A group of stick figures collaborating in various ways, with a green stick figure in the middle (the designer) participating.
A group of stick figures collaborating in various ways, with a green stick figure in the middle (the designer) participating.
Design is messy. But that mess should be shaped by the oppressed communities it has failed to serve.

A synopsis of Costanza-Chock’s “Design Justice”: nothing for us without us

Amy J. Ko
Amy J. Ko
Jun 11 · 7 min read

“…whether the affordances of a designed object or system disproportionately reduce opportunities for already oppressed groups of people while enhancing the life opportunities of dominant groups, independently of whether designers intend this outcome.” (p. 41)

Examples of such injustice abound. For example, she shares the relatively mundane example of soap dispensers:

“…a Black person might experience a micro aggression if their hands do not trigger a hand soap dispenser that has been (almost certainly unintentionally) calibrated to work only, or better, with lighter skin tones. This minor interruption of daily life is nevertheless an instantiation of racial bias in the specific affordances of a designed object: the dispenser affords hands-free soap delivery, but only if your hands have white skin. The user is, for a brief moment, reminded of their subordinate position within the matrix of domination.” (p. 45)

Design Justice uses the concept of the matrix of domination (from Black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, who used it to describe the linked systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and settler colonialism), to argue that:

“An object’s affordances are never equally perceptible to all, and never equally available to all; a given affordance is always more perceptible, more available, or both, to some kinds of people. Design justice brings this insight to the fore and calls for designers’ ongoing attention to the ways these differences are shaped by the matrix of domination.” (p. 39)

Soap dispensers, of course, are just a small example of a racist design micro-aggression. More egregious examples abound: cis-normative TSA body scanners that lead to invasive pat downs of trans people like myself; Western social media websites that center individualism over community; ride-share services that center consumer and corporate voices over marginalized communities being exploited for their labor. These all emerge from design processes that are likely ignorant of the inherent bias that underlies designers’ intent. The book therefore frames design justice as fundamentally about power in design processes: who has it, what they do with it, and what effects their choices have on oppressed groups.

“…designers tend to unconsciously default to imagining users whose experiences are similar to their own. This means that users are most often assumed to be members of the dominant and hence “unmarked” group: in the United States, this means (cis) male, white heterosexual “able-bodied,” literate, college educated, not a young child and not elderly, with broadband internet access, with a smartphone, and so on. Most technology product design ends up focused on this relatively small, but potentially highly profitable, subset of humanity. Unfortunately, this produces a spiral of exclusion, as design industries center the most socially and economically powerful users, while other users are systematically excluded on multiple levels.” (p. 77)

Costanza-Chock instead advocates for community-based methods that not only learn from communities, but partner closely with them, framing designers not as deciders but as facilitators who amplify the work of communities by contributing their design skills:

“Design justice is interested in telling stories that amplify, lift up, and make visible existing community-based design solutions, practices, and practitioners.” (p. 134)

This means avoiding methods that “parachute” in to social contexts for insight to take back to the studio. Instead, design justice methods are ones integrated into a community, in which designers do not decide, but facilitate, sharing their expertise to support the needs and solutions that best align with what communities need to thrive.

“[Design justice] doesn’t mean lowest-common-denominator design. Quite the opposite: it means highly specific, intentional, custom design that takes multiple standpoints into account. It is not about eliminating the benefits of excellent design unless everyone can access them; instead, it is about more fairly allocating those benefits.” (p. 230)

My summary can’t possibly convey to the book’s epic invocation of oppressed design communities. She surfaces, highlights, and celebrates an incredible number of community-based efforts that reflect the spirit of design justice: +KAOS, #MoreThanCode, AORTA, CERO, CL/VU, DCTP, DiscoTechs, IPVTech, Loconomics, NuVu, RTCs, T4SJ, TecnoX, TXTMob, and more. The sheer number of these efforts, which are surely only a small sample of those globally, is a testament both to the opportunity of design justice to engage with communities, but also to the hegemonic role of industry in overshadowing community efforts.

Bits and Behavior

Computing + learning + design + justice

Amy J. Ko

Written by

Amy J. Ko

Professor @uw_ischool , @uwcse. Obsessed with programming + learning + design + justice. Trans; she/her. We don’t act like it, but #BlackLivesMatter.

Bits and Behavior

This is the blog for the Code & Cognition lab, directed by professor Amy J. Ko, Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Here we reflect on what software is, what effects it's having on the world, and our role as public intellectuals in help civilization make sense of code.

Amy J. Ko

Written by

Amy J. Ko

Professor @uw_ischool , @uwcse. Obsessed with programming + learning + design + justice. Trans; she/her. We don’t act like it, but #BlackLivesMatter.

Bits and Behavior

This is the blog for the Code & Cognition lab, directed by professor Amy J. Ko, Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Here we reflect on what software is, what effects it's having on the world, and our role as public intellectuals in help civilization make sense of code.

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