“The label or title of “designer” in history has given many people permission to do things they generally wouldn’t do to folks in their own circle or even allow to be done to themselves.” — Christine Ortiz

In the interest of equity, let’s rethink “design”

By Valerie Armstrong, Senior Design Strategist, Context Partners


I believe design can be a force for good, an opportunity to make things better. The Community Centered Design method my colleagues and I use with clients is built on the idea that the people closest to a problem have the best solution. Yet, I’ve been thinking a lot about how designer bias and blind spots can affect our outcomes. As designers, how do we ensure our work truly creates an opportunity to make things better — especially for those at the margins?

To help answer that question, our team worked with Christine Ortiz of Equity Meets Design, a think/do tank merging the consciousness of equity work with the power of design methodologies. While the field of equitable design is in its infancy, we found its equityXdesign (“equity by design”) framework to be smart and empowering. I sat down with Christine to explore what equitable design practice actually means.

When you talk about “equitable design,” what do you really mean?

I entered design from the field of innovation. I spent most of my career thinking about what it means to “do innovation,” and more specifically to what end. I’d see things that got the label “innovative” (and the prestige, power and funding that came with it) and I’d wonder “why does that thing get that label?” I realized that the field didn’t have a clear definition of innovation, but I did — if what we built was in service of equity, it was innovative. Then, I asked how do we innovate, how do we intentionally design things that bring more equity into the world?

My design training told me what “good design” is, what a “designer” does, and who the “masters of good design” are. How is the field of equitable design forcing us to change how we think of design, and of the power we grant a designer?

What excites us about the word “design,” and the reason we’ve decided to reclaim it (history, baggage and all) is the agency that’s built into it.

At the core of our work is the belief that racism and inequity are products of design, and as such they can be redesigned.

We ask people to think about history as a series of (design) decisions made by people (designers) that led us to our present reality. Through this lens, folks can start to see how their current role and daily decisions are creating our present and our future. They start to see how they are designers, and how important it is for them to be equity designers.

Our clients are eager to give their audiences more power and agency in the design process. How can we push ourselves to really hear people in the margins, who often don’t show up in our big data sets or traditional research methods?

When I hear the phrase “give more power” I immediately think of the word “permission.”

The label or title of “designer” in history has given many people permission to do things they generally wouldn’t do to folks in their own circle or even allow to be done to themselves. They go into a community, decide what problems people in the community have, judge which problem is worth solving, and then create and impose their own solutions (“designs”) all the while.

We’ve been asking — what are the relationships and power dynamics that are ideal for equitable design and how do we get there?

A key part of our work has been to fundamentally redefine the relationship — and thereby the power dynamic — between designers and those they are designing for, historically referred to as users. This requires digging into the assumptions that underlie each of those labels, including the assumption that designers are best equipped to understand and solve problems, and that these designers and those affected by the problem are different people.

As a practitioner, what can I do to be more aware of my power as an “expert”?

You can start with the understanding that if you are engaging in or leading a design process, you have unearned power and you need to correct some power asymmetries. In order to do this you need to:

  • Notice what kinds of power, power dynamics and differentials currently exist;
  • Own your own (often unearned) power and the implications of that power for others;
  • Advocate for the redistribution of power towards a more equitable reality; and then
  • Cede your power to shift towards that reality.

We call this process No A/C (Notice, Own, Advocate, Cede), since room temperatures tend to rise when this is happening.

We’ve noticed a trend that people desire equitable outcomes without knowing what that means, or what they need to change to achieve them. How are you thinking about this?

We’ve landed on the idea that equity is a verb. That’s as far as you’ll get with us giving you a definition of what equity is. The idea of “process as a product” is a really important part of our core beliefs. We can think about equitable outcomes — that is a piece of it. But real change comes when you think about equity as a mindset, how you interact, your relationships. It’s so much more than how many people of color are on your board, for example (a necessary thing, but insufficient to get to equity on its own).

We’ve landed on the idea that equity is a verb.

Something we’ve been thinking about is: how does equity fit into the grouping of DEI, or Diversity, Equity and Inclusion? I hear you focusing on the equity piece, but how do you relate it to the rest of the equation?

One of the co-authors of the Equity by Design framework and founder of The Equity Lab, Michelle Molitor, has pushed back on DEI. She calls it REDI (Race, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) in order to call out race. In the U.S., race tends to be the piece we don’t talk about, but it needs to be tackled first because it’s the hardest.

When we think about the historical arc of this work, first we worked on equality. The field moved from there to multiculturalism and diversity. Now we hear about inclusion. Equity moves beyond all of that. Equity requires working on diversity and inclusion, but those things alone are insufficient and tend to focus on the individual (i.e., an initiative to get more people of color into the organization). True systems-level equity is when we have developed and set up an organization so that the way we work means that we hire and retain a diverse staff (for example) as a part of our day-to-day operations.

(Re)designing our organizations and systems for equity is definitely a challenge. We need whole organizations to take on this work, but individuals can get started too. Here are a few resources as a place to start:

VALERIE ARMSTRONG is a senior visual designer and strategist with Context Partners. In her work, she pushes for creative and inclusive methods to capture the complex, interwoven cultures of the communities she works with. She envisions a world where every designer, and every design contributes to equitable solutions to real, human problems.