Beautiful Design: Redefining what creative practice, history and healing mean to me

Creative Reaction Lab
Equal Space
Published in
6 min readJul 30, 2020

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// Abby Wong (she/they), Evaluation and Data Coordinator VISTA

In design school, I was taught by our primarily White faculty that beautiful design is light, pleasing and unimposing and to be pinned against a white wall.

Let me rephrase my previous statement. In design school, I was taught by White people that beautiful design is quiet, conflict-avoidant upon a foundation of Whiteness.

Let’s iterate one more time. In design school, I was taught by White people that beautiful design is an adherence, a complicity in the systems of paternalism and individualism that Whiteness rests upon.

As a product of traditional design education, I must acknowledge the ways my education reinforced White supremacy culture if I claim anti-racism work to be my own. The very curriculum I was required to take taught me that my creative roots, Eastern art and architectural history, are inferior to the Western European canon. When I allowed myself to build upon land without asking “Whose land am I standing on? What communities am I entering? Why aren’t community members making design decisions with me when they are the people who will be impacted by the design?”; I was complicit in a culture of White saviorism, individualism, and colonization.

I joined the Creative Reaction Lab team in early June as a personal effort to abolish and rebuild my connection to the design world. Then a week after my start, we debuted our How Traditional Design Thinking Protects White Supremacy webinar as part of our Redesigners in Action Webinar series, and what began as an individual search became part of a collective movement.

Three people in the foreground look above at two different scenes, one with people and post-its, another with protestors.
Graphic by D’Juane Sargent, Content + Design Coordinator VISTA

I was stunned by the number of people that shared experiences of both protecting and hurting from White supremacy in their design spaces. A participant in our second session shared a reflection on their small group discussion in the chatbox, stating “…we talked a lot in our group about the fetishization of objectivity, and how we as researchers/designers can often assume that we don’t have bias because of our training”. Another participant shared that they have witnessed “acknowledgment of good ideas presented by BIPOC only when validated or co-signed from privileged subject matter experts.”

In our first and second session combined, we were joined by over 500 people from all over the United States and internationally who gathered virtually for exploration and discussion on how white supremacy culture is held and perpetuated in traditional design spaces. Walking through the steps of traditional design thinking, together we noted active values of white supremacy such as paternalism and sense of urgency in our design spaces. These beliefs were challenged through individual reflection, small group discussions, and questions to challenge as posed by facilitators. The session consequentially concluded with tangible tips for dismantling white supremacy and a spotlight on our partners in equity design.

In the spirit of dismantling perfectionism, the CRXLAB team is collectively committed to growing through our mistakes through the feedback of our community. After the first session, we received feedback from its participants and identified certain areas for growth for our next webinar iteration. We then brainstormed and implemented action steps to begin the co-creative process of designing an inclusive, equitable space within our encore sessions.

A major area for growth was the rapid pace of our webinar. Through our post-webinar survey and comments in the webinar’s chat box, our team received feedback that while the presentation was very valuable, it was also incredibly rapid and didn’t allow for enough time to process and reflect. We did feel a sense of urgency to provide as much information as possible, perhaps forgetting to challenge ourselves and instead engage with the power of slowness, reflection, and community pause. In our July session, we decided to intentionally slow our talking pace and extended our time together from 75 minutes to 90 minutes to provide participants more time and space to process. This shift was definitely more successful and the remaining encores of this session will be 90 minutes as well.

During our first session, we noted that a few participants mentioned they experienced White supremacy culture showing up in the breakout rooms — White individuals spoke first and took up a majority of the small group discussion’s space instead of stepping back to allow participants of color to voice their thoughts and opinions. Our team spoke to this before our small breakout discussions in our next July session and have committed to addressing this directly in future webinars. While we know that we cannot be in full control of participant behaviors and actions; we have the power to uphold a culture that centers historically underinvested voices both as a team and as individuals.

In my individual work to center historically underinvested voices and dismantle internalized beliefs of White supremacy, I have begun redefining what creative practice, history, and healing means to me in an attempt to decolonize my connection to the arts. I am very grateful to discover I am not alone in that process. In response to the question “What action are you compelled to take following your participation in the How Traditional Design Thinking Protects White Supremacy webinar?”, participants shared with us:

“To recognize the power I hold, even though I’m young and a junior staff member, and that it’s my responsibility to use that power to question power structures and to stop protecting white supremacy.” — Jennifer Jackson (she/her)

“Finding ways to adapt my design process to de-center myself as the expert and let those with the real expertise lead, define and create the solutions they want to see implemented.” — Cristina Silva (she/her)

“I am working on educational programming for young activists to work on systems change that build a more equitable world — and I have been studying Reflex Design Collective’s equity design approach as a part of the pedagogy. I am excited to integrate what I took away about white supremacy in design into the curriculum so these activists know how to check themselves when building these projects” — Grace Wickerson (they/them)

“Integrating equity centered practices into curriculum I design and incorporating a very intentional practice of language setting for all work moving forward.” — Lucas O’Bryan (he/him)

Thank you Jennifer, Cristina, Grace, and Lucas for sharing your next action steps with us — we look forward to following and supporting your journey.

One of the first things we do in any project at Creative Reaction Lab is language setting. We define, or in this case redefine, the language we use in order for us to center equity and start with a common understanding. So to (re)define beautiful design:

To me, beautiful design is imposing, full of conflict and challenge to the predominant narrative. Beautiful design to me is oftentimes messy and rarely found resting on cleanliness. Beautiful design is the antithesis of quiet, individualistic complicity; it is a loud, collective demand for justice to be served.

To me, beautiful design is the enabler, the storyteller, and the byproduct of revolution.

Abby Wong, Redesigner for Justice.

Abby Wong is a hybrid designer-data enthusiast and a public health advocate specifically in relation to gender and sexuality. She earned her B.A. in Architecture with a secondary major in Biology from the Sam Fox School of Design at Washington University in St. Louis. Abby is interested in equity-based design practice and evaluation of health and healthcare in the United States. Prior to joining Creative Reaction Lab, they spent two years as a development associate, program coordinator and intern at a local HIV service organization in St. Louis, MO.

Abby is drawn to building relationships with individuals and empowering the humanity and stories of individuals who are often silenced and/or misrepresented. She is passionate about dismantling the societal binaries of gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. Abby also hopes to work within the East Asian/Asian-American community to challenge complacency and galvanize meaningful allyship for Black and Brown people’s liberation.

Their favorite activities include a one-on-one chat over a mug of beverage of choice and scavenging for acorns, unique leaves and flowers in Tower Grove Park. When not working, Abby enjoys vacuuming and lying on her apartment floor like a starfish.

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Creative Reaction Lab
Equal Space

At Creative Reaction Lab, we believe that Black and Latinx youth are integral to advancing racial equity and developing interventions for their communities.