RDC’s SF Design Week: Design Thinking for Social Justice

tl:dr: We gained community, tested our assumptions, and broadened what it means to do Design for Social Justice. Here we list three equity-based design methods: Video Case Study, Systemic Persona, and Power Mapping.

Want to support RDC? Vote for out Design for Equity in Community Engagements workshop for SxSW. Come be a part of our collective!


We’re glad the theme for this year’s Design Week was, “Question Everything” because one of Reflex Design Collective’s main motives is to question dominant themes in design practice present in the Bay Area. Thus, we saw SF Design Week as a perfect chance to give us an opportunity to offer our thoughts, and to learn from others. Moreover, many of the design spaces we’ve made have been for activism communities and marginalized coalitions; how would our approach have to change when in front of those with long-term design expertise?

Designing the workshop required a complete reframing of how we wanted to introduce ourselves, and we had many questions:

  • What type of workshop would serve our needs the best?
  • What changes do we make to ensure we cater to the SF Design Week Community?
  • How do we ensure we don’t lose our values, while we modify our presentation style?

We realized, however, that it made the most sense to return to our roots: to ensure that we keep the politics of innovation in the conversation. By doing so, we ensured our guiding themes of political design work were included:

  • Contextualization — the idea that while designing, we must not only know the environment concerning a design problem but the history and systemic oppressive systems at work.
  • Democratization — the idea that, as a potential site of increased agency for the community members, ensuring the most marginalized and the most influenced stakeholders in an issue should be seriously considered as a part of this design project.
  • Reflection — the idea that as designers, we carry privileges, oppressions, and experiences that influence what we value, what we think, and ultimately, how we design.

As a result, we tried a few new methods to get our point across.

Video Case Study

There are many methods and data sources that designers use to brief themselves about the context of a design problem. In a workshop environment where time is so precious, short videos deliver a large amount of information about a community in a short amount of time: what they see, what they’ve accomplished, and what information they consider important. In this workshop, we had a great opportunity to introduce community members who aren’t usually considered as design targets: community activists.

To continue our focus on environmental racism, we showed the side of Communities for a Better Environment, a social justice organization who works to “build people’s power in California’s communities of color and low income communities to achieve environmental health and justice by preventing and reducing pollution and building green, healthy and sustainable communities and environments.” The video above talks about how three years of organizing halted a Power Plant that would have emitted close to two million pounds of toxic pollution a year.

This short movie, however, does more than set context. It also reflects designerly capacity in ways rarely considered: they imagine a new, more just world, and organize with actions which direct them towards that goal. In this way, could we consider these activists as a part of the unrecognized innovator?

Systemic Personas

Many designers have used personas to better frame what their end user look like, and the tool has many benefits. Designers harness user research into a narrative about what the user’s life is like, so we can direct solutions based on their needs and capacities. However, while considering issues of inequity such as environmental racism, it is important to not just focus on narratives of the poor and marginalized but on the systems which entrap these community members in these oppressive states.

We do this by adding a spin on the traditional Persona method:

  • Step 1: Create a persona about a marginalized stakeholder who has to deal with environmental racism.
  • Step 2: Shift your focus to the systems around the stakeholder, including their personal resources, local community pressures, and historical patterns in the environment, and ask what factors are at play in the systems surrounding this person in need.

What happened next, we didn’t expect. By shifting their focus, many of the designers in the room started to answer specific questions-and draft stories-about how the layers of the system affected their users. For instance, some participants imagined Jordan, a low-income recent community grad who now holds a set of burdens to contribute to their family, living in a poor neighborhood in Oakland. They live close to an oil factory, which is all they can afford, and they don’t know who represents them politically — or even, how political mobility could change their lives. Changing the frame helped the participants draft a more holistic story about the stakeholder — and, in the future, open up more design spaces.

Power Mapping

Many designers recognize the activity as a modified 2x2 diagram, and many community organizers use the method in their own practice. When considering politics involved in complex situations, a method like this is critical because it begins the question about how power manifests and keeps these problems from being addressed.

On the 2x2, you plot different actors in a design space; here, you see our power map of actors who impact, or are impacted by, environmental racism. One axis is influence: how much power the stakeholder has to change the issue. On the other axis is how the stakeholders are personally affected. This method by itself rarely presents answers to problems, but it does force designers to have difficult conversations: ones which surface assumptions and breed disagreements. During the workshop, some participants made a case for police officers being somewhat influential, while others viewed the police as having very little power. In certain situations, they both might be right.

As democratically concerned designers, RDC also uses the map as a heuristic reminder for design practice as a whole. We ask ourselves: who are the ones who are likely to be included into a design space? Who should we work to bring into the room? How would we do so?

Lessons Learned

SF Design Week work gave us an opportunity to reflect on our own practice as well. By posing a “How Might We” related to our personal interests — HMW best participate with a grassroots organization, as a design collective? — we had an opportunity to crowd-source the answer to questions we ask ourselves as a design collective.

  • What do we bring to the table as a community?
  • How do we make them interested in our practice?
  • What does success look like for us, as RDC?

As you saw above, we also had the opportunity to present design methods we developed, some we learned from colleagues, and more; to better affirm our knowledge in these techniques and our capacity as facilitators.

However, most importantly, we let a new community into our fold. Everyone is the room came from different experiences, and had varying expertise with design, environmental racism, and the many other topics we presented in the workshop. However, we now have an opportunity to grow as a community, together, in our understanding not just of ourselves of designers, but of what the world of design can tackle together, as a collective. We have much more waiting in our wings, and we can’t wait for the next opportunity to spread how to design to address issues of power, equity, and oppression.


Want to be a part? Help us put on our next workshop! We’re up to develop a workshop which Design for Equity in Community Engagements at SxSW, with a great Design for Equity colleague. Here’s what we’re doing:

Through an interactive design challenge, participants will practice a number of tools developed to build equitable partnerships between designers and the communities they work with. The tools explore how to approach a community, build relational trust, recruit co-designers, negotiate power and launch a project. After the challenge, participants will begin planning how to apply these tools to projects they are currently working on.
  1. go to the link,
  2. put your info, and
  3. look for the title!

We’d love to let you into the fold.