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Design can solve problems—or be the root of them. Two design leaders share best practices to avoid this trap

May 26, 2022, 9:15 PM UTC
Michael Collett, founder and creative codirector of Greenworks, and Azeez Alli, cofounder of Design to Divest, speak at the Fortune Brainstorm Design conference in Brooklyn on May 24, 2022.
Rebecca Greenfield—Fortune Magazine

Design tends to reflect the values of those who influence it. And sometimes, the values that shape products don’t align with the needs of those who end up using them. That’s why, as companies scale up, they must focus on creating “culturally intelligent” solutions, experts at Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference explained this week.

Michael Collett, the founder and creative codirector of Greenworks, said that the magic of design comes from working together. “Design is not about lone geniuses,” he said. “We work in teams, we work as a cohort, we work as coconspirators sometimes.”

However, design is not always magical, and Azeez Alli, cofounder of Design to Divest, described where things break down: “If you can design for oppression, you can design for liberation,” he said. “Not being intentional about what you’re doing can also cause oppression, so design is an intent.”

In conversation at Brainstorm Design, Collett and Alli shared three best practices for designers to empower individuals and communities and create equitable products, services, and institutions.

Divest

When a practice is not paying off, successful leaders know when and how to divest from it, Alli said.

“Whenever the outcomes of the business are not delivering what you expect, what you do is, you start to divest from the project, the activities, and all of the different things that are not going to help you execute what you want to execute,” Alli said, “and then invest in the things that do.”

He emphasized that, when talking about social justice and equity, leaders must divest from their egos to let other people who might understand the situation better come in and lead. When it comes to food equity, for example, he said, “Black people who understand food equity, and understand cultural marginalization in different ways” would have the capacity to do the work. 

Respect the locals

Sometimes, we think we discover things that already exist, then share them as if they were something new. This is why it is important to acknowledge those who came first—and learn from them.

When designing a sustainable future, for example, “there are so many different indigenous cultures that have the knowledge and understand exactly what needs to be done,” Alli said.

Collett added that many companies design products, produce apparel, and create content. However, if they are not opening the door for diversity in their design teams, they may be “lifting a story, an object, out of [a] culture and recontextualizing it,” he said, “having people work on it that don’t have roots in it.” 

“You’re creating a fraud,” he added.

Know that design is mutual care

It is also important for designers to consider the impact of what they’re creating on others, including marginalized communities.

It’s “the idea that what you do for your own well-being is actually connected to the well-being of the planet, the well-being of other people,” Alli said, and that “the harm that you actually deliver to the planet, to the world, to other people, is actually connected to your own well-being in some way, shape, or form.”

Collett added that mutual care starts in the design process and said, “You can’t continuously create good work without having a practice—a work practice, a work process—that honors and values everybody’s contributions.”

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