Johnathon Strube

Review: Design Justice

Oct 19, 2020

Design methods for practitioners and educators working at the intersections of design, technology, and social equity.

Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the World We Need by Sasha Costanza-Chock questions how design can create social equity. As creator of the MIT Civic Media Collaborative Design Studio and member of the Allied Media Projects board and the Design Justice Network Steering Committee, Costanza-Chock has spent their career understanding the spaces between media, technology, design, and social equity. Here, writing for designers and design educators, they present thematic evidence to define the need for and the use of the Design Justice Network Principles. These principles, created by the Design Justice Network, an international community of designers, artists, technologists, and community organizers committed to serving marginalized people, are an ethical framework to combat systemic power structures and guide designers to create more equitable processes, products, and systems.

Throughout the text, Constanza-Chock shares personal anecdotes to illustrate social inequity and humanize the individuals affected. For example, they open the book by recounting their experience with the gender binary scanning technology used at TSA security checkpoints and how this technology exposes individuals who identify as non-binary. These security systems, which are designed to identify normative gender markers, are an example of social inequity created by a technological product. At the individual level, this inequity might result in an awkward “pat-down” moment. But, at a system level, this inequity results in the loss of human empathy. Pairing personal experiences and professional expertise, Costanza-Chock has written a unique book that moves the discussion of design and social equity beyond case studies that praise design intervention or fetishize product innovation.

Constanza-Chock reframes the discussion of design and social equity using intersectionality and the matrix of domination, a black feminist theory that defines race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression. These theories center an investigation that explores how the design industry intersects with white heteropatriarchal capitalism and settler colonialism. They reveal that social systems are the root cause of designed inequity; thus, to design for social equity, the design industry must first redesign itself. Design Justice responds with six thematic sections that identify industry shortfalls and offer strategies to design equitable change.

The first section, “Design Values,” questions the affordances encoded into technology. For example, in building technological products, designers often reference design methods like value-sensitive design, universal design, and inclusive design to create features that promote a single user experience. Constanza-Chock challenges designers to think beyond technical features and acknowledge that design affordances are not universal. They argue that design tools such as user stories, testing approaches, and even product standards need to focus on intersectional factors: race, class, and gender. They further argue that UI/UX conventions including cognitive load, A/B testing, benchmarking, and algorithms need to be revised to resist universalist assumptions. Otherwise, designers will continue to omit these unique human factors.

Section 2, “Design Practices,” exposes the design process and the designer archetype. Constanza-Chock points out that traditional design processes are linear and dependent on observational research. What’s more, these processes are disproportionately led by English-speaking, white, male, hetero-normative cis-archetypes that quantify success with efficient, task-driven outcomes. Alternatively, Constanza-Chock emphasizes participatory, co-design methods that evolve the design process from a one-size-fits-all intervention to a unique-fit-for-unique-community-stakeholders collaboration. In this model, design teams would focus on the lived human experience in all stages of the design process, from developing inclusive hiring and retention practices to granting community participants final project ownership.

[…] emphasizes participatory, co-design methods that evolve the design process from a one-size-fits-all intervention to a unique-fit-for-unique-community-stakeholders collaboration.

Section 3, “Design Narratives,” critiques design attribution. In 2004, Constanza-Chock marched in protest of the NYC Republican National Convention. During this march, activists communicated with TXTMob, a predecessor to Twitter which established conventions such as the #hashtag, the @username, and the streaming communication record. Constanza-Chock argues that this story largely goes untold. Instead, mainstream depictions of Twitter present the company’s founding as a story of US exceptionalism; an act of technical genius from a straight, white male. Like the TSA example, this personal anecdote is instructive, illustrating that attribution has power. In reality, Constanza-Chock knows first-hand that Twitter evolved from a community platform, and that the stories that get told are the stories that are remembered. They argue that if the design industry does not prioritize proper attribution, it will continue to tell stories of privilege and erase the vital participation of marginalized communities from design history.

In Section 4, “Design Places,” Constanza-Chock examines locations of innovation. They argue that hackerspaces, fab labs, and hackathons originally created for skill-building and networking have been co-opted for capitalist endeavors. They go on to correlate and contrast these spaces with indigenous practices, in which centralized knowledge is activated in response to need, regardless of economic forces. Constanza-Chock argues that collective design spaces work best when connected with existing social movements. They cite numerous groups, conferences, events, spaces, #hashtags, and even their MIT Codesign Studio as examples of design spaces that empower marginalized groups through the exchange of knowledge. These design spaces connect topic experts, community members, designers, developers, and researchers to challenge systemic oppression and create social equity.

Section 5, “Design Pedagogies,” calls for the democratization of design education. Looking to popular education theory and the Civil Rights movement for inspiration, Constanza-Chock identifies pedagogies that emphasize liberation, relevance, problem identification, dialog, action, and transformation. They argue that progressive pedagogies should begin at the primary level; develop learners from diverse demographic backgrounds; and focus on adaptive knowledge that humanizes the design process. To democratize design education, school systems must teach more than skill-building and educate humans to think critically about collective liberation. Likewise, federal support for education needs to think beyond one-off programs, such as Computer Science for All, and address the lack of access created by community economics.

The book concludes with a discussion around the transformation of industry. In the final section, “Directions for Future Work,” Constanza-Chock illustrates the tension between principle and practice. Joining social movements such as #techwontbuildit and #keepfamiliestogether, designers at Google and Amazon have raised awareness, spoken against corporate policy, and left positions to protest unethical technology or immoral government policy. But they argue that collective action cannot be resistance alone. Designers and developers must engage with their communities, use their privileged positions, and create new systems that prioritize social equity. Like every design process, this work will require a balance between intention and feasibility; and this is the point.

Constanza-Chock acknowledges that designing social equity will take time. It will require dedicated practitioners who want to create systemic value without sacrificing the individual experience; create innovation without defining success as profit; frame problems that leverage community knowledge without marginalizing others; build systems that address social evolution without ignoring advantage; teach design methods that promote humanity without sacrificing technical skills; and create technical innovation to holistically improve the human condition. Are we, as readers, up to the task?

© Johnathon Strube, 1982–2023 Email
© Johnathon Strube, 1982–2023 Email