Start from yourself
Designing for wellbeing, equity and sustainability is easier said than done.
What are the guidelines? Do you have a check-list? Where do I start? These are questions I get asked from people interested in Responsible Design.
Start from yourself! is the very short answer I tend to give. Let me articulate better what I mean.
Before we start talking about strategy or principles or actions, we need to make sure we are not repeating some old mechanisms with new words.
Let’s take for example a word that has a lot of significance in the new way of making business today: Impact. Modern businesses should seek a positive impact on society and the environment.
But when I think about this word I visualise the negative impact that we are having on the environment as a species, the negative impact that many people suffer in our societies, the negative impact our lifestyles have on our mental health. Isn’t it a tad arrogant to think we can turn it around 180 degrees to be a positive impact?
I think that before we start talking about positive impact, we must start from acknowledging the harm. As there is still a lot of harm happening in the way we do business, we organise society, design services etc.
There cannot be justice or net-positivity while harm still occurs.
Workplace toxicity, mindless extraction, physical and virtual barriers, discrimination, manipulative practices are a daily experience for many people.
If you don’t live them, it may be because you are lucky, and most likely, privileged. For example, being a white, able-body, cis-gender woman living in The Netherlands I suffer a relatively small negative impact in my digital experience. I have to deal with exposure to sexism, inappropriate direct messages online, unrealistic and denigrating body standards, manipulative and addictive design patterns. But I can live without fearing real life repercussions for what I say online, I can access and browse most services with my latest generation devices designed for the able-bodies and I can count on my skin colour to be seen by most sensors. Nor are online service attempting to assign me a gender I do not identify with.
If I have not lived or I am not aware of potential harms, I may keep on creating new digital innovations that perpetuate harmful circumstances for people with different identities and walks of life than mine. I may do it because of ignorance or because of bad faith.
Assuming I am invested in doing better, educating myself about all the possible negative implications may not be enough. My rational understanding of someone else’s life is still going to be a very limited perspective, filtered by my own biases and conditioning, my definitions of ‘negative’ and ‘impact’.
Those biases and definitions formed in my brain as I navigated the system I have lived in. A system based on social hierarchies that elevate some and oppress others, that make some rich to the expenses of most, that make some comfortable and most struggling with climate disasters.
The biases in my brain keep the system running in a self-perpetuating, self-fulfilling prophecy. They overflow in my work, in my decisions whether I am aware of it or not. Every time a service I am designing does not include people that are usually ignored, I am re-affirming the social hierarchy that some people are more important than others.
Those biases harm me too though. I too struggle with my self-image, I need to confront my fear of consequences if I speak up, I have to deal with distraction and procrastination, etc.
Starting from yourself means confronting your bias, your definitions, your pre-conceptions.
Why do I find this ‘good’ and what is ‘worthy’ for me? Where did I learn the concept of success? Which authors or thinkers have I inherited these ideas from? How are these ideas upholding social hierarchies? How are these definitions reflected in my work?
I can embrace self-reflection while recognising the systemic factors that brought me here.
And lastly, re-imagine my own definition of ‘success’. I can let go of this idea of a wave of positive impact that is originated by me, my service, my product.
I can re-distribute my power to the people that have the direct experience and the knowledge and maybe lack the resources. I can centre the experience of those who are normally harmed. Let them define what they need to thrive and grow.
I can respect the self-reliance and agency that exist within the environment and the people, even when things don’t go as I expected. And I can focus on supporting that with all my energies.
Still in doubt on why as a Responsible Designer you should start from yourself? Or unsure how to start tackling these questions? Write to me in the comments or direct message, I’ll be happy to continue the conversation.