Design must be communal. And we are all designers.

Let me tease out two ideas.

Design is – must be – a communal practice.

And many more of us are designers than we might believe.

Together, these two ideas might change the way many of use view the work we do and our role in addressing issues of equity and justice.

The inspiration for my own sense-making around these ideas comes from Design Justice, where author Sasha Constanza-Chock makes a much more enlightened argument about who has the privilege of engaging in, and benefiting from, “doing design.” I am re-reading Design Justice while teaching this academic quarter; these posts are my working through implications for the work I engage in, and the work of those who participate in courses I teach.

Constanza-Chock goes deep into helping us recognize the implications of structural racism, bias and oppression in the chapter “Design Practices: ‘Nothing about Us without Us.'”

But in that chapter, Constanza-Chock also reminds us of how we might broaden our view of “design” as a practice: “…design means to make a mark, make a plan, or problem solve; all human beings thus participate in design.” (Constanza-Chock, p 73)

This is what leads me to argue that many more of us are designers than we might believe.

We are all problem solvers. Those of us with resources at our disposal – teams, expertise, time, funding – create many forms of “solutions” or experiences that make a mark, or problem solve. We create work practices and operations. We create educational experiences. We create policies. We create and engage in conversations, meetings and events.

In the course I co-teach called Creating and Sharing Knowledge, we’ve been exploring this broader definition of “being a designer” to create ways to improve how people in organizations learn and share by leveraging digital workplace technology.

About two-thirds of the way through the course we push students to take on that broader definition of being a designer. They are challenged to look at a realistic business case problem, set in an organization with a common set of available technologies, and to then design an innovative approach to addressing the problem.

No one is inventing or designing new technologies. You must use the tools at hand.

This is always an interesting shift to witness. Adopting a designer’s mindset means assuming you have much more agency in the process. Rather than simply taking some popular “best practice” and implementing it, you are reflecting more deeply about the type of problem you are trying to solve and owning the agency you have to solve it.

And owning that agency has implications.

Educator Sean Michael Morris takes us down a similar path, in a different context – our role in designing courses and experiences in higher education. He puts it well in a recent piece: A Problem-Posing Learning Design.

“Design is a living practice, not a done thing. It is a medium for building relationship between ourselves and those who will benefit from or be harmed by our design choices; and as such, design is iterative, a praxis—a process of doing, examining, reflecting, doing…” [Emphasis mine]

The core of his piece argues that, for learning designers, we might shift our focus to think more deeply about problem-posing as the most important element of our design effort. He writes:

“What are our responsibilities within such a design? Who does a problem-posing design benefit, and who does it leave out? Is problem-posing inclusive? Is it strictly Western in its approach? Is it imperialist, capitalist, white-supremacist? Is it patriarchal? And what might keep it from being that?”

I also connect this line of thinking to lessons from organizational learning scholar Donald Schön, author of The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Schon argues for paying attention to the way in which we frame or set the problem, which will lead us to how we solve it.

“When we set the problem, we select what we will treat as the ‘things’ of the situation, we set the boundaries of our attention to it, and we impose upon it a coherence which allows us to say what is wrong and in what directions the situation needs to be changed. Problem setting is a process in which, interactively, we name the things to which we will attend and frame the context in which we will attend to them.  – (Schon, p 40)

The point is this: If we are all engaged broadly in the practice of “designing” and creating things, how we pose or frame problems sets the stage. It leads us toward, or away from, equitable outcomes.

We must own that implication, as designers.

Which leads me to the second idea: Design is – must be – a communal practice.

Costanza-Chock points to some new design work and initiatives that have an “intentional focus on designing together with communities that are usually invisiblized.” (Costanza-Chock p 78) [Emphasis mine]

If we are all designers and we aspire to own the implications of our designed experiences, then let us frame design practice as a communal activity – designing “together” – with an intentional focus on bringing justice to routinely invisible communities.

I am not quite certain of all the ways in which that communal framing might play out in the arena of organizational learning and knowledge sharing. But as Schon suggests, how we set the problem determines how “we name the things to which we will attend and frame the context in which we will attend to them.” I’m interested in leaning into where this leads.

References

Costanza-Chock, S. (2020). Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. United States: MIT Press.

Sean Michael Morris. (2021, January 15). A Problem-Posing Learning Design. Retrieved January 24, 2021, from https://www.seanmichaelmorris.com/problem-posing-learning-design/

Schon, D. A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action. United Kingdom: Basic Books.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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