How can design challenge, rather than reproduce, structural inequalities? And how can we collectively imagine a future in which design justice permeates how design is practiced? 

This week, I participated in the Design Justice Network Gathering at Allied Media Conference 2020. I’m writing this post to summarize the conversation and share some themes with the hope that it might be a useful resource for those interested in design justice but who were unable to attend. Thank you to the MIT Visualization Group, where I am pursuing my PhD, for sponsoring my attendance at the conference.

The Design Justice Network is an “international community of people and organizations who are committed to rethinking design processes so that they center people who are too often marginalized by design.” Wes Taylor and Sasha Costanza-Chock, who facilitated a discussion of the community’s history, shared that the DJN arose in the context of Allied Media Conference (although many connections and ideas go back farther than that). The beginnings of the Design Justice Network Principles were co-created and co-edited out of a workshop session at AMC 2015 called “Generating Shared Principles for Design Justice.” The next year, the group held a first full network gathering of about 30 people at AMC 2016, launched the first issue of the Design Justice Zine, and exhibited emerging design justice projects. Wes references other aligned groups like Design As Protest, who similarly uplift vulnerable communities excluded by traditional design practices. Wes also highlights the work of Una Lee, a DJN steering committee member, who has written about how designers can support social justice and contributed zines about building consentful tech. More recently, DJN has created a formal membership process and local nodes have been springing up all around the world, and Sasha’s Design Justice book was published by MIT Press.

Networked practice

Rigoberto Lara Guzmán and Victoria Barnett facilitated a framing activity to help guide our thinking about network maintenance. For Rigo, network maintenance is “examining the structural integrity of the network and identifying pain and pleasure points.” Rigo offers the concrete metaphor of tree padding. When campers tie ropes to trees, they can use a loose bark plate to act as a contact buffer between the tree and the rope. Padding the tree with the bark avoids damage to the tree via a rope scar, which can constrict the flow of nutrients in the tree trunk. Rigo thinks of tree padding as part of the craft—or set of tools and techniques—of backcountry camping. Design practitioners similarly attend to craft when carrying out tasks with precision and care. However, tree padding is also a form of maintenance and harm reduction that “enacts upon the tree without causing permanent damage.” Rigo’s ideas are shaped by their lived experience as a migrant and child of immigrants, and are also inspired by Shannon Mattern’s writing on Maintenance and Care. Rigo challenges us as we develop a community of practice to dream beyond ideas like innovation, scale, and growth—byproducts of capital. Instead, we are invited to prioritize the maintenance of networks “connected by the sinew of our social relations.”

Design Justice Local Nodes

Volunteers from local nodes of the Design Justice Network then took time to share ideas, reflections, and ongoing work from the past year. Local nodes are volunteer-driven community-based groups that are accountable to the communities they serve. They aim to facilitate connections between people and amplify the voices of marginalized communities. This year, network members produced a local nodes zine to support new nodes that want to get started. We heard from updates from nodes all across the world. Some, like the Vancouver and Boston nodes, are just getting started. Others like the Toronto and Mediterranean nodes are actively building community and organizing gatherings. Local nodes can take time to get started, but they have enabled encouraging opportunities to connect and share resources.

Dreaming aspirationally and practically

Denise Shanté Brown and Corina Fadel facilitated a visioning activity for imagining the future of design justice. Denise asks: why create space to envision a design justice future? Sharing reflections from the steering committee, she says that it’s necessary to nurture dreams toward collective liberation. For Denise, in dreaming we also sustain ourselves—not just as a network, but as a growing community. As designers, not only are we always dreaming but we also have the tools to bring these dreams into existence. In this sense, dreaming is both aspirational and practical. It’s important to think about how we use these tools in keeping with our responsibilities to ourselves, each other, and the earth.

Corina then extended an invitation to engage our collective imagination, and take time to ground ourselves and take a breath before diving in. Before visioning, Corina guided us into tracing our hand labyrinths—a meditative body work exercise about tracing the edges to find the center. While centering ourselves in our bodies, we listened to a collection of 21 quotes.

Some quotes that stayed in my mind include:

“There is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.” — Octavia E. Butler

“I believe that all organizing is science fiction – that we are shaping the future we long for and have not yet experienced.” — adrienne maree brown

“I give myself permission to see beyond the world that was handed down to me.” — Atabey @atabey.rev

Remembering our history, imagining the future

Una guided the participants in collectively designing, sketching, and prototyping ways that our lives might be transformed by a design justice future. We were invited to design an artifact from that future, and share with other participants which year the artifact comes from along with the sketch. Earlier when thinking about the history of DJN, Sasha reminded us that our current moment will become history in the future. Similarly, “we imagine things that don’t yet exist, and then we conjure them into existence.” At the end of the exercise, the speculative futures were added to the Design Justice Timeline, which both serves as a history and maps out a speculative future.

Design justice is both aspirational and practical. We are dreaming this and doing this on a daily basis. We imagine things that don’t yet exist, and then we conjure them into existence. There is magic and power in this making, and we’re working to become conscious of how we wield our magic. This is why our shared visions of a design justice future are critical to this work.

Thank you to the organizers and facilitators of this network gathering!