out, she is connecting, educating, and making a clear call for action.

Acting for positive change

Large-scale, systemic problems are called “wicked” for a reason. They require deep, varied, sustained action at multiple levels. When designers think of themselves as activating networks, becoming catalysts for equitable change, and infrastructuring that change on a systemic level, we can begin to tackle our most wicked problems in a holistic, interconnected way.

Join us this May 22–23 at Design Intersections 2019 to learn from activists, gain entrepreneurial skills, and find new ways to lead. Learn how to produce organizational change and make large-scale, sustainable impact.