⚡ Design Justice and Beyond

How designers can work with and empower marginalized communities

One of my favorite things about the Reboot community is the way they come together to self-organize virtual discussions for books they’ve been meaning to read. Most recently, one group wrapped up Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need by Sasha Constanza-Chock, previously an Associate Professor of Civic Media at MIT and newly the Director of Research & Design at the Algorithmic Justice League.

In this week’s newsletter, we’re sharing their notes and key takeaways from the book. (P.S. The book is open access, and you can find it here!)

📐 design justice and beyond

By Jacky Zhao, Ivan Zhao, Anh Pham, Sarthak Mohanty, Joice Tang, Anson Yu

Design Justice focuses not just on design in the visual and aesthetic sense, but also on the design of systems.

To quote from the book, "Design justice rethinks design processes, centers people who are normally marginalized by design, and uses collaborative, creative practices to address the deepest challenges our communities face." The norms, values, and assumptions that are encoded and reproduced in the design of systems can be changed by rethinking our design processes.

Design Justice invites us to "center people who are too often marginalized by design.” More importantly, it urges us to work towards an equitable world for everyone: one where design justice is not just a funnel we use to limit ourselves to a minimal set of supposedly universal design choices, but rather is a prism through which to generate a far wider rainbow of possible choices, each better tailored to reflect the needs of a specific group of people.

on the obligations of companies (ivan)

As someone involved in the startup and venture space, design often feels like an afterthought. But designers make decisions for large swaths of people, and as such, designers have a responsibility within their organization to compensate, advocate for, and empathize with the groups that they work for. Of those obligations, only empathy with users is considered a typical part of the design process — and even then, it’s done at the bare minimum level. But how can we encourage design teams to do the first two?

Compensation is easy: literally just pay people you consult or do research with. Many people, especially those from marginalized communities, are giving up labor for free. Especially if you’re VC-funded, the difficulty is primarily in attitude rather than real constraints on funding.

Beyond “user-centric” design, Constanza-Chock prompts us to consider who frames the problem, funds the ideation, and benefits from the solution.

For advocacy, there are two avenues to follow. The first is amplification: many groups that have been used and abused by society have figured out other methods and mechanisms to survive. Rather than building a solution that lacks perspective and clarity about the problems people face, work to support that community and their existing solutions. The second avenue is allyship: if you’ve decided that building a new solution is needed, then advocate for just design principles and user needs.

Building a company is all about tradeoffs — but there should never be a question of choosing between the company’s profitability versus someone’s basic needs.

on ableism and accessibility (anh)

Reading Design Justice gave me a new outlook upon a classic design text I read in college, Don Norman's The Design of Everyday Things. To quote Norman, designers should "consider the special problems of the aged and infirm, the handicapped, the blind or near-blind, the deaf or hard of hearing, the very short or very tall, or the foreign.” Norman’s design philosophy subscribes to the mainstream idea that disability is inherently "defective,” foreign, and needs a cure — the medical model of disability — rather than recognizing the social model of disability — how society does not meet the access needs of people with physical or psychological differences, functional limitations, or impairments. Furthermore, it does not consider the disability justice lens which highlights intersectionality, with race, gender, sexism, class, and history; and interdependence, when we rely on each other to care. 

One example of how this ableism manifests in tech’s design processes is disability simulation: a design practice that involves a non-disabled person being asked to navigate an environment like how a disabled person would. This often causes more harm than good; what we have in the end are be solutions that remain able-normative and overlook Disabled people’s actual life experiences.

Thus, what we should do is to reframe our thinking. First, disability is a social construct; second, disability and accessibility discussions need to center the lived experiences of disabled people, especially those who are queer, trans, BlPOC, and value their attendance, feelings and comfort. Furthermore, design teams should be led by and/or formally involved (with financial compensation!) by the users they are designing for.

I think a lot about the emotional labor of disability advocacy, especially in tech. As a Deaf person, I find it tiring and frustrating to remind the host every time I step into a Zoom online meeting to turn on live captions, or holding folks who hold Accessibility discussions on inaccessible platforms (like Clubhouse and Remo) accountable. Disabled people do not get to pick and choose when to be an advocate — they have to do it even when they do not have energy, or else they will not be heard. Additionally, disability activists still sometimes see little to no progress because tech companies often consider accessibility an afterthought of capital gain, or an ad hoc checklist that they check only to avoid breaking the laws. We still have a long way to go, and I dream of a world where it does not take ongoing conversation from disability activists for people to care about designing for everyone. 

on design education (sarthak)

Rather than teaching rules, design education should prompt students to investigate where problems stem from and how to solve them inclusively. Sasha Constanza-Chock introduces the radical educator Paulo Freire, describing his influence on the practice of popular education. Freire writes, “the goal of education is to transform oppressed individuals into subjects who engage in collective action to transform their conditions of oppression.” In other words, education lives within a system of domination and liberation; each participant should think, question, and act to identify the causes of the problems within that system.

Designers should keep the following principles in mind: change emerges over time from a collaborative process, rather than appearing out of thin air at the end; we should facilitate change without presuming to be the expert; everyone in the design process should share their perspectives; and most importantly, we should finding out what’s already working and uplift those systems.

on learning and building (joice)

Since reading Design Justice, I keep going back to a particular quote about constructionism: “Learning is a reconstruction, rather than a transmission of knowledge.” I remember gushing about the idea when I first shared this quote at our meeting.

Afterwards, I realized I had forgotten one simple fact: although it is beautiful to think about how nothing is truly done, learnt or built alone, we must always consider who and what we are (re)constructing with. Many of us build with bricks that were made by those in power, and who arguably work to maintain the status quo. If learning is a reconstruction of knowledge, then everything we learn reflects the learnings of the people we’re told to listen to unless we choose to do otherwise. This last little line is what is beautiful to me about constructionist pedagogy and Design Justice.

Learning is a reconstruction of knowledge, and it’s important to remember that we are part of that process of reconstruction as well. By seeking out diverse voices and learning together, we can build shared consciousness and better understand the world and the predicaments that plague us.

on designing better hackathons (jacky)

Hackathons are valorized as places of learning, making, and building and the intersection of social movements and the counterculture. So why have they become increasingly corporate places of extraction of free labour?

This cooptation of hacker culture and hackathons by neoliberalism has been in the back of my mind ever since reading the chapter on design sites in Design Justice. As someone who first got their footing in computer science through hackathons, it pains me to see that this is the reputation that hackathons have gotten — moving from safe spaces for idea exploration to increasingly corporate, time-bound events where hackers spin up apps to test company products in exchange for the slim chance of winning prizes and recognition.

Hackathons reshape precarious and unpaid work. Writing code and building apps are extraordinary opportunities to collectively imagine fictions of innovation that benefits all. Do we need to tie these rituals of play to the recruiting and product testing pipeline for large corporations?

If learning is a reconstruction of knowledge, then everything we learn reflects the learnings of the people we’re told to listen to. By seeking out diverse voices and learning together, we can build shared consciousness and better understand the world and the predicaments that plague us.

As a hackathon organizer, Design Justice has helped me to think actively about what hackathons are trying to motivate. With the book’s tools to articulate why hackathons have felt increasingly corporate, I hope to reinstate hackathons as spaces not of competition, but of play and exploration.

on the theatre of innovation (anson)

The theatre of innovation has interesting decor. You enter through a sticky note arch and walk through hallways of user personas that drip with stereotypes. The floors are paved with good intentions, executed poorly. The decor isn’t bad, just incomplete. After reading Design Justice, I would describe much of formal design education in a similar way.

As an alternative, Constanza-Chock emphasizes the importance of designers incorporating and then rewarding local expertise — appreciation begets accreditation. Like in the story of TXTmob and Twitter, we should recognize and compensate our predecessors from the laboratory of daily life. Valuing local knowledge also prevents the savior mentality that plagues much of tech. It poses designers as facilitators, rather than the drivers of ideation.

Design Justice feels like the foundation for a fourth reckoning of design. What originated as an industry oriented towards raw function has shape-shifted into a craft centered on aesthetics, then user experience, and now, hopefully, empowerment. Beyond “user-centric” design, Constanza-Chock prompts us to consider who frames the problem, funds the ideation, and benefits from the solution. Although inevitably imperfect, these suggestions feel like a concrete next step, one where design is a playground for uplifting marginalized voices, socioeconomic mobility, and creative expression. 


🌀 microdoses

  • 🌐 The case for design as participation: “engaging with the complex adaptive systems that surround us, by revealing instead of obscuring, by building friction instead of hiding it, and by making clear that every one of us (designers included) are nothing more than participants in systems that have no center to begin with.”

  • ❓ Ben Green argues that “good” isn’t good enough: that most vague efforts at “tech for good” rarely contend with what, or for whom, “good” actually serves.

  • 🏦 Have you ever wanted to read about Goldman Sachs’s custom typography? Probably not, but here you go anyway.

💝 closing note

Reboot community member Kat asked the group for resources related to the theory behind coursework and higher education in general.

Design for justice,
— Jasmine & Reboot team