Notes on #DesignJustice and Digital Technologies

This text was originally published in June 2017 in the Design Justice Zine Issue #3, “Design Justice for Action.

“Design Justice,” typography/cover art for Design Justice Zine #3, by Taylor Stewart

All aspects of politics have undeniably been reshaped by digital technologies. Digital technologies have transformed both electoral campaigns and everyday interactions between the populace and the State; democratic deliberation and service delivery; highly mediated mass protest events and the unglamorous, daily work of community organizing. Unfortunately, the processes through which we currently develop, deploy, and control digital technologies all but ensure that they will, on balance, reproduce existing forms of structural power inequality. Because of this, digital technologies currently pose little threat to politics as usual under neoliberal democracy, or even, as we are increasingly and uncomfortably aware, under authoritarian rule. Indeed, as digital media platforms mature, both authoritarian states and resurgent hard-right political formations within advanced democracies have learned how to use them quite effectively to surveil social movements and dissidents, sow fear and doubt through the deployment of paid trolls and botnets, and amplify their own power. There is, however, cause for optimism. If we take ‘politics’ in a broader sense to include not only statecraft and governance from above, but also intersectional, bottom-up social movements and contentious politics, then there is still hope that digital technologies can serve as key tools for our collective liberation. Those communities most targeted within what Patricia Hill Collins calls the matrix of domination (the intersecting structures of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and settler colonialism) already use digital technologies as tools to facilitate the formation of new political identities, organizations, networks, and movements. These movements have, in many cases, leveraged digital technologies to mobilize adherents and allies, advance specific policy goals, and transform culture at large. Yet if we are to realize the promise of these tools, then we must fundamentally transform the ways that they are designed.

Design justice, an emergent concept that is being developed in large part through the efforts of folks connected to the Allied Media Conference, is a normative and pragmatic proposal for a liberatory approach to the design of digital technologies, products, services, and systems. Design justice proponents might argue that we have an ethical imperative to systematically advance democratic participation in all stages of the digital technology design process, and especially to center historically marginalized communities in this process, based on principles of democratic inclusion and social justice. At the same time, design that follows these principles can produce products and systems that work better for all of us, in the long run. We need to ask a series of questions about how the design of digital technologies currently works, and about how we want it to work. We need to raise questions of accountability (who gets to do design? how do we move towards community control of design processes?), values (what values do we encode and reproduce in the objects and systems that we design?), discourse (What stories do we tell about how things are designed? How do we scope design challenges, and frame design problems?), sites (Where do we do design? How do we make design sites accessible to those who will be most impacted by design processes? What design sites are privileged and what sites are ignored or marginalized?), political economy (who profits from, and what social relationships are reproduced by, design?), and pedagogy (how do we teach and learn design justice skills and practices?) At the same time, we have to document innovative community-led digital design practices, each grounded in the specificity of a particular social movement. There is a growing community of designers, technologists, and engaged scholars who work hand in hand with community based organizations, through iterative stages of project ideation, design, testing, evaluation, launch, and stewardship; we invite you, the reader, to participate in these communities. Let’s work towards design justice in theory, practice, and pedagogy.

This approach should resonate strongly with the current widespread rise of intersectional feminist thought and action, most visible in networked social movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, the immigrant rights movement, LGBTQI struggles and Trans* rights, indigenous struggles such as #IdleNoMore and #StandWithStandingRock, and new formations in the labor movement, but also influential across the entire political landscape in the linked resistence to the resurgent right in the age of Trump. We might work to connect these movements more explicitly to debates about technology design, and to deepen and extend the range and impact of the already highly visible conversation about the need for diversity in the technology sector. Let’s make visible the growing community of design practitioners who are working in alignment with today’s liberatory social movements, and inspire more designers to join that community.

1. Design Justice: An Introduction

Design Justice might initially be seen as part of a long turn towards the theory and practice of User Centered Design, as well as the more recent advance of value driven design, both increasingly popular within industry. These shifts are important and have had the practical outcome of producing products that better respond to user needs, and that are designed with affordances that fit the values of design teams. However, they don’t satisfy the normative or ethical goals of aligning design with larger struggles to overturn the intersectional matrix of domination (along lines of race, class, gender identity and sexual orientation, disability, immigration status, and more), in part because these approaches are too easily appropriated as extractive mechanisms by oppressive institutions and systems. Design justice goes further than previous proposals since it not only argues for equity in employment in the design professions and for the intentional inclusion of values in decisions about the affordances of designed objects and systems, it also insists on community participation, leadership, and accountability throughout the design process, as well as community ownership of digital technologies and of the narratives about them.

2. “Nothing About Us, Without Us.” Design Accountability: Who participates in, owns, and governs digital technology development?

Next, we must explore the idea that the most valuable ‘ingredient’ in Design Justice is the full inclusion of people with direct lived experience of the conditions the designers say they are trying to change. We could summarize the recent state of knowledge on the raced, classed, and gendered nature of employment in the technology sector, but we also need to shift from an argument for equity (we need diverse designers and software developers) to an argument for accountability (those most affected by the outcomes should lead and own digital design processes and products). The ‘participatory turn’ in technology design includes intersecting histories of User-Led Innovation, Participatory Design, and Feminist HCI (Von Hippel, 2005; Schuler and Namioka, 1993; Bardzell, 2010). Case studies might include the disability justice movement, whose activists popularized the phrase “Nothing About Us, Without Us,” (Charlton, 1998) and ACT UP!, who transformed HIV treatment through a potent mix of direct action, media savvy, and policy lobbying (Shepard, 2002). The key lessons include: involving members of the community that is most directly affected by the issue that you are focusing on is crucial, both because it’s ethical, and also because the tacit and experiential knowledge of community members is sure to produce ideas, approaches and innovations that a non-member of the community would be very unlikely to come up with. It’s possible to create formal community accountability mechanisms in design processes. This is especially urgent to do when working with historically marginalized communities, but applies to any and all design processes. The vast majority of community-based organizations don’t feel like they have the resources, skills, or time to participate in technology design. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t doing design, that they can’t do design, or that it doesn’t make sense to try and include them in a design process focused on an area that they work in; it means that a Design Justice framework requires doing the work to gather resources that will enable community participation and shared ownership.

3. “Hard-coding Liberation.” Design Values: What values do we encode and reproduce in the digital objects and systems that we design?

We also have to explore the ways that values are reproduced in the affordances of the objects, processes, and systems that we design. Here we could turn to the literature on affordances (Gibson, 1977), and build on feminist and antiracist strands within science and technology studies to unpack recent examples of the ways that intersecting forms of oppression, including white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and settler colonialism, are constantly hard-coded into designed objects (Wajcman, 2010). This typically takes place not because designers are intentionally ‘malicious,’ but through unintentional mechanisms, including assumptions about the ‘unmarked’ end-user, the use of systematically biased datasets to train algorithms using machine learning techniques, and limited feedback loops. The increased visibility of ‘values in design’ (Friedman, 1997) is an important shift in design thinking and practice, and design justice further extends this approach. While values in design urges us to consider the ways that we hard-code oppressive values and norms into technological affordances, design justice adds an emphasis on the transformative potential of broader participation in the design process, as well as attention to ultimate ownership, stewardship, and accrual of benefits from designed objects and systems.

4. “From TXTMob to Twitter.” Design Discourse: What stories do we tell about the design of digital technologies

Stories have power. For example, contrast the ‘official’ Twitter origin story (one of the founders had a brilliant blue-sky flash of genius) with counternarratives from developers who were part of the process (anarchist activists created the demo design for Twitter as a tool to help affinity groups stay one step ahead of the cops in the NYC Republican National Convention actions of 2004; see Siles, 2013). The key point is that innovation in media technology, like all technological innovation, is an interplay between users and tool developers, not a top-down process. Social movements, in particular, have always been a hotbed of innovation in media tools and practices, in part because of the relationship between the media industries and social movement (mis)representation. Social movements, especially when led by marginalized communities, are systematically ignored and misrepresented in the mass media, so movements often form strong community media practices, create active counterpublics, and develop media innovations out of necessity (Downing, 2000). Many social movement media innovations are later adopted by the journalism profession and by the broader cultural industries, although stripped of their original counterhegemonic intent. Examples include Indymedia and CNN iReports, TxtMob and Twitter, and DIY livestreams from DeepDish TV to Occupy (GlobalRevolution, Timcast) to Periscope and FaceBook Live. We have to tell these stories, so that our contributions to the history of technology development aren’t erased.

5. “Making the Breast Pump Not Suck.” Design Sites: Where do we create new digital technologies?

Design takes place everywhere, but particular sites are valorized as ideal-type locations for design practices. There is a growing literature about, and increased discussion of, real world practices within hackerspaces, hackathons, and design challenges. There has been a steady shift away from hacklabs as explicitly politicized spaces at the intersection of social movement networks and geek communities (Maxigas, 2012). Instead, startup culture and neoliberal discourses of individual mastery and entrepreneurial citizenship have largely colonized hackerspaces (Irani, 2015), even as city administrators have leveraged technofetishism to create ‘innovation labs’ at the city level. At the same time, there has been a more recent move towards intentional diversification of hacker and makerspaces, specifically along lines of gender, race, and sexual orientation. Examples include Liberating Ourselves Locally, Double Union, and more. However, in addition to the diversification of hacklab participants, design justice requires a broader cultural shift, back towards intentional linkage of these spaces and their practices to social movement networks. We must interrogate the ideals, discourse, and practice of hackathons and design challenges: what do people think or pretend hackathons do, and what really happens at hackathons? How do we imagine them as more intentionally liberatory and inclusive sites where design justice principles and practices can be implemented? How do institutions frame ‘problems’ for designers to ‘solve’ in ways that systematically invisibilize structural inequality, history, and community strategies of innovation, resilience, and organized resistance? Examples might include Hurricane Hackers, Occupy Data Hackathons, MigraHack, and TransHack, as well as the DiscoTech model (pioneered by the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition) and the Make the Breast Pump Not Suck hackathon. Ultimately, we also need a shift from deficit to asset based approaches to design scoping, and for the formal inclusion of community members in design processes during scoping and ‘challenge’ definition phases of a design cycle, not only during the ‘gathering ideas’ or ‘testing our solutions’ phases.

6. “Platform Cooperativism.” Critical Political Economy of Design: How does the design of digital technologies reproduce or challenge the relations of production?

Design is a key ‘moment’ in the reproduction of social and economic relationships and social control under white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy and settler colonialism. This point is increasingly recognized and debated; for example, there is a growing conversation about platform cooperativism vs. the so-called ‘sharing economy’ (Scholz and Schneider, 2016). Platform cooperativists and others concerned with the relations between workers and platform owners need to consider the application of design justice principles to labor market platform development. The main point is that platform ownership is a key source of capitalist profitability and worker exploitation, and that counterstrategies include organic self-organization, platform organizing by labor unions, and platform cooperativism. Examples include Turkopticon, SherpaShare,,’s partnership with NDWA, the development of apps by taxi worker cooperatives, and so on. Design justice, applied to the development of digital labor markets, requires that designers and developers involve workers, worker advocacy organizations, and cooperatives from the beginning in the design of (cooperative, worker owned) platforms in various sectors. Platform cooperativism is an important proposal with a growing group of adherents. At the same time, platform cooperativism will not be able to advance as a liberatory project if it fails to fully incorporate an intersectional feminist analysis of capitalism.

7. Design Pedagogy: How do we teach and learn Design Justice?

Finally, it is a moment that requires reflection on a critical pedagogy of design justice. We might begin with critical pedagogy and popular education, based in work by Paolo Freire, Henry Giroux, and bell hooks, and place these ideas in dialogue with design education practitioners and theorists such as Seymour Pappert and Mitchel Resnick, as well as actually existing design justice pedagogy as practices in spaces like the Detroit Community Technology Project, the MIT Collaborative Design Studio, and elsewhere. What would it mean for institutional structures to support a community-engaged pedagogy of technology design? What are the challenges in an age of the neoliberalization of the educational system? Personally, when I think about this area I draw from my own experience creating and teaching the Civic Media: Co-Design Studio course, that I developed and have taught since 2012 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ( I’m hoping we can build more of a public dialogue about what a pedagogy of design justice looks like in practice.

8. Design Justice: Conclusions

By default, digital technologies are designed in ways that reproduce existing forms of structural inequality. Only through conscious and coordinated intervention can we bend the arc of digital technology development towards justice. There are many mechanisms at work in this process: designers, intended benificiaries, scope, values, discourse, sites, governance, and other aspects of the development, deployment, and use of digital technology are all structured by race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, immigration status, disability, geography, and other intersecting axes of inequality. Power reproduces itself through the stories about technology design that we center (design discourse); who we pay to design and develop digital technologies (employment inequity); the imagined ‘end users’ for whom we design the majority of digital technologies (design benificiaries); the affordances, features, presets, intentional and unintentional biases that we encode into digital technologies (encoded values); the inclusion and exclusion of various kinds of people from the places and spaces where we design digital technologies (design sites); the allocation of decisionmaking power over the digital technologies in our lives (governance), and more. There is also a growing community of design justice practitioners: people, organizations, and networks that already work on a daily basis to realize design justice principles in practice. This zine includes the principles of design justice as developed through the Design Justice Network Gathering at Allied Media Conference. Those principles are a living document, and we hope to continue to develop them together. We might also explore how to evaluate design according to those principles, and we urge the reader to consider how these principles might apply to their own work. Let’s build theory, practice, and pedagogy of Design Justice together!

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