Design for Social Transformation Requires More Than Good Intentions

Many of us who work in design professions seek to balance a desire to contribute to the creation of a better world with the need to make a living in increasingly precarious times. As the current crisis around COVID-19 unfolds against a backdrop of ecological collapse, unchecked wealth inequality, and the politics of patriarchy, racism, ableism, and xenophobia, designers feel called to do their part. We want to contribute our skills to projects of positive social transformation.

It’s not just right now—there’s a long history of designers attempting to use design as a force for good. Some of us adopt a “do no harm” policy against working on projects or with clients who are particularly problematic. Others contribute occasional pro-bono time to design for nonprofits or community-based organizations. By now, social impact design, inclusive design, participatory design, human-centered design, and co-design are familiar terms.

These design approaches are full of good intentions, but good intentions alone aren’t enough to ensure that design serves as a tool for liberation.

Beyond an intent to do good, we need an approach that explicitly focuses on how every design process can reproduce and/or challenge specific kinds of power inequities.

The Matrix of Domination

To better understand how design, even when it’s well-meaning, can be discriminatory, it’s useful to draw on a concept called the matrix of domination, a term developed in the 1990s by Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins to describe the interlocking systems of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism. Collins emphasizes that every individual simultaneously receives both benefits and harms based on their location within this matrix of domination. This concept is relevant to designers because the images, interfaces, objects, buildings, landscapes, services, and sociotechnical systems that we design too often unwittingly reinforce the matrix of domination. In their new book about design justice, DJN Steering Committee member Sasha Costanza-Chock urges us to consider how design affordances and disaffordances, objects and environments, services, systems, and processes, distributes both penalty and privileges to individuals and groups based on our location within the matrix of domination.

To take one recent example: Giggle is a new “girls-only social media app” that requires new users to scan their face in order to register for an account. The creators of the app had good intentions: They wanted to create an online space free from sexual harassment. Unfortunately, the way they decided to do this was to use AI to screen out anyone with facial features that their system categorized as male. Gender, of course, can’t be determined reliably from facial features, and, as it turns out, the system excludes many trans* women and girls. We also know that Black women are especially likely to have their gender misclassified by AI systems in general, as described by Poet of Code Joy Buolamwini’s video work, “AI, Ain’t I a Woman?

While problems registering for a social media app may sound like a minor inconvenience, similarly biased facial analysis technology is now being used for all kinds of purposes, including recent proposals from companies like Clearview to conduct mass face surveillance for contact tracing in the fight against COVID-19. Face analysis systems, whether used to register for a social media app or for contact tracing, are especially biased against Black women and trans* women, and so they tend to reproduce white supremacy, patriarchy, and cisnormativity.

The Principles of Design Justice

So, what are well-meaning designers to do?

We created the Design Justice Network (DJN) as a space where designers, community organizers, and others can work together to use design to help dismantle the matrix of domination. Born out of a workshop at the 2015 Allied Media Conference in Detroit, we rethink design processes that too often reproduce race, class, and gender inequality, and question the ways that design practices undergird or destabilize systems of structural and historic oppression. To help guide us, we developed the Design Justice Network Principles, which center the people who are normally marginalized by design processes. We use collaborative, creative practices to address the deepest challenges our communities face. We now have over 125 dues-paying members, and our principles have been adopted by over 638 individuals and organizations, including design agencies, tech co-ops, libraries, educational institutions, groups working on data justice, app developers, maker nurses, and more.

An image detailing the 10 Design Justice Network Principles, which range from "We prioritize the design’s impact on the community over the intentions of the designer" to "We work toward sustainable, community-led and -controlled outcomes."
The Design Justice Network Principles. Image credit Alyson Fraser Diaz, Darya Zlochevsky, Leah Brown and Laura Cerón Melo.

Applying Design Justice in Practice 

To give just one example of how this works: in February 2019, the DJN Local Node—one of nine self-organized groups that organize around Design Justice Network Principles within their local communities—in Toronto hosted a workshop focused on Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation initiative owned by Alphabet (the corporation that also owns Google). In Toronto, Sidewalk Labs purchased several waterfront city blocks as a site for its data-driven “Smart City.” Although the development plan claimed to include financial tools to support building affordable rental housing, the Block Sidewalk coalition of community-based organizations pointed out that the plan legitimized surveillance, undermined democratic decision making about urban space,  accelerated gentrification and displacement of working people, and privatized a large swath of prime waterfront space. With that knowledge, we partnered with Digital Justice Lab in creating a workshop to conduct hands-on design activities to reimagine the future of consentful tech in urban space from a Design Justice perspective. (It’s worth noting that Sidewalk Labs recently pulled out of Toronto, thanks to the work of Block Sidewalk.)

Images from the DJN/data justice lab joint workshop about Sidewalk Labs in Toronto in February, 2019. Image credit Design Justice Network.
A Venn diagram with each circle one of the following questions: 'Who benefits? Who is harmed? Who participates?'
 Image of the overlapping questions ‘Who benefits? Who is harmed? Who participates?’ Image credit Design Justice Network.

We analyzed Sidewalk’s plans through the lens of the principles, and conducted a power analysis by asking “Who benefits? Who is harmed? Who participates?” The Sidewalk Labs example is an important reminder that designers must regularly ask themselves important questions like:   “What is the role of design and designers in relation to those who are marginalized by systems of power? And how can we use design to imagine and build the worlds we need to live in—worlds that are safer, more just, and more sustainable?” As the Design Justice Network shows, we can create a better framework for asking these kinds of questions, applying them to local contexts, and building a community that can put principles into practice.

Originally published by the Design Justice Network in XD Ideas.

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Design Justice Network