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Visibility in the Invisibility of Design

Intrinsic power structures can shape design and conception of function

Credit: Stefano Pollio

How do we understand the value of the creator’s hand and its influence in shaping our beliefs, behaviors, interactions, and social and cultural conceptions? Through the lens of discursive design, we can unpack and explore the social and cultural constructs of an object’s design, materiality, technology, and functionality—for example, the design of pockets in women’s jeans. The standard front pocket on a pair of women’s jeans in the 20th century had limited utilitarian functionality due to their size. Unlike typical male jeans, women’s jeans were typically fitted to the body, and the pockets were shallow, with little room to hold any object. Yet, as a signifier, they had significant functionality. The pocket served as a signifier of the intended user’s gender.

Rather than unpacking the object to explore and understand the social or cultural construct underpinning the design of pockets, as would be done in discursive design practice, it may be useful to focus attention on the creator, the designer. How is the lived human experience of the creator informing their design, engineering, and technological innovations?

Credit: Jan Diehm, Amber Thomas/The Pudding
Credit: Jan Diehm, Amber Thomas/The Pudding

Industries in design and technology have a hetero-normative, white, male, able-bodied, privileged hierarchy. Both designers and technologists strive to understand and respond to user needs and experiences while mitigating their own potential biases. However, deeply rooted intrinsic power structures are pervasive and shape the systems within which design and technology function. As a result, it is the hetero-normative, white, male power structure that remains invisibly visible.

Would, for example, a person who has experienced oppression propose design or technological innovations in the same manner as someone who has not? Would a person who lives in fear of being shot, albeit because they are a person of color grocery shopping or a child or teacher in an elementary school, has different needs in the functionality of a desk, a smartphone, or a critical piece of software on that smartphone?

There is immense value in bringing the unique voice, perspective, and background of the designer to the forefront of design as a practice. Placing increased value on such diversity will result in a richer tapestry of innovative solutions, products, and experiences that not only cater to a broader spectrum of human needs and desires but also challenge the status quo, driving forward a more inclusive and progressive evolution of design.