Do we really think we’re going to change the world?

Illustration by Shannon Levin. Learn more about our illustrators.

Do we really think we’re going to change the world? Making an impact while knowing our limits

Like any good tool, design can only do so much. Not every problem needs a hammer, and not every opportunity needs design. Our role is supporting other changemakers in their ongoing efforts, so we work hard to keep our designerly problem solving ego in check. When asked if we think we’re going to change the world, the short answer is no. But we seek out clients, partners, and spaces where our skills can help inspire, amplify, catalyze, or sustain the leaders and organizations who are. Here are some things we think about as we balance having an impact and knowing the limits of what Public Design Bureau and our design work can do:

Seeing our work as one moment in time
We want to be clear about our role in a project, but we want to be just as clear about how our work builds upon what’s already happened and will build toward what’s to come. That’s why we work carefully with partners and clients to develop a scope that responds to ongoing efforts, is realistic, and can impact work going forward. These highly-customized scopes mean that not every project is transformational or lends itself to snazzy photos, but we can be confident they were a good next step for that specific context.

Defining Intent + Forecasting Impact
Throughout projects, particularly as we move into insight generation, concept development, and prototyping, we keep an eye on the potential gap between what we’re trying to do and what else might happen unintentionally. We know that best intentions aren’t enough, so we work to identify potential short- and long-term consequences and adjust strategies to mitigate negative impacts. This part of the process thrives on feedback, so we seek out diverse participants to share their reactions and suggestions all along the way.

Situating within Context, Power, and History
With each new project, collaboration, or endeavor, we need to quickly get up to speed on the complex dynamics. These dynamics shape both how things came to be, and the real and perceived limitations to changing them. Through power analysis, secondary research, and stakeholder interviews, we seek a full picture of the context so we can be realistic about the ways it may be helpful for design to intervene. This helps us balance our inherent optimism with pragmatism as we think ahead to implementation. While the project’s ideas may be pushing toward future dynamics, these ideas still need to feel possible within today’s system. We also work with clients to ensure they have the right voices at the table from the beginning, and will frequently use projects as ways to create venues for shared power and acknowledgement of history and past harm.

Acknowledging Our Own Positions
We couldn’t say that we’re making change, or being part of work for the public good, without acknowledging our own privileged experiences. As White, educated women, we have access to spaces that many others do not. We’ve had an opportunity to learn the skills, language, techniques, and presentation that often make us more palatable to people in power. Sometimes that mix of experience and identity can make us helpful – able to gather and amplify the experiences and opinions of those often left out of decision making. Other times, it means we’re not the best match to partner on a particular project or with a particular community. We seek to bring this self awareness to our work and welcome frank conversations with clients and partners.

How do you think about limits while striving for impact? Drop us a note at hello@publicdesignbureau.com or leave a comment below.

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