public means politics

Who’s responsibility is it to ensure the availability of clean water, health care services and buildings, and safe, affordable housing?

Traditionally, governments have been tasked with these roles, but with a rapidly increasing world population and dramatic advances global connectivity, the social sector has seen significant growth in recent decades.

This growth has taken place in many ways, such as the scale and number of projects being undertaken, as well as the type of professional engaging in socially impactful work. Designers, in particular, are clamoring for work in the public interest field, and examples of exciting products, buildings and processes abound. I am a part of this group, and have no doubts about the merits of the public interest design field, but as our profession develops two cautionary principles stand out for me.

Designers are not trained in development or policy. While research and enthusiasm can provide support, expertise in one of these fields can make the difference between a long-term positive impact, and misguided good intentions. Many of us are accustomed to collaborating, but for public interest work, I believe it is important that we are intentional about seeking guidance from development, policy and similar experts. With this knowledge, we will be more likely to understand design as an important contributor to social and economic goals, not a stand alone solution.

Development and policy professionals can also introduce public interest designers to existing frameworks. As mentioned previously, many public interest projects are stepping in where a government body has not been willing or able to meet a public need. Though each project will present varying degrees of contentiousness, designers must be aware of who may be threatened by a proposed project, and if the proposal may be displacing an existing system, even one that is struggling. For example, a Housing Authority may be unwelcoming to a non-profit low-income housing developer based on perceived overlaps in mission and potential clientele.

As designers contribute increasingly more to the development field, we sometimes tear our hair out at the slow pace of projects and inexplicable allocations of funding, but rather than attempt to understand development solely through the lens of design, we need to be purposeful about finding ways to understand the systems we are hoping to impact.

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