How can designers be better advocates for people and planet?

2 weeks ago by

For the month of April we’ve put a special focus on projects and discussions around Design & Planet in alignment with our 2024 Autumn Conversations events. The authors of this article, Zenaida Beatson and Anna Jackon, will be one of our featured speakers at the upcoming Pōneke Autumn Conversations event on 9 April and are also hosting on 10 April on Design + Purpose


“No one can define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist.”

Meadows. Donella, Thinking in Systems: A Primer

In our work with changemakers who are focused on making our world more equal, just and sustainable, we use our design skills and knowledge to help people mobilise networks and take collective action. Not all designers have the opportunity to be directly involved in this kind of advocacy work in their day to day roles. But –  if we define advocates as people who take action to support an issue or cause and use their voice and power to act for and with others – then all designers have at least some capacity to act as advocates for people and planet. 

Being an advocate means:

  • Using your voice to influence decision-makers and speaking out against actions that cause harm.
  • Working to make our systems fairer, more equitable and more sustainable.
  • Collaborating with others, organising and acting together to achieve greater impact.
  • Putting the power that you have to use to support those with less power, or to amplify collective power. 

Working effectively as an advocate requires an understanding and awareness of power and of systems – how decisions are made, by whom and in whose interests. Designers often have more power than we may recognise, and we occupy roles that enable us to act within and between systems as influencers, mobilisers and connectors. 

Power cube visual showing the levels of power, spaces of power, and forms of power

The graphic above represents the Powercube conceptual framework for understanding levels, spaces, forms and expressions of power and how they interrelate. By analysing how power is expressed across these multiple dimensions, we can gain a deeper understanding of how we might act to bring about change. 

Levels of power visual: local, national, and global

Power operates at different levels of decision-making, e.g local, national and global, or from the level of the individual, to the household, the community and so on. 

Spaced of power: claimed, invited, closed

Power operates in different spaces: 

  • Decisions made in closed spaces (e.g. in boardrooms), involve an elite group of decisionmakers with limited consultation or participation. 
  • In invited spaces, a wider but select group of people (perhaps representing others) are involved in decision making. 

In claimed (or created) spaces, people who are disenfranchised or excluded from decision-making act to create spaces for participation (e.g. through mobilising and organising).

Forms of power: visible, hidden, invisible

Power takes different forms: 

  • visible power is structural, the official, formal rules, procedures, policies and institutions that operate in public that we most clearly see and recognise as shaping decisions.
  • hidden power is the decision making behind the scenes, the informal backstage agreements and relationships that happen outside the public view.
  • invisible power is exercised by suppressing people’s awareness of their rights, their agency or their ability to participate in decision making. We can see invisible power at work when we accept climate change or inequality as natural or inevitable, ‘that’s just the way it is’, or as the consequence of individual decision making rather than seeing them as systemic issues.
Expressions of power: power over, power with, power to, power within

Power is also expressed as Power Over, Power With, Power To and Power Within:

We tend to associate power with Power Over where those with power dominate and control those without, controlling resources and decision-making. But this isn’t the only way that power can be expressed or used. As designers and as advocates, we should be mindful of alternative ways to express power:

  • Power With: working collectively and collaboratively, acting in solidarity with allies and building coalitions to harness ‘people power’.
  • Power To: recognising that every person has the power to act and make a difference.
  • Power Within: your own self-worth and sense of agency and self-determination. In other words, your own belief in your ability to act and be effective as an advocate.

As a designer and as a person:

  • At what levels of power do you have the ability to influence and make decisions? 
  • What kind of spaces do you have access to, and what ability do you have to open, expand or create more mobility between spaces of power?
  • How can you raise awareness and expose the workings of different forms of power, shift mindsets, challenge stereotypes and break down barriers to participation

Understanding how advocacy and power work in systems

This diagram broadly maps our democratic ecosystem. It shows environments and institutions that contribute to shaping our democracy, those in which we as designers can insert ourselves to influence systems change. 

Democratic Ecosystem diagram. Top Down-Grassr: Government, public sector, businesses & for profit, not-for-profits & charities, grass roots& community orgs, citizens

The institutions at the top of the diagram have broad reach, a lot of decision making power and resources. They can also be old-school, highly bureaucratic, slow to move and participation is generally limited to closed or invited spaces. 

The organisations closer to the bottom of the diagram, the Grassroots organisations, are often fluid and responsive to what is happening in the community. Their power is in their ability to mobilise people around an issue (people power), and in claiming and creating spaces. They typically have limited resources, often relying on volunteers and raw passion. Examples of these groups are School Strike 4 Climate, 4 Tha Kulture, Climate Club NZ Aotearoa.

Our broad toolkit as designers enables us to get involved in a bunch of different ways across this democratic ecosystem to act as advocates and allies to support meaningful systems change by:

Creating 

As innovators and problem solvers, designers create systems, processes and products that have far-reaching implications for people and the environment. 

You can imagine new futures by designing alternative systems (like Kowtow’s shift to completely eliminate plastic from their clothing and their goal to transition to complete circularity), or create new, more sustainable models for living and working.

Connecting and Collaborating

Many designers act as collaborators, translators or bridges between disciples and across and within different parts or levels of systems.

If you’re more grassroots inclined, you can influence change by doing some craftivism or painting up signs for folks to hold up at a march. Or, invite others to meaningfully contribute to shaping new systems by hosting community engagement or supporting a co-design process. 

Communicating

As storytellers and communicators we shape the way people see, think about and understand the world. This work can help shift mindsets and raise awareness in ways that can influence behaviour and opinions and contribute to social change.

If you’re into storytelling, you can shift hearts and minds by creating a behaviour change campaign (like FCB’s Keep New Zealand Beautiful campaign, ‘Dont Upset Mama Nature’

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cG9u9-NZtgE&t=30s]

Act like an advocate, think like an ecologist…

By gaining a greater insight into how power operates within systems, and the power that we personally and collectively have to act, we can increase our capacity to effect change within the systems we live and work in. While we can have some short-term impact for the environment by advocating for targeted issues and causes, in the long term we have to shift our focus to systems change.

As Michael Narberhaus and Aryne Sheppard argue in “Re.Imagining Activism: A Practical Guide for the Great Transition”: 

Issues such as economic development, climate, finance, biodiversity, security and migration have become highly interdependent and mutually reinforcing, and cannot be adequately addressed with a focus on single issue solutions. These systemic global crises require a deep rethinking of our economic, political and social systems.

We decided to talk about the Powercube model in this article because it’s a way of thinking about power that is complex, multidimensional, interrelated and acknowledges that power relationships can be fluid and dynamic. But a lot of our language and mental models we use when we talk about power, and the systems that structure our power relations are linear, rigid and hierarchical. To achieve real change we need to use our skills to transform systems and transition from top-down, hierarchical human-centred systems to life-centred, networked, planet-centred systems.

In the context of our democratic systems we can start, as Jon Alexander suggests in ‘Citizens: Why the key to fixing everything is all of us’, by making the transition from acting as citizens, not as subjects or consumers. This is a task that requires a major shift to systems that operate on ‘Power With’, that are purpose-led, participatory, creative, networked and deliberative.

We can decolonise and re-indigenise design by embracing and celebrating indigenous models and systems, including in design education.

We can adopt Transition Design to create change in complex systems through radical collaboration.

We can reshape our economic systems, as in Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’ to adopt economic models that provide “a safe and just space for humanity” while also protecting Earth’s life-supporting systems.

Whatever we do, we have to act, and believe in our capability to act. When we see ourselves not just as designers but as advocates, we build our ‘Power Within’. This is the power that gives us hope, and the belief that despite the overwhelming challenges we face, we have the power to change the future.

Fear is a survival response. Fear makes us run, it makes us leap, it can make us act superhuman. But we need somewhere to run to. Without that, the fear is only paralyzing. So the real trick, the only hope, really, is to allow the terror of an unlivable future to be balanced and soothed by the prospect of building something much better than many of us have previously dared hope. – Naomi Klein


1 Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, ed. Diana Wright (Vermont: Chelsea, 2008),

2 The Participation, Power and Social Change team at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex., “What Is the Powercube? | Understanding Power for Social Change” Understanding power for social change, November 17, 2009, https://www.powercube.net/analyse-power/what-is-the-powercube/.

3 Lisa VeneKlasen and Valerie Miller, eds., “Power and Empowerment,” in A New Weave of Power, People and Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation, 1st edition (Rugby, Warwickshire: Practical Action Publishing, 2007).

4 Michael Narberhaus and Aryne Sheppard, “Re.Imagining Activism: A Practical Guide for the Great Transition” (Smart CSOs Lab, October 2015), https://www.youthpower.org/sites/default/files/YouthPower/files/resources/re.imagining_activism_guide.pdf.

5 Jon Alexander with Ariane Conrad, Citizens: Why the Key to Fixing Everything Is All of Us (Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, United Kingdom: Canbury Press, 2022).

6  Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think like a 21st-Century Economist (Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017).

Shout out to our hero font: Afronaught

Shout out to George Aye who helped to plant this seed during his visit to Aotearoa on the Doing Things Differently tour last year.


About the Authors:

Zenaida Beatson |Zenaida is half Filipina, half Pākehā, and lives in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. She is a Director and Designer at For Purpose, a campaign and movement building agency and social enterprise. Zenaida’s practice combines visual and collaborative design to understand and engage people in issues that matter.

Anna Jackson | Anna has explored many paths in her career, but these always seem to lead back to media, storytelling and social impact. She combines design and storytelling to help changemakers communicate more effectively. 

Register to attend the 2024 Autumn Conversations Events happening on: 4 Apr – AKL, 9 Apr – WLG, and 15 Apr – CHC

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