Social design as violence
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Faculty in art schools, colleges, and universities have increasingly begun institutionalizing and professionalizing "design for good" in their curricula. Students are currently being taught that social design is good--or at least preferable to working for large corporations--but are not being urged to question this feel-good assertion. When the trendy phrase "design for good" is used, for whom is it good? Though social design can result in powerful, laudable work, it often escapes critical scrutiny--particularly in educational settings--for two reasons: 1) by default, many consider non-commercial (broadly defined) work de facto virtuous and thus assume that any and all partnerships with non-profit organizations, for example, must be ethically commendable; and 2) many consider good intentions sufficient and do not inquire about actual effects and consequences. My thesis work proposes that social design is just as ethically fraught as other kinds of design, if not more so, as any unintended harmful consequences of projects lie unnoticed and unchallenged under the guise of "doing good." Social designers' analyses of sociopolitical dynamics and histories of conflict are often thin. In some instances, their projects may actually enact violence, maintaining imbalances of power and perpetuating the oppression of the very individuals and communities they try to serve. I argue that insights regarding power, state control, and privileges afforded by race, class, and gender should form a critical foundation for designers seeking to work in this field. If designers and design educators are serious about design providing a "social good," it is essential that they broaden their scope of analysis and critique to include the insights and strategies that activists and academics in other fields can offer.
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