The need for more inclusive design has become vital, particularly in times like these. As the driver of a more sustainable economy in many instances, the idea that design itself may serve as a form of diplomacy — dare I say, detente — doesn’t seem all that far fetched. Or does it?
Unfounded ideas, however, are rarely fail proof without the input from people whose experience in the subject matter far exceeds your own. So to further explore this concept, I called upon Joy Alise Davis — a collaborative design strategist, interdisciplinary social practitioner, and the founding partner and CEO of Design+Culture, and Kate Ertmann, who works with start-up and tech-centric organizations to evaluate the health of their current operational infrastructure.
What does “Design as detente” mean to you?
Kate: With this phrase, I feel like design is being used as a weapon in a stubborn way. So, I smirk, and then I nod, and I smile, and now I want a sticker that represents “Design as Detente” on my laptop.
Since we’re trying to determine whether design provides common ground, maybe we should try to establish some common ground for what design even is. Or at least some common language. Any thoughts there?
Joy: I have always believed that design is both intention and reflection. It's the intention that exists behind an action or material object. It has the ability to communicate visually to reflect the cohesion, connective and creative elements which foster community.
Kate: Design is problem-solving that is considered creative in some way. And creative, or creativity, means to me that something has an artistic sensibility to it. So, artistic sensibility can be presented visually, through writing, via programming, and really any self-expression that elicits — in its viewer — some visceral reaction. That's the big part of the qualifier for me of something that's considered to be designed — the visceral reaction it elicits. Still, at its core, it's solving some problem the artist felt the need to solve.
Does describing design as “applied empathy” resonate?
Kate: Going by my definition above, that'd mean the artist would need to possess empathy if they're to be an artist or designer of some sort. Quite honestly, I've met plenty of artists and designers, especially in the tech community, who are missing that empathy bone. There are those who don't have it and they know it — and then there are the dangerous ones who don't have it and think they have it.
Joy: Design is a powerful tool that's executed based on the intention and process of a designer. For design to be applied empathy, it needs to have a methodology grounded in people. We are often taught to design in a vacuum — to conduct research and then focus internally on innovation and creation. For design to truly be empathetic, it needs to have an approach that involves the user in the entire process from beginning to end.
I often see designers get stuck in their empathy, unable to apply what they've learned into the final product or service. The Human Centered Design methodology is a great way to ensure that designers move empathy forward into all aspects of the design process.
How did you, as designers, use empathy and equity in your professional pursuits?
Joy: Design+Culture Lab is a social enterprise dedicated to the positive transformation of the urban built environment through collaborative design strategies. We specialize in addressing the complex spatial issues associated with cultural, racial and ethnic inequality, and are one of the few that work in the intersection between identity and place. We involve community members in the transformation of the material environment: their cities, their neighborhoods, their blocks. And we strive to move beyond the limitations of community engagement into true participatory and collaborative design.
I'm sure you can imagine that collaboration inherently comes with conflicting opinions. When this happens, we use equity to resolve the conflict. One of our favorite organizations, PolicyLink, has an amazing equity manifesto that influences our approach. They advocate that equity “... embraces complexity as cause for collaboration, accepting that our fates are inextricable.”
Kate: I think about what the problem at hand is, and what the challenge is that I was asked, or that my team was asked, to solve. What emotion compelled them to look for an answer they thought I could give them in the first place? Are they confused, angry, sad? The best example of this, which I use when I'm coaching any sort of design team to push back on a client, is to tell them when a client of mine at the 3D animation studio kept asking for a particular shot to have more yellow in it.
We'd give him more yellow in the shot, and he kept reviewing and saying things like, “Not that kind of yellow, but more like that kind of yellow.” So we'd change the yellow, and after the third time when it still wasn't quite right, I asked him to look online or in person for visual examples of the type of yellow he was going for. And he did. And the tone of the yellow he wanted wasn't that different from the yellow we had given him at some point.
That’s when it hit me — I asked him, “What feeling are you looking for when you see that shot?” He said he wanted to feel like it was a new day, like the dawn was breaking after there had been darkness. To him, that meant yellow.
Yellow, to my artists, was a literal color on the color wheel. But hearing the client wanted that shot brighter, that he wanted it to feel like a new day, well, they used their tools in ways our client would have no idea how to ask for if he hadn't been questioned to get to the root of the emotion. And he was rewarded with brighter lighting that was directional, and that animated brighter as the shot progressed.
It became shorthand in my shop when we wanted to support each other on a hard project to say, “Is the client asking for more yellow?” in order to lead us to a truer solution for the problem at hand.
How do designers establish common ground?
Joy: We use research, equity, empathy and relationship-building to find common ground with our collaborators. We believe leveraging all four will allow for collaborators to understand each other and the opportunity to create solutions together.
Kate: I always ask collaborators how they got to where they are now, and why they choose to stay in this “place” — which could be physical or mental, or both. This always, always, starts a conversation and gets at the root of why people do what they do, what compels them to either keep doing it, or calls out what their trajectory is. I can usually find the common hook that allows me to collaborate, at some level, and it also makes that collaboration authentic. This is where the trust in the relationship starts, and we all know trust is the basis for any good collaboration.
Given where we find ourselves in the world today, how can design help us find common ground or, at the very least, start to communicate?
Joy: Designers play a key role in our society moving forward; they're amazing problem solvers, but designers must collaborate with the people who are most affected by the problem. I can say from experience when designers believe they have all the answers and come to the table with elitism, false solutions are created. Designers must work alongside other stakeholders to prototype solutions together.
Kate: It always goes back to humans and their visceral reactions to a design output. Designers, whether they're painters or programmers or anywhere in between, have a responsibility to their work, as well as to the reactions people will have in response to it. It can be a very powerful place to be. Knowing your audience, though, doesn't mean you have to dumb down or play it safe and do what's expected. It actually means the opposite; how can you give the audience something they've never experienced, or even imagined was possible, to direct a conversation we may not have been comfortable with having before?