Conventional design education believes that by training the mind and the hand, a designer can solve just about any problem. In many ways, this works beautifully. Designers leave their schooling prepared to work for commercial clients with business problems that need solving. But the design industry is changing, and a growing number of designers (graphic and communication, industrial, UX and UI, architects, urban planners, and service designers to name a few) are working on social issues with greater and greater complexity.

This change is starting to expose a dormant weakness in design education that’s been lurking for decades. For all the talk about being human-centered, one very human factor often gets overlooked — a basic understanding of how power operates in relationships between people.

Part of the reason that designers and educators don’t talk about this topic is that it’s inherently thorny. It brings up sensitive issues around class, race, politics, privilege, access and more.

Should designers get out of social impact design altogether? Absolutely not. Designers are uniquely trained to be comfortable working with ambiguity without losing hope. And that right there is a powerful asset.

But if you shy away from working in the social sector, you’ll miss out on opportunities to change the world and yourself in the process. All it takes is a more reflective approach—one that acknowledges the hidden forces at play in the world around us.

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