Position Statement on the Design Justice Principles
Updated: Apr 3, 2020
Submitted by Ankur Pandey, Research Intern on the Design Justice Principles developed at an Allied Conference in 2015 in Detroit.
Design, in a general sense, means problem-solving. The planning and patterning of any act towards a desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process. Since the design is a significant aspect of any problem-solving, it is essential that the inherent biases of such design systems must be looked into. For example- Facebook disproportionately banned users from LGBTQ community, as many such users preferred to not use their given name due to privacy reasons, and Facebook flagged such accounts for not using their ‘real’ names. This happened because the algorithms used to flag ‘real’ vs ‘fake’ names were trained on real name datasets that failed to acknowledge the issues the LGBTQ community faces. This was a design flaw that perpetuated discrimination against a marginalised community.
Design Justice is a field of study that is concerned with how the design of objects and systems influences the distribution of risk, harms, and benefits among various groups of people. It focuses on how design decisions enable, sustain or sometimes challenge the inequalities within the society.
The Design Justice Network Principles were developed in 2015 at Allied Media Conference in Detroit, with an aim to help practitioners avoid a design that perpetuates, often unintended, disparities and discrimination. This write-up attempts to present a brief review of the principles.
Principle 1: We use design to sustain, heal, and empower our communities, as well as to seek liberation from exploitative and oppressive systems.
This principle makes it clear what Design Justice aims to achieve. It seeks to enable a design practice that avoids reproducing structural biases and discriminatory practices against the marginalised communities. Design Justice takes a battle against inequalities perpetuated by design and suggests intervention to help designers in taking decisions which in turn empower the communities affected by the end result.
Principle 2: We center the voices of those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of the design process.
This principle seeks to ensure that the concerns of the communities which are most impacted by a design decision should be taken into consideration while making such a design. It attempts to change a practice that has traditionally been driven by power hierarchy into an inclusive, cooperative and transformative one. So far, little attention has been paid to the needs of the marginalised communities. For example, almost every application that caters to the need of Indian consumers assumes that the users are literate, understand English, and have the ability to pay a decent amount. Thus, few applications cater to the need of underprivileged sections of the society, depriving them of the benefits technology can have in their lives.
Principle 3: We prioritize design’s impact on the community over the intentions of the designer.
This principle highlights that the intentions of the designer are secondary. We need to look beyond the ‘social impact design’ or ‘design for good’ as it is not enough. Design decisions should liberate the marginalised communities from structural discrimination and empower them.
Principle 4: We view change as emergent from an accountable, accessible, and collaborative process, rather than as a point at the end of a process.
This principle is based on the belief that better solutions are obtained through a transparent, collective process and not merely at the end of the process. If the problems of the community are solved by the cooperation of the members of the community, the accountability will lie with the community members, thus empowering the communities in decision making.
Principle 5: We see the role of the designer as a facilitator rather than an expert.
This principle highlights that the role of a designer is not to dictate or force his own normative ideas on communities but to seek and facilitate the design solutions from within the community itself.
The aim is DESIGNING WITH instead of DESIGNING FOR the community.
Principle 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.
This principle believes that every human being is special, and an expert through his own experiences. It is therefore important to recognise this inherent brilliance of human beings and involve them in the designing process to provide better solutions to their problems.
Principle 7: We share design knowledge and tools with our communities.
This principle aims that the designers should enable change through the collective efforts of people who will be the ultimate beneficiaries of the design. We should be the creators and implementers of our future.
Principle 8: We work towards sustainable, community-led and -controlled outcomes.
This principle seeks to reconstruct the design processes in a way that communities which were considered passive beneficiaries thus far, take part in designing solutions to their problems. The ownership, as well as the accountability, lies with the community itself, enabling decentralisation of decision making. It involves PLANNING FOR THE COMMUNITY, PLANNING BY THE COMMUNITY.
Principle 9: We work towards non-exploitative solutions that reconnect us to the earth and to each other.
This principle aims to enable design solutions that are non-exploitative in nature. It does not reduce the solutions to community problems as a zero-sum game. Rather, it seeks to establish an ecological balance so that we connect to the earth for sustainable growth.
Principle 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.
This principle ensures that the design solution recognises the old wisdom and not treat it as inferior to modern innovations. A solution that has already proven its efficacy needs to be recreated if it satisfies the needs of the community in a better way. Traditions present us with repositories of knowledge which we can ignore at our own expense.
Thus, while Design Justice Network Principles provide a decent foundation in enabling a design process which is inclusive, collaborative and transformative, a lot needs to be done at ground level to ensure that these principles are actually applied. It will not be easy as solutions to systemic discrimination and inherent biases are not easy, and most importantly, such problems are not considered a priority. We need to specifically empower the marginalised communities, educate them, provide them with skills so as to enable them to participate and collaborate in designing solutions to problems within their communities. Their experience, along with their skills will produce much better outcomes than the solutions imposed from above without proper understanding of the needs of the communities. It will be immensely helpful if we come up with an index which measures the extent to which a design project follows these principles. It will not only reflect the scope of improvement in the project but will also usher a healthy competition to ensure these principles do not remain merely on paper.
For further developments, please refer to:
 Papanek and Fuller, 1972
 Design Justice: towards an intersectional feminist framework for design theory and practice Costanza Chock Sashaa
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