George Aye on “Understanding Power and Privilege in Design”

“For all the talk about being human-centered, one very human factor often gets overlooked — a basic understanding of how power operates in relationships between people.” — George Aye, “Design Education’s Big Gap: Understanding the Role of Power”

How am I contributing to the world—good or bad—as a designer? Who am I? Where do I draw my power? George Aye, co-founder of the Greater Good Studio, posed these questions and many others.

The Service Design Network New York Chapter hosted George for a (virtual) Meetup on “Understanding Power and Privilege.” We could have discussed the topic for hours; you can read the highlights in 6 minutes.

Human-Centered Design Is Not Inherently Good

It’s easy to assume human centered design is good for humans. George Aye pointed out several examples of where that wasn’t the case, from his former projects representing conflicts of interest to the e-cigarette company JUUL.

We have a limited view of what good design is. When good design is defined by corporate and economic goals, instead of social goals, a product like JUUL exists.

3 Principles for Good Design

After practice with 100+ projects in his studio over 9 years with an exclusive focus on complex social issues, George overcame his conventional design training to recognize the following 3 Principles of Good Design. The principles are drawn from adjacent fields that are equally obsessed with humans and their behaviors: anthropology, social work, and organizing.

 
Two columns of slides contrasting George Aye’s training view on good design versus how he now defines good design
 
  • Good design…honors reality. George Aye shared that so many people today don’t have the luxury of fast-forwarding to the future. Designers are often trained to look to the future which is hip and novel. In honoring reality, it means valuing lived experience as much as we value learned experience. The former is discounted while the latter is elevated.
  • Good design…creates ownership. This principle comes from knowing that people adopt the change they are a part of making. As designers, this means we can’t hold onto control and attribution. Instead, we need to transfer ownership to the beginning, not the end of a project.
  • Good design…builds power. At George’s studio, they look for ways to distribute power they have, redistribute power to those who have less of it and are conscious of where power lies at any moment. He believes designers tend to lack an understanding of power because schools don’t engage in discussions around it. Generally designers are beholden to clients due to the nature of professional services. To discuss power would mean discussing clients. While discussions of clients comfortably include payment, we haven’t been discussing whether we should work with a client. Nor do we discuss how to disrupt that relationship.

Power + Power Asymmetry

George Aye defines power as “the ability to affect an outcome.” He discussed how we often think about of power on a systems level instead of the level where intimate conversations happen 1:1.

“If you’ve ever said out loud, ‘I wish this was true’ and it happens, that’s kind of a measure of how much power you have. If on the other hand you’ve said something and it didn’t happen, that’s a measure of how little power you have at that moment. So it changes.”

Power is often lopsided which is why George prefers to discuss the asymmetry of it rather than the dynamics of it. It’s even visually more helpful enabling you to see who is on the wide end and the sharp end.

 
Image of triangle pointing to the right where those with power sit on the wide end and those with less on the sharp end.

George used to assume Greater Good Studio was on the narrow side but realized the studio was closer to the wide end by virtue of being aligned with power to secure contracts, get paid, etc.

Another observation is the people with the least power are often closest to the problem. A lack of proximity insulates designers from the lived experience and leads us to know less about the problem until we get closer to those with lived expertise.

Questions:

  1. We value learned experiences but discount lived experiences. How might your work honor reality?
  2. People adopt the change they are a part of making. How might your work create ownership?
  3. The people with the least power are often closest to the problem. How might your work build power

Power in Identity

George gave a shoutout to Akaya Winwood of Rockwood Institute for these questions:

  • What identity do you claim?
  • What identity was placed on you?
  • What identity did you earn?

These questions can be answered on an inter-personal or organizational level.

 
Questions to ask on an inter-personal and organization level around power, privilege and identity

In this discussion, the topic of gatekeeping came up:

“What find troubling about design is there’s so much gatekeeping and it serves to make you feel bad. For those who appear to be designers, they can continue to demand fees. Professors continue to perpetuate exclusivity. Some may call this a ‘standard’ but this is so connected to whiteness.”

Privilege in Context

George defined power earlier and here he defines privilege:

It’s a gift that you did nothing to earn. The benefits depend on the context.

He highlighted phrases in design that are “dripping with privilege” including:

  • Ask for forgiveness, not permission.
  • Lean in.
  • Move fast and break things.
  • Go big or go home.

“[These phrases are] so commonly used at places like IDEO. I remembered thinking that these were supposed to be encouraging and reminding me to be bold. What didn’t realize until giving these talks [like this one] how dripping in privilege these phrases are; the phrases assume I’m able to take the kind of risk that the person giving the advice has. The people giving this advice are almost always able-bodied, straight white males, North American with American accents. When I don’t act on this advice, I get dinged for not being innovative enough. They may not have factored in I may not be able to take those risks.”

George introduced a privilege inventory and shared his as an example before we were encouraged to do our own.

 
A privilege inventory listing several examples of privilege and the corresponding benefits in a context
 

Among the privileges he listed, I was surprised to see “my childhood is trauma-free.” We don’t often discuss how a lack of trauma is a form of privilege. Life is much easier when you’re not burdened by trauma—from the past or in the present.

Tangible Takeaway

George left us with this as a next step or “tangible takeaway”:

Look at your calendars and find the next moment where power asymmetry is present. What can you do to disrupt it?

Questions like those George Aye posed help us understand what our relationship to power is. And whether we have to play the game the way it is.


Find this content interesting or useful? Follow SDN New York to see additional event recaps and join their Meetup group to learn about upcoming events. If you want to dig deeper into this event, you can watch the recording.

LaTeisha Moore
LaTeisha Moore - Service Design Lead

Service design lead at an innovation lab inside of a nonprofit closing the opportunity divide in service of the future of work

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