Designing Beyond Products: Case Study in Restorative Justice

07 Oct 2021
3:00 pm -3:50 pm CDT

Designing Beyond Products: Case Study in Restorative Justice

Design thinking and user research are increasingly standardized, predictable, and “deliverable” in their methodology. As designers, we reference precise Venn diagrams that show the intersection of users, organizations, and systems—we tell our clients that that sweet spot in the middle is where great products are built. Or we show them aspirational pyramids that exhibit experience-driven products at the peak—those are the products that become meaningful and pleasurable, we explain. But what happens if those neatly crafted circles are actually so fractured that the sweet spot only exists for a select few? Or if the organization’s resources are so thin that just getting past that first level of the pyramid is a “speculative future”?

What should design look like when a human problem is exactly that—a human problem—in which a designed product, campaign, or outcome may not be effective, feasible, or sustainable?

This talk will explore how principles of partnership espoused in restorative justice circles challenge our notion of design research as a means to an end. Through a partnership with the South Bend Community School Corporation’s Restorative Justice in Education team, Riley High School, and the University of Notre Dame, design is being integrated with restorative justice circles. Working directly with students the project is initiating dialogue about issues such as institutional racism, community violence, and student wellbeing. Traditional design research methods such as persona workshops or experience mapping are being rethought as prompts for restorative justice circles—not to inform a design intervention, but to spark dialogue and foster community advocates. Design research becomes the intervention when community advocates are seen as a more sustainable and powerful influence than any product of design.

Design has long been intertwined with commerce and that is the reality for many of us. But we do well to consider what Victor Papanek stated in 1971, “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few.” Today, the onset of seductive digital products in our pocket makes Papanek’s sentiment even more poignant.

So how do we think about design beyond products? How do we build a legacy that isn’t regimented for commercial outcomes and is sustainable at small scales? The ancient principles of partnership found in restorative justice circles might challenge us as designers, researchers, and product owners. It might challenge us to move into spaces where our traditional product-oriented processes aren’t as applicable—it might challenge our “human-centered design” approaches, and challenge us to just be better humans—and that’s a pretty good legacy.