Recently, I’ve been getting back into the habit of attending design meetups, informal roundtables, that sort of thing. A few weekends ago, I even participated in a hackathon for the first time in years (thanks to Feminist Design Lab). It’s good for the loners and perpetually bemused to keep in contact with what’s going on for everyone else, especially when you don’t have much patience for Design Twitter’s perpetual churn of faux outrage and hollow deepities.
One thing it’s definitely good for is seeing how a movement can be appropriated in realtime.
The movement in question — Design Justice. Its status? All ticking along nicely… so long as you keep the designers away from it.
Why? Well one of the things I’m increasingly encountering when it gets raised (outside of actual Design Justice meetups I might add. Or at least, the ones I’ve attended, shoutout to the Canadian fam) is the almost instant reframing with the usual clever design speak that goes from 0 to the supreme allegorical in less than 10 seconds. A recent example that particularly stood out was listening to someone at a meetup say, “Design Justice is about who is at the table” or some other twaddle whilst also (and this is the important bit, please note, so don’t @ me, #NotAllTables) managing to totally ignore the material demands that Design Justice as a movement, a concept, a set of principles actually makes.
I always find it somewhat ironic that moi, who is not an especially good academic by any stretch, becomes a stickler for words but honestly? If it stops designers hollowing out yet another promising premise, why not? They’re going to make bank from it anyway so it’s hardly going to materially (or reputationally, let’s be real) hurt them and besides, worse comes to worst, we’ll just have to create yet another set of references or frameworks or movements or whatever to deal with the fact Design Justice doesn’t really mean anything anymore.
Justice, like decolonisation, like inclusion, like all the other good words that get casually banded about on the social justice interwebs, can have different dimensions, sure. However, a key aspect of ‘Justice’ in the framing of Design Justice is the reparative. Whatever you take, give back. Where there is alienation, reconnect. If something has too much power, then something else will have less, so redress that.
This is the realm of the tangible, the material. I get we all want to make our Masters/PhDs feel they were worth it, it’s valid, no worries. But can we not get ahead of ourselves into the superlative just for once.
In any major city around the world we’re seeing people actually leaving their homes because the local council is either selling off to speculators, building less social housing, or (depending where you are in the world) just constructing a new swimming pool to impress the local dignitaries next time they visit. Our digital infrastructure is utterly dependent on an architecture maintained by the likes of whom most white people only knew existed as villains in Austin Powers movies. Human centred service design revolutionised government processes and has made them even better at harassing, deporting and in some cases flat out executing-by-proxy.
Design Justice is not about “who is at the table” — we already have diversity and inclusion for that. It’s about reparations. In our workflows, in our interface design, in our post-its, in our solution architecture it’s about making sure it pays back in a way that is owned by actual people.
And does that feel hard? Well it should because it is hard. It’s so damn hard and it will keep on being damn hard, I’m sorry. That’s not to fetishise pain and labour but rather to be honest about what it will take. There is no point avoiding it, because it will carry on anyway, the hardness, the exploitation, the complicity, the oppression — it will just keep on going regardless of how much we reduce whatever action we take against it to qualities we can’t be held accountable for.
Design Justice is not about “who is at the table”. Besides we know who is at the table. It’s all those senior designers from the 2000s masterfully adjudicating over yet another ‘should designers learn to code’ squabble, not quite noticing the actual powerbrokers and decision makers set up a new office two floors up to get away from them.
Besides, in a field like ours where we already have so much structurally meaningless and exploitative bullshit, the instinct to claim, water down and empty yet another thing is kind of greedy if nothing else. There’s still some scraps left on the scavenged remains of Design Thinking and Human (but actually what I really mean is the human+environment etc etc etc) Centred design, you can just pretend Design Justice never even happened.
Ah but there I go again, committing the most basic of design sins and forgetting my audience.
Colonisers got to colonise I guess. Thus it ever was.