"Design is a very powerful tool. It elevates the likelihood of certain kinds of choices and shapes certain kinds of behaviours. Most designers balk at the idea that design is a form of social engineering, but Hilary Cottam, director of RED at the UK Design Council, maintains that 'if you don't look at what any design is governing, then you are being governed by it.'
She continues: 'The question for us is how do we find out what the effects of design are and make sure we're using those for social justice.' ... So yes, design is political. It's about values, power and preferences, about ideologies and consequences. And the good news is that there's a growing breed of designers who are political with a small p. They're not campaigning, but problem solving; they're not 'master-designers,' but democratic in approach. They're using their skills as designers to illustrate, create and demonstrate opportunities for social change. But the reason for their emergence is that the politics of design itself has changed."
I can certainly identify with Jennie when she says:
My policy colleagues say they went into politics because they wanted to challenge the status quo and make things better for ordinary people. That's certainly why I went into design. So maybe design is more political than you think.
Crucially, good user-centred designers look at a problem from the point of view of the user, not the priorities of the system, institution or organisation. You could say that user-centred design is a political standpoint in itself. Designers observe people in context to understand the complex experiences, needs and wishes of individuals, and are able to represent and champion those needs throughout the design process.
Designers must find new ways of working that enable them to apply their skills where they are most needed - to tackle problems such as chronic health care, climate change and an ageing population.
Her view on the role of designers fits in quite succinctly with my own explorations on the design of democracy.
Wenhall also cites excellent examples of design discipline applied to a host of societal issues -including the IIT Institute of Design's Visible Politics project. (A project koikaze would definitely be interested in.)