By Tiffany Meyer

“Design is everywhere.” So began my conversation with Context Partners’ newest team member, Jared Cole, who now heads up our creative team. Quiet and unassuming, Jared is a powerhouse of design talent. I sat down with him to geek out a bit on all-things-design, and here’s what he shared.

 

Take me back to that moment when you knew you wanted to be a designer. Set the stage for me.

Many people think about design in terms of the formal outputs we create: the brand assets, the product—what we used to call the “posters and toasters” that designers create. I was still in high school when I knew I wanted to be a designer and those outputs were on my mind too. I thought designing album covers and t-shirts for my favorite bands would be the pinnacle of success.

But then I read Richard Buchanan’s essay, Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Many of his ideas have become buzzwords, but when it was published in 1992 it revolutionized the world of design. Traditional design instruction says design is a practice for making things beautiful. Buchanan challenged that, saying that design is an approach, not an output, one that can be applied to anything in the world. If we see design as being in service to people and not simply creating ways for consumers to “engage,” then we start living in a very different world.

 

What responsibility do designers have?

Design is a huge responsibility. Everything we make as designers—every product, every experience, every output—is an argument for how we should live our lives. How we design can have a significant impact—positive or negative—on the people we design for. It’s important that we share that responsibility by partnering with the people who will use the things we make. Context Partners calls this Community Centered Design.

That’s always been a part of my approach. When end-user collaboration is seen as essential to success, the project risks are dramatically reduced and everyone is more committed to the long-term success and sustainability of the work.

 

If Community Centered Design improves our odds of success, why do some designers miss this step?

I’ve been dropped into a lot of different cultures for my design work. And because I’m committed to Community Centered Design, there were all sorts of nuances we needed to figure out about the culture, language, customs, etc. before the project could even begin.

This work isn’t easy. It takes more resources to really engage with the community as a partner in the design process. It takes more time, too. Sometimes those barriers are enough for designers to skip this step altogether. But a design process that doesn’t engage those who stand to benefit isn’t truly serving that community. Engagement is our responsibility as designers.

 

If you could pick one area where design could have a bigger or better influence, what would that be?

I am clearly biased, but almost everything in the world could benefit from some form of participatory design process. But I immediately land in my own backyard. I am moving into Northeast Portland, a community struggling with a long history of gentrification. It’s an incredibly hard problem to address as an individual. I would love to see designers play a greater role, using our approach in service of the entire neighborhood. What would our neighborhoods look like if more of the community were actively engaged in the design of better policy and, ultimately, the design of a more equitable community?

 

There’s a lot of discussion these days about sharing power at the decision or design table. What does that mean to you?

Power can make you blind. It’s important for all of us to recognize that. Growing up, I was raised to think about language as power, especially in relation to my privilege as a white male. It helped me recognize my responsibility to change my language and behavior to change that power dynamic. I become more aware of my inherited power as I spend more time with people who don’t share the same privilege. I recently had a conversation with the designer Dimeji Onafuwa, and he mentioned the concept of “lending privilege”—asking, how can I leverage my power to give voice to others?

As consultants, we bring a lot of power to the table with our clients. We’re deemed the “experts,” and we’re comfortable asking the questions that often no one else feels comfortable asking. It’s important to recognize our responsibility in that role. How can we empower our clients to build bridges across the organization and within their community? And how can these bridges balance power dynamics in a way that leads to better outcomes? In many ways we are in a position to lend our privilege to the community, to keep them engaged in the process and to ensure that the outcomes meet their needs, rather than just the goals of the client.

 

Who do you admire in this space? Who are you reading?

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of younger designers, fresh in their careers and just entering the industry. These new designers are coming in with a totally different perspective, one where a community-centered approach has been their norm. Questioning the “absolutes” is a given for them. I am deeply inspired by this emerging workforce.

I’ve also been reading a lot about the concept of decolonizing design. There’s a small, growing movement that is looking at the politics of the design practice and the importance of delivering “knowledge and understanding that are adequate to address long-standing systemic issues of power.” They’re leading an international dialogue that is asking, “How did these systemic issues become the acceptable norm?” And more importantly, how do we create a new norm to replace it?

 

What are you most excited about in the upcoming year?

I asked the team to dream up a “moonshot” project that Context Partners would be honored to take on—a project that stretches us because we care deeply about the work and/or the impact it could achieve. I really look forward to pushing that aspirational boundary for our entire team. That’s where things really get fun.