Reflections on Power and Privilege in Design: A Letter from Three White Design Educators


November 6, 2020

By Katie Krummeck, Eugene Korsunskiy, and Gray Garmon

abstract artwork including different patterns with a large pink carnation and multicolored sphere in the center
Artwork by Maxime Manga

“If oppression, inequalities, and inequities are designed, they can be redesigned.”

–Antionette Carroll, Founder & CEO, Creative Reaction Lab

It is time for a reckoning in the United States around our violent past and painful present regarding racism, discrimination, and systemic oppression. It is time to realize that systems of oppression and inequity have been designed, and must therefore be re-designed. We believe the public discourse around these ideas—led by Antionette Carroll and others—is a critical step in this process of reckoning. 

Design thinking is, in part, a product of this inequity for reasons we will expand upon below. And yet we believe we need design thinking to imagine and enact a different future.

Recently, some critiques of design thinking have pushed to reject it more fundamentally as a methodology that inherently perpetuates the status quo, systemic racism, and white supremacy. While we agree that design can be and has been used to build inequity and injustice, we also agree with Antoinette Carroll’s sentiment above—with the right mindsets, approaches, and sensitivities, design thinking can also be used to help dismantle the very systems of oppression that it is (rightly) blamed for helping to establish.

We hope to address some of these tensions in this letter, while also reflecting on our personal practice as design educators. Through our own conversations and personal reflection, the three of us have begun to grapple with the ways in which we, as white designers and design educators, have been complacent and complicit in perpetuating the power and privilege bestowed on us because of nothing more than our skin color and our academic pedigrees. 

As designers we are optimistic, process-driven, and solution-oriented. We want to offer readers of this letter a little of all three: optimism that we can continue to grow in our understanding of and centering of equity; insight into our own process of reflection (and tools to help other White designers do the same); and solutions (some potential antidotes to the issues we are facing).

We believe that white designers must listen to voices of people of color, and be open and willing to admit where we have failed, so that we can redesign our own practices to orient toward dismantling these systems of oppression instead of perpetuating them. We have found that listening to those voices and looking inward at our own biases, power, and privilege before we guide others through their own journey of reckoning and repositioning is critical to our own process.

Just as we have learned from beginning our own process, we want to invite other white designers to engage with their pasts in order to change the future. 

In order to do that, we believe that we first must admit that:

  • Whenever we taught a class or ran a workshop and didn’t center equity in the design process, we were perpetuating a process that was further entrenching power structures and oppression.
  • Whenever we taught a class or ran a workshop and didn’t use systems-thinking tools to properly contextualize the problem, understand the stakeholders, and delve into the history of the structures in place, we were potentially perpetuating attitudes that blamed the very people we were designing for.
  • Whenever we did not facilitate a process of reflecting on the privilege, power, and identity of those we were leading through a design process, we allowed those structures into that design process in ways that perpetuate those positions of power.
  • Whenever we said, “I’ll do it better next time,” or “I’ll redesign the deck/syllabus/course next time,” or “I don’t have time to rethink this right now,” we were perpetuating a system of inequity and oppression.
  • Whenever we made excuses for the design process without being critical of its issues, we were refusing to reimagine the potential of the process.

This is not an exhaustive list. Here is a longer list (still not exhaustive), including some solutions as well as reflection tools for white designers (and others) to think about their approaches.

Second, we believe that white designers need to critically engage with design thinking—where it comes from, what its limitations and potential promises are, and how it works with (and against) structures of power.

While the origins of design thinking are rooted in the very source of power and privilege we are critiquing—elite universities and professors who formally trained white men to create products designed to generate revenue in the corporate world—we also believe that those who codified design thinking were trying to do more. We believe that the creation of design thinking was a first attempt to democratize and break down some of the power structures of traditional design through empowering non-designers with these tools and mindsets—and to some extent, it did that. 

However, the first step did not succeed in diversifying this space beyond a limited frame. Design thinking, until relatively recently, has remained largely ensconced in corporate environments where status and power can help to maintain systems of inequity, even as it is being increasingly used by those not trained in design. It would be naive to say otherwise.

But this first step of training professionals outside the field of design in design tools opened the door, and we have seen firsthand what happens when activists and educators, journalists, healthcare professionals, and social-sector leaders take up design thinking as a force for tackling the status quo. We believe that the power of these tools, mindsets, and processes are precisely why they have been taken up in the social impact space—from schools to government agencies and from international development organizations to small nonprofits—to help create solutions to problems by engaging with the people who are facing them. 

And, we believe that this second step—deepening our community’s point of view about the necessity for interrogating power and privilege and opening the doors to elevate a more diverse group of voices—is fragile. And critical. We believe that in order to accomplish our goals, as design educators we must also be aware of how these tools are taught and used—how we are presenting them in context, how we are asking learners to reflect on their own power and privilege, how we are discussing the ethics of design, and how the design process can potentially cause harm.

We believe that we must do this because design thinking is not an actor—it is not an independent agent of change. Any design process is only a reflection of those who are using it—their orientation to power and privilege, their awareness of systems of oppression, their biases. We do not believe that design thinking is racist or sexist—nor do we believe that it is anti-racist or feminist. We do believe that the people and organizations using design thinking can be racist, sexist, and uninterested in reshaping society to be a more equitable place—or they can be the opposite.

We are hopeful that by reframing the challenges inherent in the democratization of design and the spread of design thinking, we can help steer the conversation away from a dismissal of the process and toward meaningful reform. We believe that the risk, if design thinking is rejected categorically, is the loss of all the potential good that its tools can help achieve, especially when used by and in historically underserved and marginalized communities that are facing complex challenges. By facing our own demons, we hope to reposition design thinking by recentering the potential of the process to help us all take action around the undoing, reckoning, reconciling, and reimagining that needs to take place in this country and beyond regarding race and systems of oppression. 

A hammer can be a tool for building a home or it can be a tool for destroying one. The source of its morality does not come from the wooden handle or the metal head—it comes from the person wielding it. Let’s use design thinking to build more homes—to rediscover the idea that the world around us is designed, including systems of oppression, and that we can redesign those systems to reach a better future for all.

A reasonable response to this sentiment might be to quote from Audre Lorde: “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house.” We see the validity in this critique as it applies to design thinking. For instance, a design process often starts by compelling designers to seek to build empathy for the people they’re designing for. This step inherently sets up an imbalanced power dynamic between the designer and the person they’re designing for, while quietly relying on the hugely problematic assumption that complete empathy is, in fact, possible. We are excited for the burgeoning conversation about participatory design as an approach that can counteract some of these issues. We are hopeful that because the origins of the design thinking process were steeped in the idea that every person can be innovative and creative, these tools have potential for actually taking apart the systems of power and privilege that created them.

As designers and design educators, we understand that we have access to a set of tools that can help our society do the work of dismantling these systems of inequity. We also recognize that these very tools have been and can be used to perpetuate these systems. We know these tools are powerful and have not always been used with a sensitivity to that power.

As experts in this approach, we are also aware that we have enormous influence in that regard. And with power and privilege comes a complex set of responsibilities—when to step in, when to step up, when to step back. And, like anyone with power, the process of sharing and ceding that power needs to be deeply explored and acted upon.

We know we can do better. We know we must. And we want to empower others with the very tools that have given us this power in the first place. The question is how. We believe that this journey starts with humility, reflection, interrogation, and conversation. There are examples of designers and studios like Creative Reaction Lab, Beytna Design, and the National Equity Project that are challenging the status quo and reimagining human-centered design to be the process that we believe it can be—a set of tools to dismantle systems of oppression and inequity. Now is the time in design education to accelerate the same process, matching the urgency we feel to create a more just society.

And we know that this letter is just one step in an ongoing process of reflection and action that will hopefully further our goals of no longer perpetuating inequities and systems of oppression, and instead using the power of design thinking (and the privilege of our positions) to inspire and empower others to right the wrongs of our society and create opportunities for everyone to thrive.

We invite a dialogue with the broader community—a conversation about the ideas we presented and the commitments we are making. We would love to hear from those who are struggling with or thinking about similar ideas. We welcome critique.

We invite other designers to join us in this process and we offer you tools and ideas to help get you started. If you are interested in publicly committing to your own process of reflection and action, we invite you to sign at the bottom of the linked document.

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