For this year's Core77 Design Awards, we're conducting in-depth interviews with each of our jury captains to get in a glimpse into their creative minds and hear more about what they'll be looking for in this year's awards submissions.
Jennifer Rittner, our 2018 Core77 Design Awards Design for Social Impact Jury Captain, is a radical thinker and social justice advocate who hopes to inspire designers to become radical and empathetic doers. A former museum educator and now Principal of her own consultancy Content Matters as well as a professor in SVA's Products of Design MFA Program teaching the class entitled "Design and Social Justice". In a recent talk with Rittner, we spoke about how 2017 helped skew the perspective of a designer's role in the social impact space and the true meanings behind words such as inclusivity, bias, and empathy.
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Tell me a little bit about your background, how you came to found Content Matters and what led you to working in the design for social impact space.
I actually started my career as a museum educator because I was interested in looking at how art and artifacts could be used as educational tools to help young people develop deeper understandings of their connections with other cultures and people across time and space. And so using art and artifacts as a way to actually be a tool for social justice in a sense, to help people understand these really rich connections we have across cultures.
In the process of working as a museum educator, I also started to understand the role that design as a contemporary medium plays into how we make objects that reflect culture, and how those objects also shape culture. Art artifacts are things that were made by people who weren't concerned with use, but those objects reflect and shape culture. And design as a parallel concern is intentionally trying to shape culture, and intentionally looking at ways in which their understanding of culture and their understanding of the culture of people who are using their objects are critical to how things are made.
Initially, my goal was actually thinking about art and artifacts as a tool for social justice. And when I started to move into the design space, I worked with the AIGA, and then made my way into Pentagram, and then started my business. What I was interested in exploring was the ways in which designers could be more conscious of how what they are making are reflective of issues and ideas in the culture, and that the consciousness of that is an important part of being a contemporary designer.
And I don't think that that is of concern only for designers who talk about being in the social justice sphere or designing for social value. I actually think it's imperative for all designers. And sometimes, to recognize the ways in which you have to be intentionally inclusive of other voices because your perspective is not enough. You have to intentionally bring new voices into your work domains and into your research.
2017 has been a year where globally, a lot of people felt like they needed to show up, especially in the realm of social impact. So do you feel like you've seen anything specifically over the past year that you think shows how designers are showing up in ways that can create significant change?
Yes. In fact, one of the jurors that I chose is at the Design Action Collective, a group of activists and designers. They really define themselves as being both because they see that the work that they can do with their communities and with other activist communities allows them and their collaborators to amplify the voices of people who are really in the trenches of these various struggles. And so they work with a lot of immigrant rights communities, and they work with issues of police brutality. And what they're doing is using design as a megaphone. As a way to allow people to be more visible and more present. And I think that is one of the important things that designers can do, which is to help others who are in these struggles amplify their voices.
I think that it's also happening in a lot of these smaller, local communities where people do feel that they can be more connected, more embedded in the communities that are involved in these various movements. A lot of the design that's making a change, I think, is happening in places where the designers are so embedded in the communities and are part of those communities that in a way, they are crossing the line between design and activism.
And I'm not sure if you're doing it now or if you've done it in the past, but I know that you've taught the Design and Social Justice course at SVA. I'm curious to hear what that curriculum entails, and what you hope to impart on people who have taken that course?
I was invited to come in for one semester at POD to teach a course in design history that could be told from the perspective of disenfranchised or marginalized communities. What I thought would be interesting is exploring actual designers who have been disenfranchised because people literally have just forgotten the impacts that they've had in design. So looking at people of color, and people with disabilities, and people who otherwise have made contributions to design and have sort of been under-sung or unsung. But also to look at the ways in which design comes from people who are not necessarily designers making choices that are creating realities and ways of being that impact a people's lives. So, for example, the design of a slave system is a design system. And in order to understand it as a system, you have to understand the intentionality of choices but then the collateral impact of those choices.
"The design process doesn't just begin with your idea, it begins long before that. And so you have to interrogate the past, you have to understand the contemporary contexts within which you are making a thing"
As a result of that, I was invited to come back and teach what's actually called Design for Social Value, but I have called it Design for Social Justice. The curriculum is a 12-week interrogation of our shared common values, but also the ways in which we understand other people's values in connection to our own and how we make choices about design, about how we make things and what we make, and who it's for, and who we're listening to when we make them.
And so understanding that the design process doesn't just begin with your idea, it begins long before that. And so you have to interrogate the past, you have to understand the contemporary contexts within which you are making a thing, and have a little bit of prescience to kind of look five to ten years in the future and go, "This is what I intend for this thing to do," and then to still recognize how you are going to track the impact of the thing that you're making as it moves into the public domain and starts to actually make change. So taking responsibility for the thing after it's so-called project launch.
What I hope that the student come out with is a critical lens, critical about themselves, and critical about any project they're working with and any client they're working with, and a desire to be more inclusive. And I think that if I can give them the desire to be more inclusive and the language for inclusivity, a language that actually allows them to go into a space, a system, and entrench the system, and say, "I need to bring more voices in here in order to do my job better," then I think that's a success. I don't think any one of them will make a project that will change things overnight, but I think that incrementally, each of them having that voice and that vision, actually pushes change from the inside. And being inside of those systems is a really good place to be if you want to actually change them.
It's an interesting time to be teaching something like that now too because the idea of understanding bias is becoming more of a mainstream concern thanks to everything that's gone on this year.
Yeah. I mean this question of bias ... Well I'll tell you something that I actually said at the open house this year, which is for some people, this is a very new topic and for many of us, this is a topic of our lives. It's been going on for my lifetime, and my mother's lifetime, and her mother's lifetime. I'm biracial—my mother is black and an immigrant, and my father is white and Jewish. And so I grew up hearing stories of various forms of oppression, and understanding their personal relationships with oppression, and then also having my own personal relationship with it.
There were all of these ways in which I experienced and saw other people experience being marginalized, being called out, being singled out. And those are very real experiences that we carry with us through our lives, we carry this burden with us. And so what do you do if you're marginalized? You start from a deficit. You're always pulling your way up out of a hole. You're always in a way trying to be taken seriously, to be seen as something other than the thing that exoticises you or marginalizes you. In a way, you're always fighting. And that is a point of view that if you are privileged for whatever reason, because of money, because of racial identity, because of gender, if you have the privilege of not having to fight a battle all the time, it is hard to know what it feels like to be constantly in a state of struggle. And so bias comes from just not having the experience of having to pull your way out of those various forms of marginalization.
Bias is just seeing others through the lens of what immediate culture has told you, and not knowing to ask a different set of questions. Bias is saying, "Well I might have met one person like this once, and I didn't like them, and therefore that person now stands in for the group." Bias is simply having a point of view that's based on your personal experience. And we all carry that, right? So again, intentional inclusivity is a way of mitigating bias. Not saying we can solve for ... We can't solve the problem of bias. Bias is innate to our being. But intentional systemic inclusivity allows us to mitigate bias by simply bringing more voices into the room to answer these big, ugly questions, and to push against what the ugly part of bias is, which is stereotyping and discrimination.
And on the note of inclusivity, I'm curious to hear your opinion on both the idea of inclusivity in terms of the research you're doing and who you're designing for, but also within the world of design, creating inclusiveness and making sure there are opportunities not just for white, male designers. I'm curious to hear how creating inclusiveness within the research and within the design world can help better the design for social impact space, or just design in general.
A thing that I ask my students to do and professionally what I also talk to my clients about is you have to have a conversation with somebody who is in some fundamental way not like you. And that means that you have to find those people. And again, that is an intentional act. So what it means if you are a white male is you've got to do some research, and you have to sit down, and you have to look at, "What are the ways in which I can find somebody who is fundamentally not like me?". And I've got to use my insight and intelligence to find resources, and then reach out to whoever I think that is. And it means putting myself in rooms where I might be the only one like me. It means that I might have to go into public spaces or even invited spaces and be uncomfortably set apart.
And not only do I then get to experience that feeling of marginalization, but it also means that I get to force myself to have conversations with people and hear their perspectives on things, and have a different way of seeing what it is simply like to see things in the languages that they're using, and in the ways that they're saying them, and the concerns that they are bringing to the table. And the thing is that there's no one prescription for that because it's unique to each of us.
I've been thinking recently just about the future, how technology could potentially affect a field like this, especially in terms of the realm of empathy and understanding one another. Do you think that designers are the best people to tackle this idea of helping other people impart empathy on one another?
Okay. That's a fantastic question, let me see if I can try to answer. So, I think the word "helping" can be really problematic, and I think that this notion that designers can sort of swoop in and help other people sometimes gets them into a lot of trouble. I think that designers actually, instead of helping, can facilitate through the mediums in which they are experts solutions for very complicated problems.
"What designers can do well...is they can walk into a social space that has a social challenge that they're trying to address, and say, 'I'm here for this expertise,' and then everyone in that space is working collaboratively toward a solution, but the designer doesn't somehow own the answer to that."
And I think they can be facilitators through a process, through insight, through interrogation, through research. And I think that facilitating is maybe a form of helping but I think it's more important to think about facilitation and mediation than helping because it starts to feel like this notion that you have an answer to somebody else's problem. And I absolutely think that what designers can do well, if they approach it this way, is they can walk into a social space that has a social challenge that they're trying to address, and say, "I'm here for this expertise," and then everyone in that space is working collaboratively toward a solution, but the designer doesn't somehow own the answer to that.
Empathy I think is a very tricky, political, just complicated word and idea. I think that empathy is limited and limiting. So I don't think you have to have tremendous empathy to be a fantastic designer and an effective designer for social value because I don't think you need to put yourself in another person's shoes, but I do think you need to be able to hear another person. So it's almost like the word "empathy" has gotten tricky because maybe it's getting harder to define exactly what we mean by it. There does have to be, again, intentional inclusivity and a willingness to hear other people and amplify the voices of others, but do you have to somehow be embedded in a feeling of empathy? I just don't know.
Are designers the best at being able to do that? No. And I think one of the reasons that design for social value has to include other voices and be interdisciplinary is because you can bring in people who can facilitate different forms of "empathy" in different ways. And so sometimes the answer isn't something that feels better, but that something that is better doesn't always feel exactly right. Do you know what I mean?
I think so. The crux of what you're saying is that designers are a puzzle piece in this whole scheme, but you have other people involved, in a creative sense, in a logical sense, to really do something right.
Yeah. Do you know what? It almost needs people who are really energized by the spirit of debate and not brittle ... Dave Chapelle recently was talking about a brittle spirit. People who don't have a brittle spirit, people who won't be easily offended, people who are willing to take an idea and challenge it, and see it through to a place where maybe nobody's satisfied, maybe everybody's satisfied. But in the pushing of the idea, you are airing things, you are giving light, you are adding oxygen to ideas that haven't been unearthed before or that need to be challenged and considered. And so people who don't want to work linearly toward a single answer, who are willing to, again, be involved in an open and complex dialogue around a thing before they get down to making something happen.
The part of it that makes the designer so good is that in this mix is the designer goes, "That's all great, and I'm hearing all of it but I want you to make a thing." And that's the thing, the designer has a process and has the ability to translate ideas into actual object-ness. And then present it, provide you with something where you can go, "we can talk and work this through at the same time." And so that I think is the thing that the designer brings to the table. And that to me is not empathy exactly, it's bringing form to notion.
In terms of the projects that you hope to see submitted in the works, do you have any words of advice for people submitting or just things that you hope to see within these submissions that will excite you?
Yeah, I'm really excited to see people asking and working through complex questions, and recognizing their own responsibility, their own intentionality, again what they perceive as the intentional and collateral impact of the work they're making. What plans do they have for assessing the results of the work that they have made as it does touch people's lives and enter the public domain? I want to hear that they're thinking about these issues. I'm excited to see how designers are embedding themselves in these challenges, and where they have been challenged to change the way they thought about a question or the way they thought about a community. So to me, I'm excited to hear how designers are using their platforms, again to go back to the beginning, to amplify the voices of others.
And I'm really, really curious and excited to see how that plays out across various platforms and media. I think it's really exciting that the work of design for social impact is it exists in the digital domain as much as in the physical product. The fundamental truth about design is it all has social value. That's what makes it design. And so how we define what the values are, that's the thing that's really exciting and interesting.
The Core77 Design Awards Design for Social Impact Jury
2018 Design for Social Impact Jury Captain Jennifer Rittner will be joined by these social impact professionals for the awards selection process:
George Aye, Co-founder, Greater Good Studio
Marc Dones, Associate Director, Equity Initiatives