Politics makes strange bedfellows: addressing the ‘messy’ power dynamics in design practice

AKAMA, Yoko (2009). Politics makes strange bedfellows: addressing the ‘messy’ power dynamics in design practice. In: Undisciplined! Design Research Society Conference 2008, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK, 16-19 July 2008.


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The paper addresses the role of the designer in navigating through politics and power dynamics that can potentially hinder ways in which people have input into a design process. It acknowledges that such obstacles are common to design practices and much is already documented in organisational, business and management frameworks (Best, 2006, p. 97; Jones, 2003). However, the paper draws on the author’s doctoral research that explored how designers work within the complexities of politics and power dynamics and the agency they bring when working within such contexts.

Firstly, the paper clarifies its use of the word politics by distinguishing between the Political choices that designers make, to the embedded politics of power dynamics and hidden agendas. It acknowledges how the Political content and intention of design is widely discussed in communication design literature where designers have created political content toward a purposeful political outcome. The paper therefore focuses more on another political aspect to communication design practice that relates to values, relationships and power dynamics. These human aspects of practice are complex, ‘messy’ and are often implicit. The power dynamics within projects can significantly influence the way stakeholders have input into the design process and subsequent project outcome. The politics of the individual, organisation, community or the society can often abruptly and unexpectedly surface through designing.

Based on several interviews with a variety of communication design practitioners and project case studies from the author’s research, the paper highlights a role that designers can potentially play in addressing the ‘messy’ politics that can manifest through design projects. The research explored various design interventions to enable a variety of people with different values, opinions and viewpoints within a design project to collectively negotiate them through dialogue. It has discovered that such design interventions can be instrumental in facilitating the dialogic process amongst stakeholders to illuminate differences in values or hidden agendas. The paper proposes that the role of the designer, then, is to facilitate this dialogic process through design interventions to enrich the experience of dialogue and exchange amongst project stakeholders.

Human-Centred Design; Communication Design; Politics; Power-Dynamics; Design ‘Scaffolds’; Dialogue.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (-)
Depositing User: Ann Betterton
Date Deposited: 09 Jul 2009
Last Modified: 18 Mar 2021 14:04
URI: https://shura.shu.ac.uk/id/eprint/451

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