Every day, millions of people engage in making the world more like the place they would love to live in, by design. I’m referring to people with no formal design training, determined to make their part of the world a little better.
I’m talking about the protesters at Standing Rock, struggling over the design of a pipeline that would put their water at risk and desecrate their sacred sites. I’m talking about the disability rights activists who fought for design guidelines to be incorporated into legislation to ensure access to civic spaces by people with disabilities. I’m thinking about neighbors on suburban architectural commissions that ensure that the sense of place they live in is well cared for. I’m referring to lawyers, nurses, teachers, social workers, housewives, police, first responders and politicians who design things as an intrinsic part of their daily work. They all are engaged in a design process, whether they are aware of it, or not.
They aren’t designers with a capital “D”. They are all Citizen Designers.(1)
In the same way that I instinctively can sing though I have no musical training, they instinctively participate in designing their world. Each would benefit from a better understating of how design works, what it is in practice, as I would benefit from voice training and being more aware of the underlying musical structures of the tunes I wail out in the shower. I’m not talking about the sanitized fantasy of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, but the messy back and forth between creative minds working through ideas, forms, prototypes, failed experiments, reframes, breakthroughs, finding God in the details, elegant solutions and the ultimate, deep satisfaction of creating something new that has its own integrity, quality and fit with the circumstances for which we created it.
It is often said that “we are all Designers”. I have made this claim myself at times in my zeal to honor the creative spirit in everyone. But it’s not true. Design, like Science, or Medicine, is a discipline requiring years of training, skill and practice. The past century has been to Design what the Age of Enlightenment was to science. Designers have contrived a design method that is to creativity what the scientific method is to curiosity. As the scientific method is taught to every school child, so we need to build familiarity with the design method.
To be sure, everyone has the capacity to be creative and to creatively address challenges they encounter. But to call them “Designers” would be like attaching the label “Scientist” to anyone with a magnifying glass, or “Doctor” to a mother who lovingly and effectively takes care of an ailing child. As in health-care, design requires regular folks to be actively engaged in their own well-being. The wellness movement of the past few decades is built on the premise that the best way for people to stay well is for them to establish agency for their own health. Through self-help books, websites, apps, and an army of wellness educators and practitioners, we have embedded a new awareness and understanding of health deep into our culture.
So it should be with engaging people in design – its method and processes. Like the passive patient transformed into active partner in their health-care, those who are designed for – consumers, users, clients or whatever we choose to call them – can shift from a passive role, being subject to design, to becoming informed agents in the design of technologies, environments and services that pervade our lives. Just as democracy is a system that turns “subjects” into “citizens”, I am suggesting that people (and the Designers who design for them) stop thinking of themselves as subjects of the design process, but as actors in partnership with professionals who have trained skill and learned expertise. It is in this relationship that they become Citizen Designers.
A new movement is needed in which we infuse our culture with design intelligence – so that every citizen can have greater agency in a world that is being created faster than anything we have witnessed in human history. This movement could be modeled on the remarkable success of the wellness movement in raising health literacy and moving Americans to become Citizen Doctors. The scale and pace of innovation that is transforming our lives demands that we become a culture of Citizen Designers.
(1) Citizen Designer is also the title of a 2004 anthology of essays about “socially responsible design” that I’ve discussed elsewhere. In using it as a term I’m hoping to reframe our understanding of being socially responsible in our creative endeavors. In addition to raising social awareness among designers, I’m seeking to raise design awareness in society – design consciousness – so that all kinds of people are able to participate with agency and process understanding in the ongoing endeavors by which we create the world.