We Can’t Talk About Design Without Talking About Power

Note: This is Part 18 of the Ruminations for Aspiring Designers series.

When your doctor provides an official diagnosis on your health conditions, to what extend are you confident that your doctor is wrong and you’re right?

How confident would you be that you can win a golf match against Tiger Woods?

To what extent do you think you can handle a lawsuit by yourself, without the help of your lawyer?

You see, expertise, when applied, is a form of power.

In fact, any sufficiently deep expertise is indistinguishable from power.

Unfortunately, expertise-based power is often in direct competition with authority-based power that we commonly see in bureaucracy.

We can’t talk about expertise without talking about power.

The symptoms are simply everywhere.

What makes good or bad design happen anywhere depends on who has the most power.

Berkun, Scott. How Design Makes the World (p. 73). Berkun Media LLC. Kindle Edition.

In a large bureaucratic institution, it’s almost always the people with authority, instead of people with expertise, who have the most power.

In a small tech startup, it’s often the people with the most expertise, instead of people with authority, who have the most power.

People in power often prioritize their own interests, which means good design to them is that which helps them protect their power. The concerns of the people who will deal with the consequences, perhaps citizens, are secondary at best.

Berkun, Scott. How Design Makes the World (pp. 77-78). Berkun Media LLC. Kindle Edition.

When there’s no incentive for people in power to respect an expertise, almost nothing could change their mind. Almost nothing, except activism.

Melvin Conway, a computer programmer, expresses this idea in a law that is named after him: “Organizations… are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” In other words, the limitations of an organization’s politics are expressed in the design of the things they produce.

Berkun, Scott. How Design Makes the World (p. 78). Berkun Media LLC. Kindle Edition.

To a designer, power and politics are simply unavoidable – if you really believe in the virtue of good design.

More often than not, most designers experience again and again, on a daily basis, the unfortunate situation of producing flawed designs despite their best effort. The damned project manager is to be blamed. So is the bloody business stakeholder. And the clueless client. And the indifferent executive. And the arrogant developer. And the jealous analyst. They are all to blame.

But really?

Sometimes it’s really just you – a designer who doesn’t want to either think about power or act on it.

If you don’t engage in power and politics in any organization, then you simply won’t get far in good design.

Good design is power only when great designers have it.

Do you have it?

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