April 15, 2015 | Essays

The Discipline of Design Is A Bridge

An excerpt from the publication: Complex Social Change (2014)

The discipline of design is a bridge: it is a series of tools and processes that help people make
connections between ideas, actions, their surroundings, and one another. Because of its
attention to audience, its emphasis on visual tools and articulated processes when working with
groups of stakeholders, its fluency with multi-level information, the practice of design is an
informer for and a driver of complex social change.

The Complex Social Change category design is used to track, analyze, and explore multi-faceted
projects and processes that are relevant across disciplines, but that use tools familiar to
practicing designers. Design’s role in the project helped in parsing the data gathered from each
of the other four components: the course, the exhibitions, the performances, and the mapping,
and meanwhile, provided research material within the discipline of design. More than just
documenting and presenting, the work used multidisciplinary design and organizational tools to
help frame incongruent material into messages that represent accurate expressions of the study
on social change—disruptive, disparate, and interdisciplinary.

The design of the complex social change materials involved a conscious decision to un-use
design’s manipulative power of persuasion and reflexive simplification of messages. Rather, it
trusted the work to represent a gestalt that evolved, and continues to evolve, through observing
the interactions between researchers, projects, and presentation. It worked with, rather than
against, time and space to allow for expansion and mistakes. It specifically challenged the notion
of the visionary leader both in design and in complex change. Instead, it prioritized the random
order of collective thought and trusted the group’s combined output to reveal inclusive

Researchers in the Complex Social Change group allowed unfiltered access to collaborative ideas
and practices from different areas. The attitude of the group — curious, funny, a little bit defiant —
helped to set the stage for not just the structure and voice of the complex social change
distribution materials, but for the design research that came out of the study. Visual cues
including protest signs as blank canvases, layers, and imperfection helped remind that complex
social change is a process, not a finished product.

Design in the complex social change research project mirrors contemporary experimental and
radical practices happening in current design discourse Work by design historian/change
makers including Peter Hall’s progress on failure in design practice and Steven McCarthy’s work
on the expanding discipline of design are cross-referenced by multidisciplinary, socially relevant
practices such as Tim Devin’s community-oriented art practice, Syrus Marcus Ware’s
activist love letters, Dodolab’s qualitative analysis, and Judith Sayers’ big-picture discussion of
Idle No More. These influencers, as well as the many other participants who informed the
Complex Social Change project, are helping to shape design’s contribution to sustainable, fair
steps forward in our society.

This is an ongoing dialogue. Approaches such as crafting a visual voice, listening in order to
create, building with multiple audiences, and developing projects through design process stages
(experimentation and brainstorming, research, visualization, building, feedback and refinement,
and launch) helped to collate the multidisciplinary outputs of the Complex Social Change group.
These examples underscore and illustrate the notion that design processes are not just useful
and applicable in complex social change, but are teachable practices relevant to many

Complex Social Change committed to training students to interact effectively in changing
systems via practice-based learning. Christine Clark played a central role in the development of the website,
complexsocialchange.ca, as well as the visual and theoretical design approaches of the project as
a whole. Kyle Dodgson developed researcher videos. The students trained the researchers as
well, becoming critical participants in the work of the Complex Social Change group, cross-pollinating
dialogue and approach, and helping to reach new and different audiences.

The project brings together a series of researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds with
a common interest— a fascination with the beautiful, challenging, confusing evolution of our
society. We are all keenly aware of change happening around us, of people who are working
passionately for human rights, for economic change, for equality, their shining examples, their
dismal, head-shaking failures. We want to look at how the expression of social movements are
carried out in our own disciplines, and compare notes. What strategies in dance and art and
liberal studies are commonly effective? How we can share our experiments and observations in
new media and women’s studies with members of our community— for real? The final outcome
of our study is a template for social change that can be applied to any topic. Design contributes
to the dialogue both in helping to parse information from its companion research areas and in
generating new approaches and techniques in its own backyard.

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