by Anne Chen, Brooke Dexter, Nasra Nimaga, Philip Poon and Gwendolyn Stegall
As we experience shifts in practice and pedagogy, many within the design community are reevaluating our agency as designers, questioning our approaches to work, and grappling with the social impact of design. Design awards and third-party certifications and rating systems like LEED and SITES have become widespread measures of success, but what is missing from these types of evaluations? And more importantly, who are we missing?
While designers may approach projects with the best of intentions, it remains difficult to gauge social outcomes; there still often remains a disconnect between good intent and positive impact. On December 2, Anne Chen, Brooke Dexter, Nasra Nimaga, Philip Poon, and Gwendolyn Stegall led the second public event for the 2021 AIANY Civic Leadership Program, titled “Intent to Impact: Approaches to Community-Based Design.” The event featured designers and educators who put their principles into practice, creating design rooted in equity that bridges the gap between intent and impact.
Four guiding questions informed the event:
- How can design professionals practice community-based design in earnest and without causing harm?
- How can we honestly approach and leverage community engagement as an integral design tool?
- How can we make these approaches integral to more modes of practice, “traditional” or otherwise?
- How can we assess the social impacts of our projects and how can we establish lasting feedback loops—from intent to impact to applying lessons learned?
George Aye from Greater Good Studio, Seb Choe from MIXdesign, Shalini Agrawal from Open Architecture Collaborative and Public Design for Equity, Michael Miller from OLIN Labs, and Peter Robinson from BlackSpace and WorkUrban shared their approaches to community-based design and lessons they have learned through that work. Several common themes emerged:
Acknowledge Power Dynamics
George Aye outlined how “human-centered-design” can be used in harmful ways and encouraged the group to challenge asymmetrical power relationships between clients, users, and designers. He posed a series of questions including “What is design’s relationship to power and privilege?” and “What right do I have to do this work?”
Seb Choe recommended leveraging existing knowledge by reviewing existing research and reports. By doing our homework, designers can have more meaningful conversations with communities, building power and working alongside those who are most impacted while closing the gap between technical expertise and lived experience.
Expand the Design Process
Both Michael Miller and Choe argued that project timelines need to be reevaluated to include an engagement phase before any design work is started. Choe underscored that inclusive design may cost more up front, but overall value is added by ensuring a successful project, and that designers have agency in putting pressure on clients to build in an engagement phase and log feedback post completion. Using three public park projects as examples, Miller shared the role of post-occupancy surveys in measuring the successes and shortcomings of a project.
Slow Down Design
Shalini Agrawal urged the group to “slow down,” as centering equity within the design process requires taking a step back and taking the time to ask difficult questions. Agrawal asked the audience to challenge ingrained systems that perpetuate inequity and suggested that designers need to “work at the speed of trust” in order to effectively make positive change in communities.
By giving ourselves time to step back and reevaluate, we allow space to continuously learn and adapt. Peter Robinson shared connections between his work with BlackSpace and at WorkUrban and his approach to teaching. He shared how his approaches to pedagogy and design strive to establish new processes that center communities. In his teaching, Robinson introduces students to community engagement by embracing a co-design method that recognizes the value and expertise of community partners.
Learn, Unlearn, and Relearn
Agrawal asked the group to write their names using their non-dominant hand to illustrate how incorporating equity into practice may require letting go of perfection. We are educated to be experts, but we are not necessarily experts of the communities where we work or in community engagement. Agrawal spoke about her work with the design leadership program Pathways to Equity, stressing that unlearning that notion that we are the sole experts is important to relearning how to engage communities. Meanwhile, Choe invited designers to “abandon the perfection complex” and accept pragmatic messiness in service of iterative sketches, deeper conversations, and full-scale prototyping.
Both Agrawal and Robinson challenged designers and educators to rethink pedagogy to ensure future generations of designers understand that establishing dialogue and building trust with communities is paramount to addressing inequities in the built environment.
Aye stressed the need for more examples of successful community-based design, as the current dearth of precedents can make it difficult for clients and designers to recognize its value. Establishing more precedents can help shift design culture and change perceptions of what is considered common practice or feasible within the profession.
Lastly, the speakers recognized that current assumptions and systems within the design profession must be challenged for them to be made more equitable. Successfully upending these systems is difficult work but is essential to moving the profession forward.
If you would like to watch the event, the recording will be viewable on the AIANY video archive.
Thank you to all our speakers:
George Aye, Co-Founder and Director of Innovation, Greater Good Studio
Seb Choe, Associate Director, MIXdesign
Shalini Agrawal, Director of Programs, Open Architecture Collaborative; Founder, Public Design for Equity
Michael Miller, Associate, OLIN + OLIN Labs
Peter Robinson, Design & Education, BlackSpace; Founder, WorkUrban
Special thanks to:
Corey Arena, CLP Advisor
Betsy Daniel, CLP Advisor
Christopher Perrodin, CLP Advisor
Vera Voropaeva, CLP Advisor
Jean You, CLP Advisor
Talisha Sainvil, CLP Advisor; President-Elect, nycoba|NOMA
Kavitha Mathew, AIA, Special Projects Director, AIANY
Suzanne Mecs, Hon. AIANYS, Managing Director, AIANY
Benjamin Prosky, Assoc. AIA, Executive Director, AIANY
Adam Roberts, Director of Policy, AIANY
Philip Stevens, Technology Manager, AIANY
Camila Schaulson, Director of Communications, AIANY
Meghan Edwards, Director of Digital, AIANY
Curt Quarquesso, Audio/Visual Technology Coordinator, AIANY
Andrea Kahn, designCONTENT