Design Research Society

If Jen is wary about the proliferation of design thinking, others are concerned with who is left out. At the 2018 meeting of the Design Research Society, the top ranked questions on Slido (an audience engagement tool that allows people to pose questions in real time) were: “Why is #DesignSoWhite?” “To do design for good don’t we have to talk about the oppressive systems of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, we need to dismantle or transform?” “Are designers still mainly occupied with design that makes people want things? What kind of a future this implies?”31 The panelists awkwardly ignored the questions for some twenty minutes until eventually the session ended with no response. Author of two of the questions, Sasha Constanza-Chock, a professor at the MIT, has developed the idea of “design justice” with Allied Media Network collaborators, to get us thinking more about the process and power dynamics of design across multiple axes of oppression.32 They define design justice as “a field of theory and practice that is concerned with how the design of objects and systems influences the distribution of risks, harms, and benefits among various groups of people,” and is focused on procedural and distributive justice:

We have an ethical imperative to systematically advance the participation of marginalized communities in all stages of the technology design process; through this process, resources and power can be more equitably distributed.33

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Sounds good, right? But if the “justice” used here is meant to augment dominant notions of design as a universal good, I wonder how justice itself might be altered by its proximity to design as a buzzword and brand. Is this not what we are seeing with Jay Z’s Promise and other such products?

How, then, might we think critically about the assumptions of design, as well as about those of justice? In a recent workshop I participated in on “subversive design,” we tried to grapple with this question. The facilitators asked participants to throw out terms and phrases that described what we thought design was:

the expression of a value system

how we create space

solving a problem

visually shaping something

tool for maintaining power

intentional creation

and more!

As I sat there looking up at the screen, trying to think of what to add, it struck me that maybe the growing list was a problem. But, good student that I am, I still raised my hand to chime in – design is a colonizing project, I offered, to the extent that it is used to describe any and everything.34 The affirming nods and groans from the facilitators and others in the room suggested that this critique resonated with them.