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Salena Burke

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  • Writer's pictureSalena Burke

What is Design Justice

Design is the process by which the politics of one world become the constraints of another."[1] This quote by Susan Costanza-Chock was impactful because I struggle with the term "Inclusive Design" in my research to understand how to design an equitable immersive learning environment. Inclusive Design is a popular keyword, but what does it mean? For example, to design for all – or is this a universal design – or to include some people who were not originally included, but can you include all the people? If you design for one group of people, do you exclude or constrain another?

Abraham Lincoln said, "You can please some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you can never please all of the people all of the time." If this is true and universal design is just adding people who were once excluded and not all people, then what is design justice? Costanza-Chock illustrated how social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, were used to organize social movements. She pointed out how Paolo Gerbaudo, a scholar and designer, called this technique a "choreography of assembly."

Costanza-Chock further stated how communication scholars analyzed social movement networks and the impact Twitter had on social movements and hashtags. She also elaborated on how media scholars discussed "how the designed affordance of Facebook enabled and constrained activity use." Finally, she took her argument home with the following assertion "Facebook in general, and Facebook events specifically, provides terrible tools for the most important task of community organizers; to move people up the ladder of engagement." CostanzaChock criticized other social media platforms and then provided a list of platforms designed for CRM; however, she justified that organizations opt out of these platforms for financial reasons and instead use social media platforms. As an owner[2] of a 501(c)3, I empathize with nonprofit organizations' financial constraints while attempting to effect social change. However, do financial barriers justify the misuse of technology design to fit our objective?

Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook to design a platform that allowed people to connect and share information. Zuckerberg intended to connect large groups of people and allow them to share and collaborate in a centralized repository. Despite not reading or listening to every communication on Zuckerberg, I can presume that Facebook was not designed as an event planning or customer relationship management platform based on what I have read about Zuckerberg. Therefore, the question beckons, has Facebook been redesigned by the users and then scrutinized because of the misuse of the design? Misuse of design is a common issue in technology development, but is the misuse of design injustice?

According to Costanza-Chock, affordance is "an object's properties that show the possible actions users can take, thereby suggesting how they may interact with the object." J. J. Gibson coined this term[3], but this 1970 core concept of design evolved and influenced design professors and eventually, according to the author, was redefined by Donald Norman as "the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used." Costanza-Chock demonstrated several scenarios where a user could not perceive an object's property due to impairments of the user or the designer's intentional failure not to include a group of people. According to Costanza-Chock, design justice is the approach to focus on groups of people who may be excluded due to impairments or other prejudice [4]. She points out that an object's affordance is never equally perceptible, but design justice should bring awareness to designers.

However, I am compelled to point out that there is a difference between designing an object which excludes people versus designing an object for one purpose that is either used for another purpose or misperceived by the user. Furthermore, there is contention surrounding the term affordance, as Don Norman intended[5]. Norman contends that when defining affordance, "he was really talking about perceived affordance, which is not the same as the real ones."[6] Norman regretfully showed excitement that the design community accepted the term. However, he claims that in his new version of POET[7], he "will make a global change, replacing all instances of the word 'affordance' with the phrase 'perceived affordance,'" because the design community accepted yet the concept, "but not always with complete understanding."[8] Norman further criticized designers because "the designer cares more about what actions the user perceives to be possible than what is true."[9]

Therefore, when Costanza-Chock criticized Norman in his book, "The Design of Everyday Things" because she contends it "ignored race, class, gender, disability, and the other axes of inequality," did she failed to understand Norman's definition of affordance and therefore, contributed to Norman re-terming the word? Norman asserted that "affordance, both real and perceived, play very different roles in physical products than they do in the world of screen-based products... and affordance plays a relatively minor role in screenbased products."[10] Instead, according to the definition Norman defined in his article "Affordance, Conventions, and Design," Costanza-Chock referred more to perceived affordance or conventions. In contrast, Norman's definition of affordance is more related to product design, where the designer deals with physical design. Lastly, as Norman pulls Gibson's definition of the term, Norman states, "affordance reflects the possible relationship among actors and objects; they are properties of the world" and not screen interface, which is more related to social media platforms.

However, despite the contrast between Costanza-Chock's and Norman's definition of affordance, Costanza-Chock had a great point about design justice. Designs, physical or virtual, intentionally or unintentionally (after awareness of the injustice in design, the designer fails to recorrect) that "ignore race, class, gender, disability, and other axes of inequality" has implemented unjust design. In addition, design, as it relates to technology, deceptively obtaining and utilizing user data to prevent or allow features, services, or products to the user is unjust design.

Before proceeding, allow me to review design 101. What is design? Herbert Simon, an American economist and popular scientist, stated that "everyone designs who devised courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones." As designers aim to change existing situations, the five-step design thinking process is sometimes implemented: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. What is empathize? In summary, it is to understand the targeted user's needs and objectives.

A designer that designs face-recognition software must understand the needs and objectives of the user. This begs the question of who the user is. Is the software for a specific ethnic group or gender binarism? Defining the user is a crucial part of designing because the failure not to understand the user is the difference between design justice and discriminatory design. Costanza-Chock, defines design justice as the approach to focus on groups of people who may be excluded due to impairments or other prejudice. To focus on one group of people that have been excluded and to exclude the people who were initially included is not justice. In this article, I will modify Costanza-Chock's definition and define design justice as the approach to focus on all groups of people. As an African American woman, I empathize personally with being excluded and understand that for decades marginalized communities have suffered from oppressive systems; however, it is hypocritical to only focus on the group of people who have been excluded to the extent of excluding others. Therefore, when I make this claim, the response in one form or another is, "you can't design for everyone." Then how does the design community combat the issue of discriminatory design? Ruha Benjamin defines discriminatory design as "a new set of Jim Code that encompasses a range of discriminatory designs – some that explicitly work to amplify hierarchies, many that ignore and thus replicate social divisions, and a number that aims to fix racial bias but end up doing the opposite."

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision Brown vs. Board of Education created the precedent that "separate is not equal." This would later lead to the civil rights movement from 1954 to 1968, which aimed to abolish institutional racial segregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisement. In the 1970s, the movement for equality continued with the disability rights movement that prohibited discrimination based on disability and the movement for equal rights for the LGBTQ communities. These movements have slowly led the design community to focus on more groups of people.

But, now is the time to focus on all people or universal design!

1 Costanza-Chock, Design Justice.

2 Jerome Burke Foundation (

3 Norman, “Affordance, Conventions, and Design.”

4 Costanza-Chock, Design Justice.

5 Souza, Prates, and Carey, “Missing and Declining Affordances.”

6 Norman, “Affordance, Conventions, and Design.”

7 The Psychology of Everyday Things ("POET")

8 Norman.

9 Norman.

10 Norman.

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