Power to the People: Bridging Community through Design

by Kate Hanisian

We live in a truly contentious time in our nation’s history. In addition to our widening political discord, economic inequality in the US is arguably the highest it’s been since 1928. The opportunity gap between white people and people of color persists, and in many areas of the country we are unlikely to live near others that don’t look like us or share the same level of resources.


Image from Unsplash by Matthew Brodeur

Design can and should be used to reduce this divisiveness. While design is often seen as an end deliverable that can unite communities, design as a process can actually bring together communities to solve problems together by democratizing leadership, sharing decision-making power, and bringing together those that often do not hear one another.

Design can play a powerful role in the social sector. People that hold power in nonprofit or civic work, such as philanthropists, board members, and leaders of large organizations, often do not have recent, personal, and direct day-to-day experience with the problems they are solving for.

Because of this knowledge gap, design, or more specifically “social design,” is often brought in to bring the lived experience of community members to those in power to help them design empathic ways forward on specific projects.

These projects offer great opportunities to not only address the pressing social issue at hand, but also build bridges between groups that often do not sit down together. This is particularly important when working with traditionally marginalized groups, whose voices often remain far from the ears of power.


While design’s multidisciplinary and welcoming approach is a natural bridge-builder, it takes deep commitment to authentically design with those who may be affected by an issue (otherwise known as participatory design). Social designers can practice participatory design in a light way, such as inviting end users to an ideation session, or can engage in deeper action by including end users, clients, and other stakeholders on the design team throughout every step of the process.

Another way of thinking about it is this: the depth to which the design team commits to participatory practice and the more engaged stakeholders are in every step of the process, the greater understanding they have of one another, the deeper their relationships go, and the more likely they are to walk away from the project with greater empathy for one another.


For example, Design Impact recently worked with a local hospital to improve childrens’ health outcomes in two Cincinnati neighborhoods that were deeply affected by poverty. There was a history of distrust between the community and the hospital, so designing with community was a guiding principle throughout the project.. Community members were hired early on in the project as “peer researchers.” While the designers shared tips on empathic interviewing techniques, the community members shared ideas for questions to ask and ways to ask them.

Community health workers and leadership from the hospital were also part of the process throughout. Together this diverse set of stakeholders moved through the research, synthesized the data, and facilitated a large community ideation session.

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Over time, trust increased between the community members and the hospital staff working on the project. As one designer put it, “We came from totally different backgrounds and lived experiences but by the end of the project we were a high functioning team. This is the kind of work we need to be doing as designers; bringing together the best minds, deeply listening to one another, and creating ways forward, together.”

By being included and involved in the project, community members also felt more equipped to speak up, tackle social issues, and deepen their commitment to community health work. As one peer researcher commented, “Being with you helped me get rid of that fear to speak up, and helped me feel confident about suggesting what things were necessary amongst the Hispanic community. It helped me give my community a voice.”

The deep community participation didn’t just empower residents; it influenced the way the hospital solves problems. They have deepened their commitment to community-engaged design and are working with community members as key decision-makers and problem solvers moving forward. In one partner’s words, “we’ve never integrated members of the community into those levels to the degree that we did in any other work that I’ve seen. We didn’t know and we didn’t understand how to do this . . . now, there’s an appreciation for the depth of the connection to get there, whether that’s because you’ve been in someone’s home or because you invited them to be part of an entire process. It was eye-opening for a lot of us.”

In conclusion, today’s social designers should pay as close attention to participatory processes as they do to the end design deliverables. When the design process is open and inclusive, we can decrease divisiveness, increase understanding, and generate approaches to complex social challenges that are rooted in true human understanding.

To learn more about using design to bridge community, click here: www.d-impact.org

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