At Reflex Design Collective, we understand that design is a political act. It is also a tool that can productively structure all types of creative problem solving—a process that any team must navigate successfully in order to overcome anticipated and unexpected challenges alike. Over the past decade, organizations in many sectors have taken advantage of the focused creativity design thinking can foster, including business, international development, education, and public health.
Many of these organizations hope to leverage design innovation for a social mission core to their work. However, traditional design thinking toolsets are not equipped to deal with the fundamental disempowerment at the root of social inequities like poverty and racism. Our process changes that by making issues of power visible and tackling them head-on before the design process itself even begins.
Phase 1: Building Political Awareness and Partnerships
Going beyond technical solutions to root our solutions in the political, historic and social systems.
Reflection: We weave reflection throughout our process, giving the opportunity for design practitioners to examine their relationship to the structures of social exclusion they hope to change. By locating themselves within the power structures present, the designer can deliberately challenge the status quo of social power dynamics, rather than unintentionally perpetuating it. Reflection also helps designers stay conscious of their goals and principles throughout the process, helping them keep their actions on track.
Democratization: We redefine traditional notions of who gets to be a decision maker in building solutions. Professional designers and technical experts are commonly seen as those who can best form a solution for a community of “users.” However, we think the assumptions underlying this custom are part of the problem. Influential decision makers, by nature of their privileged position, are less likely to have experienced the social issue at hand--and worse, risk of perpetuating disempowering dynamics if they remain alone in the driver’s seat. Democratization means redefining who a "designer" is; problem solving should be led by those closest to it.
Contextualization: We create space for designers to contextualize the social issue within a larger history of identity, culture, place, and power struggle. Contextualization emphasizes the multi-dimensional ecosystem within a design challenge, and how the designer is positioned within these contexts.
Empathy: Empathy is the human capacity to relate to one another. When design teams are composed of people with diverse backgrounds, empathy is used to foster connection across barriers.We use empathy to invite connection instead of conflict in design teams full of people from diverse backgrounds. We leverage this cornerstone of human-centered design practice to approach differences with compassion, and design from an understanding of the emotions, mindsets and motivations of those for whom the design is intended to benefit.
Accountability: We continuously check our actions and intentions to see if they are in accordance with the goals we hold for ourselves, the beneficiaries, and clients involved. In the face of competing pressures, we stress the importance of weaving these checks throughout the process to avoid unintentionally drifting into status quo patterns.
Phase 2: Co-Creation
Leveraging the design thinking process to catalyze the creativity in teams that benefit from both lived and technical expertise. We use this iterative, creative process to allow diverse and democratized teams to build concrete solutions in the face of ambiguous challenges.
Defining the Challenge: We create a shared point-of-view around what is the challenge that the design team will work to address. Defining the challenge brings clarity to the team as they navigate the ambiguity of addressing human, social issues.
Creating Ideas: We catalyze the design team’s creative potential by generating a wide range of ideas. By creating a high volume of wild ideas, the team creates space for truly innovative solutions to take root.
Prototyping Solutions: This phase allows the design team to translate their idea into an artifact that can be tested for further iteration. It creates a channel for feedback and continuous improvement.
Testing Solutions: In testing a prototype, the design team gains valuable insight into how they can better design a solution. Every test informs the next iteration until an idea has grown into a solution that works.
Dive into the approach in our paper: From the Technical to the Political: Democratizing Design Thinking
"Mainstream design thinking methodologies are limited by their myopic focus on technological innovation and failure to address political power dynamics. After identifying a need to reformat design thinking for the social good, we present a curricular framework that integrates design thinking with social justice to transcend these flaws and address complex social problems."