how design thinking can harm the underserved

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“Design thinking” can be highly impactful…

…in understanding, reimagining, and implementing new systems, but only to the extent to which designers empathize with the worldview of and co-design with the people they’re designing for.

Firstly, it should be noted that design thinking is not a profession unto itself, like law or medicine. Rather, it's a loosely codified set of practices intended to help designers understand the complex systems and conditions they're intervening in and then create contextual, considered solutions.

A sarcastic professor of mine once remarked that design thinking produces a special sort of do-gooder who somehow presumes, because of their training, that they know better than the people they’re designing for. Indeed, in any other field, one might be perfectly correct in assuming they know better than their client. A electrician might reasonably presume to know how to wire a house better than the lay homeowner. Likewise, a lawyer might rationally judge they can argue their client’s case better than their untrained client. However, designers forget that what they do is not a discreet profession. Design cannot be applied en masse to a diverse set of people and problems with the expectation that it will effect them in the same way. Designers occupy the uncomfortable undefined space between problems and solutions. They are the translators, partners, resources, and tools clients use to tackle problems or pursue opportunities they themselves lack the capacity to resolve. Therefore, a designer’s effectiveness in applying their practice can only be measured to the extent that they understand and design with, not for, and particularly not at, their client.

While empathic design is a good start, simply designing for who's in front of you is still not enough to address the needs of historically marginalized groups. Design thinking usually exists in a business context, where the targeted user groups are invariably those that can yield the highest profit margins. When it doesn’t, design thinking is usually applied directly toward underserved groups in a nonprofit context with varying degrees of sanctimony.

In either case, design thinking is often inherently “othering” the underserved by either treating them as a fringe member of a user group (if at all) or by treating them as an altogether different faction of society. While it does often create fruitful results in these cases, design thinking is no promise and certainly no guarantee that the needs of the underserved will either be met or be met in equal measure to those in power.

A great advantage in this methodology is the ability to look outside the current understanding and workings of a product or service and question the greater systems of need, power, and dependency that those artifacts work within. In terms of historically marginalized groups, this affords people with the immensely powerful opportunity to look outside their Platonic “cave” and imagine an existence greater than the one they occupy presently. Indeed, this is the greatest promise of design thinking itself. Furthermore, it doesn’t simply exist as a window to a brighter yet forever unreachable future, but rather arms people with the context, understanding, and skills to incrementally build toward what lies ahead. 

However, to imagine design thinking as some magical tech-derived ticket out of oppression is a colossal misunderstanding. Design thinking is not the solution–it’s the toolkit one uses to build it. For this reason, we ought to spend as much time learning from our clients as we do trying to solve for our clients. This is crucial since designers often have a knack for caring more about their artifact than the people it's for, designing beautiful solutions to symptoms of a problem rather than its causes.

But a designer's responsibility is not to create stuff, it's to create change, and without dignifying and centering all users, meaningful change will only fall upon those whose purchasing power can justify it.