Painting of a lake the shape of a person in amidst a lush green landscape
Artist: Jorm S Source: Adobe Stock

What might a feminist design practice embrace?

Katrina Mitchell
Good Thinking
Published in
10 min readAug 25, 2022

--

Even a few years ago I would likely not claimed that I was either a designer or a feminist. I’m still easing into and coming to terms with these identities. I am a child of the 70s and grew up with a single mom, no dad around for support or parenting. My mom was a badass in many ways. It never occurred to me that there would be limits to life just because of our biology.

Feminism was not explicit, but rather feminist values permeated life and feminism was embodied on a daily basis. From exploring intellectual topics at the dinner table, to weaving a community that allowed us kids to fluidly move between houses to suit our needs, to wielding tools and going DIY on just about any household maintenance challenge that should arise, to normalizing what typical play could look like across our gender diverse friend group, or in the way my mom took in women and their children in the middle of the night from time to time as an emergency overflow for our town’s domestic violence shelter — looking back it seems I was surrounded by feminism but also had no idea that there was any other way to be. And so, as I began to form my own identity, feminist wasn’t something I knew to claim, it was just how life was.

As for design, claiming that identity is an ever evolving healing journey. While I’ve embodied designerly ways of being my whole life, have formal training as an urban planner and artist, and am a self-taught graphic designer, I didn’t know until the last decade how beautiful and varied the practice and application of design was, and was becoming. As I struggled to find that vocation where my mind and my making could equally play, design was evolving and designers were challenging the field toward ethical, equitable, just, healing, and liberatory practice, and toward expansive ways of thinking about design in these transitional times.

All of this is to say that what I am offering here is a tiny glimpse of a lifetime’s journey, one that I am very much still on toward constantly aligning my understanding of myself and my chosen work.

There is no need to define a feminist design, to codify or limit the engagement of feminist thinking as it applies to design research and design practice. Just as there is so much room for feminism in the world, there is so much room to explore feminist principles at play in design practice. I am certainly not ready to write a whole volume on feminism and design though it is certainly a worthy topic that is expansive and expanding — one that is Extra Bold and filled with delights.

While perhaps not intentional, as none of these practices claim to specifically be feminist, I can see many principles at play that might be considered feminist in the evolution of design from that of a technical profession (or siloes of applied disciplines) toward the idea of design as a skill set, a practice, a mindset — designerly ways of being that are critical for working in complexity, an awareness that design is intentional (and our systems, structures and institutions are designed), and that the way we do design matters as much as the outcome of the design process.

I’m offering a peek at the edges of my design practice, the constellation of ideas around design that take shape within me, a somatic, integrated, neurodivergent mixing of design and feminism. When I looked at what excites me about feminism and design I came to four themes: participatory, rooted, nurturing, beautiful. Design isn’t by default any of these things. These are ways of being, questions, mindsets, frames, points of view, lenses we put on or embody or lean into or dance within. Here are my explorations, may something in my wanderings sparkle for you.

Participatory

Feminism calls us to examine privilege and make space for all voices, paying particular attention to those whose voices are not valued by the mainstream. At the minimum it seems practical that we would include people central to the design challenge in the design process, however this is strangely not the default. The dominant paradigm of design practice is still to center the designer and their expertise. Hopefully you can already hear the power dynamics at play. Who is the holder of the design process? Who makes decisions? Who defines the problem? Can design be co-created, co-evolving, emergent? When looking at power and participation, I turn to my planning and international development roots, looking to ask questions about levels of participation, are we merely tokenizing people with lived experience, or are we willing to step into new ways of designing with that move into social transformation, shifting power, using design expertise to mobilize, connect, include and engage, and considering who (or what) is centered in the processes we design.

Places for further exploration include

Robert Chambers. You’ll have to go down your own rabbit hole (if you haven’t already) of the rich resources that is this life’s work. A place to start is Ideas for Development.

Liz Sanders. If you aren’t yet familiar, her work offers a wealth of insight on how design is evolving. The Convivial Toolbox is a beloved resource on the creative process, inclusion and participation, and how we collaborate to design with people. Recent articles put forth a Participatory Design Collaboration Model

George Aye asks that we interrogate our positionality, privilege and power as designers, design educators and students of design. His article Design Education’s Big Gap: Understanding the Role of Power offers practical insight into seeing, unpacking, and using power in intentional and equity-centered ways.

In this delightful talk (old but still relevant!) Andie Nordgren asks us to decenter ourselves and look toward designing for participation. This echoes Robert Chambers’ call to shift from things to people, from technical to transformational, from technocratic and top-down to people-centered lived expertise.

Rooted

Feminism acknowledges we are connected to each other, that deep work is shared work, and that there is no freedom until we are all free. This calls us to go deep and recognize connection, to see systems, structures that limit us or that are useful frames for liberation. This is a sister to participation which asks us how we might work together, create together, share our gifts with each other. We are connected to each other through systems, structures, histories, ecologies. Rooted is radical, getting to the essentials, the deeply held beliefs, telling the truth about the status quo. Design has deep tools in problem exploration, making visible the unseen whether that is structures, systems, relationships, or dynamics. Good design demands that we ask why, how, for whom, and when something works (or doesn’t work). Design also has emerging tools and practices for tending to deep change.

Places for further exploration include:

Systemic Design. The new book Design Journeys Through Complex Systems is not only extremely helpful and packed full of inspiration, guidance, tools and cases, but it is also beautiful.

Systems-shifting design. The Design Council offers up learning and framing from their own exploration to frame what systems-shifting design looks like, what it encompasses, the mindsets, guiding principles, and the invisible toolkit for practice. I love this way of making visible what designers and the design process can bring to the messy, tangled, chaotic, and complex challenges we face.

Continually reading, connecting, and working to expand my awareness of pluriversal design, of looking for connections and roots, of finding different ways of looking at, living in, and designing for and with diverse perspectives, experiences and contexts. The Pluriversal Design Book Club has been a source of dialogue and exploration.

Nurturing

Feminism asks us to extend beyond ourselves, to nurture and be nurtured, to make space for the hard work of tending to our humanity. It asks us to invite in change, to tend to it, and to tend to ourselves and each other as mobilizers, creators, and truth tellers. Many say that design is change, and the truth is that change can be hard. We need to nurture change, and design offers us ways to nurture transitions with great intention and care. To be clear, without great intention, without attending to and caring for transitions, for our human condition and our safety seeking nervous systems, without care change can be jarring, without care design can cause harm, it can even be weaponized. There is a growing awareness of the power and responsibility in design, we are called toward ethical practice, toward human practice, toward greater responsibility for not just the intended consequences, but the plausible unintended ones. And so we design with great care and remember our humanity in the process. Change is hard but it is also sacred, transformative, full of the beauty of grief, of possibility, new beginnings and needs newly met. As designers we have a role to play in fostering and nurturing transitions. Our process expertise and our willingness to occupy the messy middle, to trust in the composting process, to hold both what has been and what is emerging, to hold space for others through this process — this is necessary expertise for these times.

“Design is the enzyme that helps people face and metabolize change, adapt to circumstances, overcome hardships, and leap beyond the crisis and forward toward a better future, both at the individual and at the collective level.” Paola Antonelli, Design Emergency: Building a Better Future (see below)

Places for further exploration include:

Transition design offers us thinking tools, frameworks, practices and guidance for midwifing transitions, and for seeing, catalyzing and fostering systemic disruptions.

The Design Justice Network principles call us to use design to sustain, heal and empower, to view change as emergent from an accountable, accessible, and collaborative process, and to prioritize design’s impact on the community over the intentions of the designer (these are just 3 of the 10 principles to rethink design through a justice lens).

Awareness of trauma and designing with a sensitivity to trauma, and even bringing a healing-centered approach is new and exciting ground for nurture in design. Kelly Ann McKercher offers us a Model of Care in Co-Design, and she’s not alone. There is a growing awareness of the potential roles and responsibilities of design in trauma and healing including an evolving set of principles for trauma-informed design practice, and also resources around the trauma that designers often carry. New research also shows that the design process, when carried out with intention, can provide healing in and of itself (Practicing Without a License: Design Research as Psychotherapy). We must take on this great responsibility of care in our work.

Beautiful

Feminism also reminds us that joy is resistance. We are not only free to delight in the wonder and beauty of the world, of each other, of ourselves, but we are asked to do so with great love. You cannot pour from an empty cup. We need to replenish ourselves with what feels good and beautiful so that we are ready when our gifts are needed. For all the many flaws and missteps, design still offers a great sense of delight. Design is full of possibility. It is imaginal, futuristic, speculative. It asks us to step into what could be, to light up possible new futures. It is raw with humanity and connection, deep with ingenuity, and full of promise. Here I am not just talking about eye candy, though there is an abundance of visual riches to behold, but the beauty and joy of an experience made exquisitely and exactly for purpose. We design because we yearn for a more beautiful existence. We design because we love.

Places for further exploration include:

Frank Chimero’s little book The Shape of Design is in many ways a treatise on that exquisite experience of design. It is filled with stories, insights, and a deep love for the craft, the practice, the process and the promise of design.

The new book by Paola Antonelli and Alice Rawsthorn, Design Emergency: Building a Better Future, offers us not only a balm, a true optimism and joy for the beauty in the cleverness of humanity, but also insights into the “systems, practices, ways of seeing, and life-magnifying solutions to the problem of living, often dreamt up and made real by people who do not think of themselves as designers.” (The Marginalian). I have yet to fully immerse myself in this exploration but I can’t wait!

Each of these are opportunities and worlds of their own. What is here is an invitation to explore and take in what lights you up, what challenges you, what feeds your practice. What ways of being designerly do you embody? What questions does design ask of you? Where are the edges you are exploring in your design practice? And, in what ways do you see design and feminism intertwined?

This is part 5 of 5 in a series the team at Picture Impact has been writing on how feminism informs our practice. You can also read about:

Katrina says: I grew up not knowing there was such a thing as feminism. The child of a globe-traveling single mother who fully embodies the idea that women can do anything they put their mind toward, I am regularly confused by the patriarchy and fail to understand why anyone would think women are anything other than fully capable and worthy of full human rights including self determination. I feel blessed to have had so many strong, radical, feminist women shaping and supporting me throughout life. In my own journey, ideas around intersectionality, power and privilege have been central to my understanding of how dominant society is constructed.

--

--

Katrina Mitchell
Good Thinking

Designer, Planner, Strategist, Maker. Relentless seeker of beauty. Senior Technical Advisor in Applied Design @Jhpiego. Co-founder of Picture Impact.