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Gemma Copeland

Design Justice

 —  Design Justice

I’ve just finished reading Design Justice by Sasha Costanza-Chock. This book really should be required reading for any designer working today.

It builds upon the work and principles of the Design Justice Network, defined as:

Design justice rethinks design processes, centers people who are normally marginalized by design, and uses collaborative, creative practices to address the deepest challenges our communities face.

Intersectionality in design

The first part is really about exploring design’s relationship to power and privilege. They use the concept of the matrix of domination, an intersectional analysis of oppression. They use this to explain how design decisions can privilege certain people over others, regardless of whether this was the designer’s intention.

Some of this is uncomfortable to read, but necessary and useful. They analyse and critique a number of different design approaches, including human-centred design and universal design. These processes tend towards homogenising or erasing difference. Design justice, on the other hand, recognises that it might not be possible to reduce the cognitive load for all users, but that decisions of who to privilege need to be considered and made explicit.

Privilege and power never go away, but a design justice studio can become a place where they are explicitly recognized, acknowledged, and discussed.


The book looks at design from five angles:

  1. Design values: the distribution of affordances and disaffordances that we encode into technologies
  2. Design practices: who gets paid to do design work and who controls design processes
  3. Design narratives: the stories that we choose to tell about design
  4. Design sites: the inclusion and exclusion of various kinds of people from privileged design locations
  5. Design pedagogies: the methods we use to teach and learn about design

I really love how they weave narrative and personal experience throughout. The whole book is grounded in their lived experience of listening, organising and designing.


If I’m honest, I found the first half of the book quite hard to read at times as I felt like I was just part of the problem. I felt like I could definitely work harder to be aware of my own privilege and centre other people’s voices and experiences.

The second half of the book focuses more on building a design justice practice. They described the work that the MIT Codesign Studio has done, but also described the common challenges that come with collaborative design processes and non-hierarchical group structures. All of this completely resonated with me.

There’s a strong focus on listening, dialogue and maintenance throughout. This is something we really focus on at Common Knowledge: listening to people’s needs, building upon and maintaining existing technology, and making interventions that are responsive to wider social and political contexts.


I found their focus on pragmatism towards the end of the book really useful. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. In some projects it might make sense to have community members directly involved in the design process. In others, the traditional designer-client relationship might be the best way to work with limited resources and still create something concrete that will make a difference to people’s lives.

They also recognise that design isn’t a solution in itself when it comes to addressing long-term structural inequality. I really like their suggestion that the outcome of a design project could be both a utopian vision of the future and a tangible product or system that can be used and iterated upon.

The design process itself then becomes an exercise in radical visioning: the design team, led by people from the most directly affected community, explores the root of the problem and develops ideas for systems change, in addition to ideas for products or services that can be implemented within the resource limitations of the project.

Designing the future

I really enjoyed their analysis of design’s relationship to the future. This was something I was thinking about a lot when preparing my talk for Designing the Future, but they put it much more eloquently!

Design is thus also speculative: it is about envisioning, as well as manipulating, the future. Designers imagine images, objects, buildings, and systems that do not yet exist. We propose, predict, and advocate for (or, in certain kinds of design, warn against) visions of the future.

In Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown says that:

All organising is science fiction.

For me, there’s a strong link between design, organising and science fiction. It’s all about imagining where we might go and making an attempt to get there.

In Design Justice, Costanza-Chock suggests that:

Design can be seen as a permanent striving toward, an ongoing process of ideation, iteration, and revision toward the ideal.

Which reminded me of a quote from Lisa Nyberg that I think about a lot:

Utopia cannot be defined as a static, perfect place; it is the ongoing attempts, the fiction, the theory and the striving for the perfect existence.

Reading list

Some related books I want to read next: