10 Ways Designers Can Support Social Justice

This post originally appeared on designjusticenetwork.org

Design’s power lies in its mediation of daily life.

Through branding, design communicates the financial status of consumers. Through art direction, it sets standards for which bodies are considered normal and desirable. Through architecture and urban planning, it determines what our neighborhoods look like.

These are not just forms of aesthetic power — they are also forms of cultural and economic power. And the ways in which designers wield this power tends to go unquestioned in our field.

In this moment of widespread conservative backlash, we are heartened that the design field is increasingly engaging with pressing current issues, and that many designers are seeking to do social impact work. To this end, we encourage our fellow designers to view all design work as having a social impact, and to reflect on the ways in which our work can contribute to social injustice, but also build a more socially just future.

Here are ten steps designers and design studios can take to support more socially just practices in our workplaces, our processes, and our products. We acknowledge that not everyone will be positioned to shift in all these ways, so start where you can, and consider partnering with allies for a stronger voice within your studio or your local design community.

1. Define a set of principles by which you will work.

Together with your colleagues, create a set of principles in accordance with your shared values to guide how you will work, the types of work you will choose to do, the impacts you want to foster, and how you will treat each other and members of communities who will be impacted by your work.

Display these principles prominently on your website or portfolio. Refer back to them when you are faced with hard choices and when debriefing on finished projects. Revisit and refine them as circumstances and social contexts change.

The Design Justice Network has been developing a set of shared principles to guide its work — you can read them here. We also love the Collaboration Principles for Artists & Social Justice Organizers developed by Micah Bazant, Forward Together, and CultureStrike.

2. Distance yourself from those who work against your principles.

Take time to inform yourself about a company or organization to ensure their values are aligned with yours, before committing to work together. If you feel you can, have conversations about areas of concern — you may have more influence than you think.

Having a set of shared studio principles will help greatly in these moments, as decisions like these can be challenging.

3. Rethink representation.

Consider the ways in which the images you commission/select/create can reinforce white supremacy, cis- and heteronormativity, cultural appropriation, fatphobia, and so on. If you are using a diversity of representations, is this just for optics (tokenism) or does it reflect a deeper commitment to resisting oppression? Talk to your collaborators about why representation matters.

We love the way that Design Action Collective represents and uplifts marginalized communities. For a better understanding on representation check out “Share Cropping Blackness: White Supremacy and the Hyper-Consumption of Black Popular Culture.”

4. Consider your negative impact.

All design has a social impact, and oftentimes that impact is harmful. Is your studio located in a gentrifying neighbourhood and benefiting from its low rents and growing caché while low income folks are being pushed out? Are you offering accessible resources from your studio within your local community? Are you engaged in planning practices that collect only the mandatory minimum community input and don’t consider local culture? Have you asked critical questions about where, how, and by whom your materials were made? Do these materials negatively impact your environment, community resources and quality of others’ lives through exploitative practices? How does corporate design’s default modernist aesthetics erase and marginalize centuries of Indigenous design?

Contributing to “social impact” projects is important, but we should also view our day to day work through a critical lens.

We’re excited by the Design As Protest campaign, which brought together community members, artists, activists, and designers together in pursuit of a design intervention to address issues of injustice throughout the built environment.

5. Get involved and build on work that is already happening.

Though the threats we are facing are now more pronounced, the issues are not new. Social movements and community-based organizations have been working to resist oppressive policies and imagine better futures for generations. Reach out to groups that are working on issues you’re concerned about. Be sure to learn about the history of struggle and organizing within the communities you’re interested in working with.

There are many ways to get involved in organizing. You may want to offer your design skills, but you can also learn to facilitate meetings, coordinate logistics, or provide child care.

If you’re interested in getting involved in a movement as a designer, check out designersavailable.com

6. Humble yourself. Design with, not for.

Marginalized communities do not suffer from a lack of creativity but rather a lack of resources. It is important to recognize that community members already know what they need and are working towards solutions that work for them. Working with communities rather than for requires a shift in mindset for many designers, who are trained as creative experts who solve problems for clients. Design justice, on the other hand, recognizes that everyone is an expert in their own experiences, and that addressing injustice through design means elevating the voices of people most affected by the issues and working collaboratively towards solutions.

Start by asking yourself: How close am I to the issue at hand? Does this community want me to work on this project? Am I the appropriate person to work on this project? How can I step back and facilitate the design of solutions by the community? Collaborative design can be difficult, messy, and time consuming, but is ultimately more truthful and more effective at empowering marginalized communities.

Need examples of critical collaborative projects? Check out And Also Too’s project Feathers of HopeBeware of the Dandelions, by the collective Complex Movements is also a project that truly collaborates with and lifts the voices of marginalized community, while establishing a strong creative narrative.

7. Learn about concepts of privilege and anti-oppression.

Anti-oppression recognizes the locations and sources of power imbalances in society. Practicing anti-oppression means confronting bigotry as well as confronting our own privilege, i.e. the different ways we might benefit from power imbalances. Anti-oppression teaches us that to work towards justice, we must do more than vague “good” as designers — we must work to end the ways that design can reinforce oppression and privilege internally, interpersonally, and systemically.

Do you have a hard time defining and identifying your personal privilege? Check out “Recognizing white privilege is a first step” in the Chicago Tribune. We can also begin to look at other fields for a better understanding of how are subconscious or intentional actions may be oppressive. See Everyday Feminism’s article 10 Ways Well-Meaning White Teachers Bring Racism Into Our Schools and The Atlantic’s article How Teachers Learn to Discuss Racism.

8. Know when not to design.

Not every problem can be addressed with a design solution or by your particular set of skills as a designer. Learn about the many different strategies that are being employed to confront injustice — e.g. radical social work, teaching for liberation, community organizing, and policy advocacy — and consider how to support non-design approaches.

Interested in exploring the many different ways social justice can be integrated in your practice through media-based organizing? Please be sure to check out Allied Media Projects, an organization that serves a network of media makers, artists, educators, and
technologists working for social justice.

9. Shape alternative futures.

This work must not just be about resisting injustice, but also giving shape to what is possible. Work with community organizers and social justice advocates who are imagining more just worlds. Share these visions in poster form, as icons, as open source blueprints, zines, community-based architectural structures, accessible products, murals, collaborative workshop outlines, tools for addressing environmental issues, information based installations, interactive media and any other ways that contribute to feeding our social imaginations.

For free to use, visionary graphics created by and for movement activists, check out the Vision Archive.

10. Begin by listening.

As our friends at Allied Media Projects urge in their network principles, it’s always best to begin any process — including an attempt to design for social justice — by listening to those who are most affected, and who have been working on it for years.