Design Justice Principles

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After I set up my now page late in December, I found myself creating yet another profile, to get included in the directory of now pages. My new profile included space for a book recommendation and a quote. I wanted my quote to be original and pithy, and after a moment, it popped in my head:

“Design won’t change the world, but ordinary people will.”

I think about this idea a lot. I often think about Professional Design’s (title case emphasis mine) proximity to capital and power. Meaning that, design as a human activity can be practiced by anyone—has been practiced for centuries in every human civilization all over the world—but as a profession, is elevated as either a luxury or business expense to those with the most money and influence. There are exceptions to this rule, and some alternative models, but this is largely the norm in most contemporary, (Western especially) contexts. Professionals, like all workers, need to be paid for their work, after all.

I was definitely thinking about this idea while revisiting the Cedric Johnson lecture and interview from ArtCenter on my blog earlier this month, particularly his engagement with the question “what does it mean to design for good?” In particular, Johnson cites Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation homes built after Hurricane Katrina, in the Lower Ninth Ward. As a showcase, the 109 homes designed by star architects were impressive, but only a “drop in the bucket” in terms of the actual housing need. At the same time as these cutting-edge single family units were being celebrated with media attention, thousands of displaced residents were unable to return as former public housing sites were being demolished in New Orleans.

David Dylan Thomas does excellent work writing and speaking on cognitive bias, design ethics, and social justice. At the end of David’s book Design for Cognitive Bias, he includes the Design Justice Network and their ten principles in his resources section.

  1. We use design to sustain, heal, and empower our communities, as well as to seek liberation from exploitative and oppressive systems.


  2. We center the voices of those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of the design process.


  3. We prioritize design’s impact on the community over the intentions of the designer.


  4. We view change as emergent from an accountable, accessible, and collaborative process, rather than as a point at the end of a process.


  5. We see the role of the designer as a facilitator rather than an expert.


  6. We believe that everyone is an expert based on their own lived experience, and that we all have unique and brilliant contributions to bring to a design process.


  7. We share design knowledge and tools with our communities.  
  8. We work towards sustainable, community-led and -controlled outcomes.


  9. We work towards non-exploitative solutions that reconnect us to the earth and to each other.


  10. Before seeking new design solutions, we look for what is already working at the community level. We honor and uplift traditional, indigenous, and local knowledge and practices.
Design Justice Network Principles (published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives License)

I find these principles challenging! The design professions are often seen as idealist, but in my experience, most people want to do the right thing. We often find ourselves making compromises with our ideals, or feeling hopeless about being caught in systems that are impossible to transform overnight by ourselves.

I think the answer for designers who want to remedy social problems and broken systems is to choose one of these principles and think about what it means and how it could change your role. Find the ordinary people who have been dedicated to solving the problem—the community organizers. Listen to what has worked and what hasn't. Read the local history. Study the successful movements that have changed the world in the past.

Offer your skills, yes, but share your knowledge and tools. Make the design process transparent, collaborative and inclusive. And hopefully, what you’ll find is you are practicing Solidarity, not merely Design.

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