What Designers Need to Know About Power and Privilege

When Rajan Patel (co-inventor of the Embrace incubator and co-founder of Dent Education) runs design thinking workshops in India, he sees the real effects of power and privilege in the design space.

He teaches empathy-driven design to recent engineering college graduates or new employees of tech companies by having them conduct interviews with street merchants and prototype solutions to solve their daily problems. Patel observed how grateful and deferential the interviewees would become because, in India, street merchants are not used to being listened to so intently, especially by college graduates or tech professionals.

This deference is a Trojan horse. It may make the designer feel temporarily admired, but it also signifies that a power shift has occurred and the designer is no longer co-creating with the interviewee.

The social scientist Dacher Keltner says power is the ability to alter the states of others. The same could be said about design. (Or at least good design.)

As designers, we are probably all aware of the power of design. But are we all aware of our power as designers? And are we aware of how we get it and what we should do with it?

In his book The Power Paradox, Keltner outlines research that shows that empathy and pro-social behavior help people acquire power in a group, but that increased power then causes the same people to have a decline in empathy.

This may explain why good designers are particularly powerful. The design thinking mindset is built on empathy. By engaging in deep empathy with users and clients, designers may start to be seen as a user’s or client’s personal champion. But admiration can sometimes be a hindrance to equity.

In the diversity and inclusion space, power is intricately linked to privilege, and recently there has been a growing chorus for designers to examine their privilege when designing with historically marginalized groups (see this Medium piece and this HBR article). Privilege, of course, does not just mean White or male privilege. It is also the privilege of  access to higher education or having grown up in a developed country.

Beyond the social justice considerations, designers should care about the effects of power because a misunderstanding of power can derail the most well-intentioned and well-run design sprint. Human-centered design relies on the ability of designers to get candid and honest feedback from end-users and co-creators. Any subtle shifts in a power dynamic can hinder the ability for participants to feel comfortable giving honest feedback. And that means that we, as designers, are going to miss out on vital information than can improve our designs, and worse, cause us and our companies to sink money in designs that are not going to work.

Patel ingeniously addresses this power inequity by having his students create “disaster prototypes,” that is, the single worst version of their idea that is guaranteed not to meet user need. Only then would test groups with less situational or historical power be honest in their critiques of prototypes.

How can other designers be mindful of power dynamics?

There’s an argument to be made for a Design Code of Ethics that would give designers the tools to conceptualize and understand how to navigate tricky power dynamics with co-creators. Some issues to consider could include:

  • How do we pay/repay the communities we interrogate for new ideas? When do we know we are practicing cultural appropriation? When do we take credit?
  • Consent and confidentiality – when do we share other people’s stories?
  • There are obvious advantages to having designers lead co-creators in design sprints, but when should designers de-center themselves and allow themselves to be led?
  • How can we contribute our strengths while respecting cultural norms?
  • What types of relationships can we have with people with less power? Friendships? Professional? Sexual?
  • How do we include more voices without tokenism?
  • What design practices are we willing to amend in order to embrace differences in our design agencies?

More immediately, what can individual designers do?

I actually think designers are better suited to address issues of power than any other profession, and that is because we all understand the virtue of failing. I once heard Brené Brown give a speech where she said, “If you are not a leader talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion, you will not be a leader in five years. And if you do talk about it, you’re going to fall flat on your face.”

Raising your awareness and discussing topics like individual power and privilege is difficult. It’s also vulnerable and brave. Just like any design sprint, it will require both head and heart, and you will fail. But just like any design thinking sprint, you should start with the easiest prototype. Do not go out and build an entire new mindset towards the world in one day. Test out a new idea or theory or belief with baby steps, and eventually, you will begin to see the invisible power structures holding up the world and begin to relate to power in a new way, using your power to create a more equitable and inclusive world by making room for others to use their power.

Minal Bopaiah is the Founder & Principal at Brevity & Wit, a strategy + design firm that helps organizations achieve the change they wish to see in the world. She is currently conducting a survey for the first Benchmark Report on diversity in the design industry.

Illustration by Mayya Agapova

By Minal Bopaiah
Published May 19, 2019