Equitable Inequity in Design Justice: A Review of Sasha Costanza-Chock’s “Design Values: Hard-Coding Liberation?”

In Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Building the Worlds We Need, Sasha Costanza-Chock explores how current universalist design processes and principles are based on principles of exclusion, connects design to issues of collective liberation of marginalized communities and ecological conservation, and discusses how design may be used to advance those issues and dismantle structural inequality. 

Chapter One of the text (Design Values: Hard-Coding Liberation?) challenges current conceptions and practices in design. It argues that the fundamental basis of design is dependent on principles of inclusion and exclusion and provides examples of how digital platforms prioritize certain groups and uses in their development. This case is further pushed by a discussion of some of the core concepts of design theory: that of Affordances and Disaffordances; discussing the reality that no designed object is ever equally perceptible and/or available to all, and that the process of design prioritizes certain groups over others in its provision of benefits, often to the detriment of minority groups and marginalized communities. Design Justice is here defined as the process of not moving away from design’s nature to prioritize certain groups over others, but rather to lean into it. 

Design Justice asks us to consider how design solutions privilege some people over others on the basis of shifting those privileges and advantages to prop-up marginalized groups as opposed to reinforcing and enhancing those of dominant groups. Here, Design Justice by necessity urges designers to adopt social justice values and work towards countering the ‘matrix of domination,’ in which some groups are perpetually privileged over others. Design Justice, Costanza-Chock argues “is interested in how to hard-code…liberatory values…at every level of designed objects and systems,” [Costanza-Chock 2020, 68].

In this chapter, Costanza-Chock confronts readers with a critical understanding of design. They describe design as advantaging some by disadvantaging others; they place Design Justice as the process by which historically disadvantaged groups become the advantaged, with the goal of correcting structural inequities in the hopes of moving towards a more equitable world. In making this argument, they don’t quite convince readers of Design Justice’s ability to push for liberation. Because Design Justice is concerned with inequities present in the accessibility of designed products and utilizing them to advantage marginalized communities, pushing for an equitable inequity, if you will, rather than demolishing systemic barriers to create a more equal world, it reconstructs them.

The problem of unequal maximal-accessibility to design products is not resolved, but is rather perpetuated by Design Justice. Nonetheless, this chapter of Design Justice introduces readers to the inequitable foundations of design and serves up a definition of Design Justice built on corrective action. A clear introduction to inequities in design and Design Justice, this chapter is well suited for readers looking to explore those very topics.

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