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Understanding and Embedding Design Justice in Design Processes

Illustrations of books, a clipboard, a computer, a pencil, and a school.

By Anastasia Ostrowski and Madhurima Das

We started the Design Justice Pedagogy project in Spring 2021 after an MIT Ideation Lab group meeting where we learned about the Design Justice Network and read excerpts from Sasha Costanza-Chock’s groundbreaking work, Design Justice. Several of us in the group meeting work at the boundaries of design disciplines, including design research, engineering, human-computer interaction, and human-robot interaction; each of us in our own way trying to make our fields more human-centered, more equity-centered, more focused on justice, and more attentive to how technologies can exacerbate and/or create inequities in our world.

And now from August 24 to August 26, a year after that first lab meeting, we will be hosting the Design Justice Pedagogy Summit at the MIT Media Lab to bring together educators and practitioners to begin answering the question “how do we meaningfully engage with topics such as ethics, equity, and justice in our design processes?” Instructors will engage in a syllabi makeathon and policy summit to reshape design courses and educational requirements through Design Justice principles. You can learn more about the summit on the event page here. If you are interested in participating in the event, please complete this interest form.

Between our first lab meeting to where we are now planning the summit, we have gotten to look deeper into what is the state of ethics, equity, and justice in design fields, including engineering design, engineering education, nuclear engineering, and human-robot interaction, and how these fields engage with these topics. We have explored if and how instructors are incorporating Design Justice questions around topics such as equity, beneficiaries, and how sites are privileged into their courses. In this last endeavor, we have engaged in the largest syllabus audit of its kind, to our knowledge, analyzing 240 design course syllabi from MIT, understanding what is being designed, what design paradigms are included, and how the course addresses Design Justice questions.

The Design Justice questions (Costanza-Chock, 2018; 2020) used in our work are:

  • Equity — who gets to do design?
  • Beneficiaries — who do we design for or with?
  • Values — what values do we encode or reproduce in the objects and systems we design?
  • Scope — how do we scope and frame design problems?
  • Sites — where do we design? What design sites are privileged? Which sites are ignored or marginalized? How do we make design sites accessible to those we will be most impacted?
  • Ownership, Accountability, & Political Economy — who owns and profits from design outcomes? What social relationships are reproduced by design? How do we move towards community control of design processes?
  • Discourse — what stories do we tell about how things are designed?

In our work, we add one more question around Histories, acknowledging unequal histories and/or historical harms arising from technology design, use or diffusion.

The syllabus audit looked at courses in departments across MIT, including architecture, urban studies and planning, mechanical engineering, media arts and sciences, nuclear science and engineering, and electrical engineering and computer science, from the Fall 2019 and Fall 2020 terms. What we found was that design courses engaged with Beneficiaries and Histories the most. Urban Studies and Planning was the department whose design courses engaged with Design Justice the most of all the departments. Overall, when we grouped non-engineering department courses and engineering departments together, we found that non-engineering design courses engaged with Design Justice more than engineering design courses.

We saw that there were exemplar courses where instructors engaged with Design Justice questions in meaningful and substantive ways, such as structuring the main learning objectives around Design Justice or taking technical material and incorporating Design Justice questions or directly engaging with communities in design work. Where we found areas for growth include:

  • When we talk about ethics, equity, and justice, talk about it in ways to engage more people; not exclude them through jargon or theory
  • When developing products or systems for underserved communities, directly engage with those communities in responsible and constructive ways
  • When you do incorporate ethics, equity, and justice, do it meaningfully and consistently

You can read more about our syllabus audit in our recent paper presented at the Design Thinking Research Symposium 2022. We are still left with questions in our work as we tackle questions such as how do we engage with Design Justice in technical courses in a non-harmful way? The syllabus audit we conducted is also just one piece of the puzzle when we are understanding how Design Justice is present in a design course.

Over the course of a year, the project has grown to help us answer the questions that have come from our audit and expand our understanding of ethics, equity, and justice in our respective fields. We now have five areas of research in the project: (1) literature reviews of equity, justice, and ethics in technology fields, (2) syllabus analysis of design disciplines at MIT expanding to more semesters to track change over time, (3) an instructor survey, (4) a Design Justice Pedagogy Summit, and, most recently, (5) translating our frameworks into design capstone courses.

Illustration of elements of the Design Justice Pedagogy project: Lit reviews, syllabus analysis, summit, instructor survey, and design capstones.
Credit: Anastasia Ostrowski

The instructor survey provides another piece to the puzzle allowing us to understand from instructors perspectives how they engage in equity, ethics, and justice in design pedagogy in ways that may not be captured by a syllabus. If you are a higher education design instructor at MIT and would like to complete our survey, you can access it here.

From August 24 to August 26, we are hosting the Design Justice Pedagogy Summit at the MIT Media Lab to bring together educators and practitioners to begin answering the question “how do we meaningfully engage with topics such as ethics, equity, and justice in our design processes?” The event includes a syllabi makeathon and policy summit around Design Justice. If you are interested in participating in the event, please complete this interest form.

We have recently been awarded a grant to pursue a project Design Justice in capstone design courses. We will build upon our framework developed in the syllabus audit to design interventions to equip students to actively combat racism using their designs through considering ethics, equity, and justice and to evaluate the impact of these design pedagogical interventions.

Over the course of a year, the project has expanded to include multiple dimensions of design pedagogy and those that are directly engaged in or influenced by design pedagogy. As the project continues, we aim to continue to expand the project’s reach through open-sourcing our methodologies, partnering with other institutions to examine Design Justice in other environments, and building a community around Design Justice design pedagogy.

Headshots courtesy of the researchers.

References

Costanza-Chock, S. (2018). Design justice: Towards an intersectional feminist framework for design theory and practice. Proceedings of the Design Research Society.

Costanza-Chock, S. (2020). Design justice: Community-led practices to build the worlds we need. The MIT Press.

Originally published at https://www.media.mit.edu.

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