Over a late afternoon coffee, a fellow designer asked me “how can we have power as designers” — in the context of “those big decisions” being made by non-design leaders in an organization. Well, it’s a common question and I address it the following way, by sussing out the nuances of power, authority, and influence.
First of all — All designers have power. Our power comes from our ability to decode complexity & ambiguity, translate and interpret those issues, visualize (or somehow give form) them and stage productive dialogues that guide everyone towards an optimal solution that benefits the maximum set of overlapping concerns, as oriented towards the customer. That power is guided by an optimistic spirit of iteration and risk-taking and learning. That is our power and how we make use of that power is up to each of us. The question is whether that power has veritable impact for the causes we believe in — towards improving the human condition given various contexts.
But when I hear “why don’t designers have power”, what I really hear is “why don’t we have the authority” to make certain decisions (like stop an ugly and harmful interface going to market). Authority is contingent upon a variety of factors, given the organization — often dependent upon the power structure as codified by levels, titles, incentive models. Cultural factors apply too — is it a very hierarchical place or more egalitarian, large corp vs small startup, agency working a client, etc. But authority can also be developed via relationships with key figures in an organization and applying (consensually, of course) models of accountability like DACI / RASCI to clarify who “make the call” versus “who is contributing input”. Having been in multiple various corp design departments, I totally get the value of having a champion advocate for design at executive levels, truly empowered / authorized to make crucial “big decisions”, which is great for matters around culture, process, strategy, and especially vision-setting. But maybe not so much for why your PM didn’t like your dropdown menu design 😉 (unless it’s a massive systemwide UI component that will screw up core customer flows thus causing major support call headaches, etc.).
However, not all organizations or teams have the role of a Head of UX or similar, sadly. Or the issues being battled over are a bit too granular to bother the VP of Design (one should play that card carefully and use it in where it really matters — a whole other topic around assessing goals / risks / asks / benefits ). So what’s left is influence. This goes back to your power as a designer to shape and influence decisions by virtue of your talents around discovery, interpretation, visualization, and iteration — backed by compelling stories and rationale that speak to the goals of solving for customer problems.
Influence emerges through the designer’s ability to apply their power given a particular context, to achieve certain aims. It involves relationship-building, trust-building, active listening, humility and grace, with a touch of charisma, all backed by showing outputs and outcomes. Waging influence is an art, developed over time and with lots of practice, but it is essential to be an effective designer (and leader) who operates as a true partner with non-design stakeholders serving the needs of the customer & business overall.