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Design & Liberation

We often see design being used in many ways for obvious commercial reasons but what is design as a liberation? When do we describe design as a way of self-expression and the liberation of an individual without taking the liberation away from another? That’s where it becomes complex and requires us to critically think and design for a positive social transformation.

For the past few years, we have seen many eye-opening protests that battle social justice issues, and communities coming together to create signs that communicate unjust matters, using design as a tool of liberation and expression. Signs can oftentimes be louder than an individual’s voice, but it all comes down to the design of the signage. It conveys the message, reaches its target audience, and does exactly what design as a liberation is meant to do. Different handmade signs that include any language, symbol, colour and pattern express intricate ideas into minimal designs—the designs of metaphorical and visual language become a living form of communication. But yes, even with such strong messages, there are still many discriminatory designs that may be well-meaning but can ultimately affect an individual/group.

“Design, even when it’s well-meaning, can be discriminatory.”

While design can have its well-meaning, it can be prejudicial to others. To give a better insight, a concept developed in the 1990s by a black feminist scholar, Patricia Hill Collins, describes the interconnecting systems of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism. Collins states that “every individual simultaneously receives both benefits and harms based on their location within this matrix of domination”. This concept is important to keep in mind as designers as the images, interfaces, objects, buildings, landscapes, services, and sociotechnical systems that require designing, are often too relevant to the matrix of domination.

When designing, we should consider how accessible the design is—affordances, disaffordances, objects and environments, services, systems and processes—and how it affects individuals and groups (whether it helps them or discriminates against them) based on our location within the matrix of domination. For example, Giggle is a mobile app that advertises the “girls-only social media app” and requires new users to scan their face so they can be registered for an account. As mentioned before, it has its well-meaning and the creators designed it for good intentions; an online space that eliminates sexual harassment. Despite knowing this, the design works in a way that the AI screens out anyone with the facial features of a man and this, of course, doesn’t accurately describe an individual’s gender identification. The Giggle app’s system excluded many transgender women and girls and black women (who are especially likely to have their gender misclassified by AI systems in general).

To prevent discriminating against another group or individual when designing, we must ask ourselves:

1. “What is the role of design and designers in relation to those who are marginalized by systems of power?”

2. “How can we use design to imagine and build the worlds we live in (a much safer, more just and more sustainable world)?”

This way, we can get a more efficient framework that touches on significant issues.

Graphics by Anna Dang

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