The value of critical standpoints in designing toward justice

The more we understand about our histories of both oppression and resistance to it, of injury and resistance, the better we come to know our real capacities, and the better able we become to act powerfully and build real alliances.

(Aurora Levin Morales, Medicine Stories, 2019, p. 65)

Service Design, Participatory Design, and now Transition Design are critiqued for intervening in systems without a thorough understanding of historic oppression. Our lack of fluency in discussing marginality, as a white-majority field educated in historically EuroAmerican institutions, has us skim over systemic biases that shape the lived experience of many, such as race, class, gender, ability, nationality, religion, and sexual orientation. If we don’t actively learn about these histories and reflect on our own positionally within these structures, we cannot claim to be doing good work.

When we fail to see the entire picture, we naively waste resources and risk alienating the very people we want to engage. Design approaches applied without consideration to systemic bias can be narrow and short-term. To intervene in complex social challenges to transition systems for the long-term we must develop an ability to critique from a deeper perspective.

The concept of standpoint–from black feminist theory: that people who are forced to experience systems from the margins will have more insight into how they really work (Wylie, 2013)– can offer a deeper perspective to Transition Design approaches. In the United States, this means that People of Color are likely to have more insight into social structures than the white majority, because they come face to face with barriers more often, and women will have a more critical perspective from navigating traditionally male-dominated institutions.

Embracing the self-reflection involved with acknowledging our own standpoints, and those of others, is an important step toward undoing the structural oppressions that are at the root of so many of our social and ecological challenges. When we incorporate the subjectivity of our own perspectives into planning a complex design project, and then deliberately involve people with alternative standpoints, we can ensure more of the problem will be understood and incorporated into the solution. Developing a more critical lens to see more of the system leads to finding more collaborators to disrupt biased systems from the root.

Morales, Aurora Levins. Medicine Stories: Essays for Radicals. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.

Wylie, Alison. “Why standpoint matters.” In Science and other cultures, pp. 34-56. Routledge, 2013.

Escobar’s Design for the Pluriverse

Arturo Escobar’s 2018 book

The West and global North can draw inspiration for new futures from cultures that see themselves as more connected to the earth, rather than in dominance over nature. This is one of the many calls to ideas and action in Arturo Escobar’s 2018 book, Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Designers hold some responsibility for ignoring or sublimating the types of knowledge that value natural systems and ways of measuring progress. Epistemologies of the South (ES) is a framework to turn to begin to learn from these holistic ways of envisioning.

Escobar is proposing that we can center “the intersecting goals of ecological sustainability, social justice, and pluriversality” through practices that move beyond many of the boundaries that characterize Western, modern and postmodern thought. He draws from a range of authors working and writing toward environmentalism who reframe doing and knowing as intertwined.

Understand that everything exists only in relation to other things, as “mutually constituted,” and remove the boundary between humans/non-human/nature for a healthier self, society, and planet.

Reading through his call to action for a radical new approach to designing, makes me wonder, where is space room for spirituality in design education? Design practice? Do we need spirituality to have morality? What else upholds the ethics needed besides religion and spirituality?

Escobar writes, 

There are nevertheless aspects of [Thomas] Berry’s work that would require deeper reflection on designers’ part, such as his view of the Earth as a bio-spiritual planet; his insistence on the need to re-create an intimacy with the Earth as essential to crafting the new story (“ We cannot discover ourselves without first discovering the universe, the earth, and the imperatives of our own being”; 1988, 195); and, perhaps most difficult and controversial, the idea that central to the transition is a trans-rational thought guided by revelatory visions, one that is attuned to life’s self-organizing potential and best accessed through myth and dreams, “indicating an intuitive, non-rational process that occurs when we awaken to the numinous powers ever present in the phenomenal world about us” (as, say, shamans have done throughout the ages; 1988, 211).

(Escobar, 2018, Loc. 3173)

Are designers prepared with the critical thinking skills to contribute to enter political  and restorative work? What could change in design education to help us contribute?

Can design contribute to fulfilling the historic, perhaps vital, task of catalyzing forms of collective intelligence that attend to the kinds of choices confronting us, including design’s own role in creating them?

(Loc. 2486)

Ontological design is important for designers, to remind us to reflect on the responsibility of the choices we make as we give form and shape experiences. Clive Dilnot writes, “how things are thought: not as ‘dead’ possessions or signs or markers but as ‘live gifts’ working, at base, ‘for’ us, and working in their ‘circulation’ between and among us to establish a circle of making and self-making” (1993, The Gift, p. 57). But I have to wonder, is it really the designers who are shaping the choices– or are we describing the act of designing more holistically, and we therefore have to recognize that business people and engineers will often carry greater weight in deciding what is created? Therefore the designer is one voice who can reflect on the experiences we are shaping– but turning to designers to change the way products are built in the world is leaving out some of the larger influences in most commercial processes.

Transdisciplinarity to break boundaries

Transdisciplinarity is an approach to conducting research that collaborates across the boundaries of disciplines but also across academia and real-world contexts. Like the emerging design field of Transition Design, these projects tackle complex, layered issues and work together with experts who live the problem every day and people who have expertise in relevant fields.

It’s useful to compare Transdisciplinary to other forms of cross-disciplinary work, to explain why it is a more active and tactical way of conducting research projects. Multidisciplinary research tends to mean that multiple disciplines have been referenced, but they are not interacting with or informing each other. Victoria Martin (2017) provides an example of a multidisciplinary work that might analyze a piece of literature from multiple disciplines. The insights would sit next to each other, separately in chapters, one after another– not interconnected and influencing each other. Feminist theorist Sally Kitch writes that “multidisciplinarity involves a relationship of proximity rather than of integration, even if it is accomplished by an individual scholar” (p. 125). The output of this type of research is typically something that looks like a collection of articles written from multiple points of view, on a single topic.

Next, interdisciplinarity is a more collaborative effort where multiple researchers from different disciplines work together in a way that influences the methodology, so it is more integrative than multidisciplinary projects. Martin (2017) describes a project where researchers from several disciplines might create one research tool that incorporates knowledge from each of their areas of expertise to be applied in the project. It “may result in a mixed-methods multilevel analysis and interpretation of this societal problem and lead to a coauthored article or a series of coauthored articles” (P. 42). In this way, the researchers are learning from each other and sharing the information in a way that has synthesized their cross-disciplinary interpretations. So the output is one cohesive perspective on an issue, rather than a collection of different views.

Interdisciplinary approaches can address complex problems by examining them from multiple areas of expertise, and like transdisciplinarity, it “thrives in a dynamic environment where disciplines evolve, new disciplines emerge, and questions, issues, and problems shift over time” (Martin, 2017, p. 38). However, a crucial distinction for me is that the final output remains in the domain of academia. The objective of such projects is most often to create new perspectives and knowledge, not to create change or solve problems actively. This real-world integration is where transdisciplinarity shines.

Transdisciplinary work rebels against the boundaries of disciplines, and the boundary between academia and experiential knowledge, to work toward practical, implementable solutions and new ways of building knowledge.

Martin (2017) quotes Manderson to describe the ambitious goals of transdisciplinarity, “not to transcend that knowledge base but rather to transform it” (p. 39). Montuori (2012) helps to clarify what is helpful about breaking down these barriers is to “step outside the confines of disciplinary knowledge” (p. 2). When we study and appreciate research paradigms from multiple disciplines in our own processes, we can look at forming questions that have “an awareness of the many different ways a particular question can be framed” (p. 2). We can discover the in-between space that we could miss when looking from only one discipline — uncovering a new way of looking at issues and strengthening the other disciplines in the process.

Two key attributes that distinguish a Transdisciplinary approach are (1) academic experts working together from different disciplines, and (2) people with experience on the ground, who are directly impacted by the problem they are trying to solve, working alongside academic researchers– not as objects of the research, but as team members. This parity results in outputs that examine and synthesize the contributions from these academic and non-academic participants to provide “a useful roadmap for responding more effectively to [the societal challenge]” (Martin, 2017, p. 42). The product might be a series of practical changes at the community level or a plan to influence national policies. Because the work has involved non-academics, the output is active change rather than journal articles and theory.

That is not to say that transdisciplinary work does not seek to contribute to academic knowledge, but it is not the only goal of the work. Perhaps, too often, aiming to be published in academia restricts the way work is conducted. If the researchers focus most on being publishable within the boundaries of their discipline, then it shapes who and how collaborations can happen. By turning away from disciplinary rules as a guideline, the transdisciplinary researcher is freed up to work with all of the people involved in a challenge. And to shape research strategies in a way that responds to the needs of the problem, as long as they have integrity as research methods.


Kitch, S. L. (2011). Feminist interdisciplinary approaches to knowledge building.  Handbook of feminist research: Theory and praxis. SAGE publications.

Martin, V. (2017). Transdisciplinarity revealed: What librarians need to know. ABC-CLIO.

Montuori, A. (2012). Five Dimensions of Applied Transdisciplinarity.  Integral Leadership Review12(4).

Exploring multiple futures

Book Review: Design Anthropological Futures

Edited by Smith, R.C., Vangkilde, K.T., Kjaersgaard, M.G., Otto, T., Halse, J., Binder, T.,  2016, Bloomsbury

This is an approachable and inspiring academic book of essays, case studies, and reflections on the emerging field of Design Anthropology. It pushes further beyond the techniques and methods of the first, seminal book to introduce the practice in 2013, “Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice.” Here many of the same contributors dive deeper into the concept of “future”– or “multiple futures,” a concept which they propose to be more accurate. This collection shows us that Anthropologists can integrate the collaborative making aspects of Design to move beyond observation of the current state of a society or system and begin to understand what may be possible, plausible and preferable in the future. The editors write, “The approaches presented in this volume are acutely attuned to political issues, socio-economic differences and their effects on future-making practices in situated contexts.” Illustrating how the sensitivities of Anthropological ways of knowing can strengthen our perspectives on how co-designed futures are received by those who interact with them in context.

As a practicing design researcher/design thinker in industry, I find this book to be more provocative and philosophical than “Design Anthropology.” The older book was a thoughtful take on how to bring more Anthropological practice into any Design Research practice to level-up your skills. “Design Anthropological Futures” is a handbook for those who are already working on exploring and shaping the future. In Chapter 6, Halse and Boffi describe their methods in this way, “Interventionist speculation blends the techniques of invention with techniques of description; it carries an attitude that oscillates between ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’ (p. 89).” For me, this book is exciting in its thoughtful examination of how to explore future experiences that are more daring and complex than what applied Anthropology is typically working with, and more situated and politically-aware than what Design methods typically extend to. This, to me, is the next generation of tools for exploring big questions in holistic contexts.

Emergent Strategy + Transition Design in a poem by Wheatley


Turning to One Another

There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.
Ask: “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?” Keep asking.
Notice what you care about.
Assume that many others share your dreams.
Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.
Talk to people you know.
Talk to people you don’t know.
Talk to people you never talk to.
Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised.
Treasure curiosity more than certainty.
Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.
Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.
Know that creative solutions come from new connections.
Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.
Real listening always brings people closer together.
Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.
Rely on human goodness.

Stay together.

Margaret Wheatley

Fractal, Adaptive, Iterative: Resilient Solutions

Portrait of adrienne maree brown from

Recently adrienne maree brown published a very personal and insightful reflection of her study of what works in centering social movements + inspiration from black, feminist science fiction, titled Emergent Strategy. She speaks the language of design naturally. I picked up the book on an impulse because the subtitle speaks to the goals of Transition Design, “Shaping Change, Changing Worlds.” And I am thrilled because she explains many of the Transition theories that Tonkinwise, Kossoff, and Irwin describe— but she is presenting them in simple structures, helping me to understand them further.

I find that this book is informing four critical things for me at once:

1. Describing why Transition Design is necessary and possible.

Let me summarize by quilting together her own words:

“I would call our work to change the world, ‘science fictional behavior’ —being concerned with the way our actions and beliefs now, today, will shape the future, tomorrow, the next generations.We are excited by what we can create; we believe it is possible to create the next world.

“How do we create and proliferate a compelling vision of economies and ecologists that center humans and the natural world over the accumulation of material?

“We embody. We learn. We release the idea of failure because it’s all data. But first we imagine.

“We must make JUST and LIBERATED futures irresistible.” – amb

2. Offering a point of view on the best approach to changing a massive system [Emergent Strategies]

“Our tendency is toward hierarchical and capitalistic and growth at all costs. But it is the adaptive and collaborative practices that are more sustainable. Those are the beings that survive through change.

“What we practice at the small-scale sets the patterns for the whole system. To see our own lives and work and relationships as a front line, a first place we can practice justice, liberation’s, and alignment with each other and the planet.

“We are microsystems. We must create patterns that cycle upwards.

“Emergence emphasizes critical connections over critical mass, building authentic relationships, listening with all the senses of the body and mind.” – amb

3. To look at everything with LOVE is the best, healthiest way to be personally resilient enough to tackle these difficult challenges.

“Where shame makes us freeze and try to get really small and invisible, pleasure invites us to move, to open, to grow.

“I am listening now with all my senses, as if the whole universe might exist just to teach me more about love… This practice lets me connect to the part of myself that is divine, aligned with the universe, and the place within myself where I can be a conduit for spiritual truth.

“Nothing is required of me more than being, and creating. Simultaneously being present with who I am, who we are as a species…and creating who we must become, and within that who I must become.

“…a pendulum swinging between curiosity, possibility, and hopelessness.” -amb

4. Notes on current day, American issues

“Americans don’t know how to do democracy. We don’t know how to make decisions together, how to create generative compromises, how to advance policies that center justice. Until we have a sense of how to live our solutions locally, we won’t be successful at implementing a just governance system regionally, nationally or globally.” -amb

The lack of comfort with, and trust in, politicians makes me think of the newly-realized sexual assault accountability for (some) politicians. And a recent Ezra Klein show podcast that presents the idea that Congress is not debating enough– within each party. Republicans especially are afraid to disagree with each other, and therefore BEST solutions don’t emerge. James Wallner, author and political scientist, makes a case for more discussion, less suppression.

The Democratic Party needs a redefinition.

“What happens when we succeed? New problems? Detroit filmmaker Oya Amakisi once shared with me the words of General Baker, a Detroit labor organizer and leader, who said, ‘You keep asking how do we get the people here? I say, what will we do when they get here?’” -amb

If we impeach Trump— will we be ready for a well-thought-out next step? What will we do differently to be a better option as a Democratic Party?

Creative Mornings Oakland: OGs, Babies, and Bullets

Pendarvis Harshaw portrait

Pendarvis Harshaw spoke at the Creative Mornings Oakland‘s (free!) monthly event today. He is a journalist and educator who lives and reflects on the issues of Black culture in Oakland and everywhere.  He is probably most known for collecting wisdom from older Black men and sharing those stories at #OGToldMe.

As I listened, I heard several opportunities for Transition Design level analysis and fresh ideas for reversing social tragedies.

“If you think that the system doesn’t work, SHOW that it doesn’t work.”
[design mapping, Tufte-level diagrams?]

How might we stop the cycle of “babies and bullets?” And how might we care for the women who are left holding it all together?
[Transition Design interventions at government, community and individual levels]

And when a woman in the audience shared her story of being shot for disrupting an abusive conversation, she talked about healing for herself and the young man who shot her. “I am glad the police didn’t catch him, that would only perpetuate the cycle.”
OGPenn responded with, “[How might we] redesign what justice looks like?”

Empathy-Building: Dems vs. Repubs

The book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, has been the most helpful framework for understanding how divided the United States currently is, and why Democrats and Republicans cannot come remotely close to understanding each other’s motivations.

To sum it up far too quickly, Jonathan Haidt and his team of moral psychologists have researched and identified 6 foundations that make up our individual sense of what is right and wrong. Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians different greatly.

Democrats rely on 3 core values that take precedence over others:

[The following descriptions quoted from]

  1. Care/harm: attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
  2. Liberty/oppression: resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.
  3. Fairness/cheating: reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.

While Republicans value all 6, nearly equally, adding in:

  1. Loyalty/betrayal: our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
  2. Authority/subversion: our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
  3. Sanctity/degradation: the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

Libertarians value Liberty/Oppression and Fairness/Cheating to a much greater degree than any of the others.

In regard to our current political hostility, and as a designer, to think about how to overcome it, Haidt writes:

“From the perspective of Moral Foundations Theory, rural and working-class voters were in fact voting for the moral interests… Until Democrats understand…the difference between a six-foundation morality [Conservative] and a three-foundation morality [Liberal], they will not understand what makes people vote Republican.”

You can test your own moral proportions here:

Watch Jonathan Haidt on Bill Moyers here:

Design Interventions: study, make, observe, adapt, remake

Transition Design challenges are not the “Tame Problems” of capitalism that impose artificial boundaries and do not consider social and environmental concerns. Every challenge we take on as designers is likely to exist within a changing system.

Our proposed solutions may be quickly outdated, or inconsiderate, if we deliver them as confident, final solutions rather than the tweaks to a living, human system that they are. Learning the mindset of “intervene, observe, adapt” or “seed and catalyze” may be a useful addition to all of our design toolkits.


From a Transition Design short course lead by Irwin, Kossoff and Tonkinwise

Transition Design: studying what came before and what is to come

“The Anthropocene is the outcome of multitudes of uncoordinated design decisions, almost none of which take account of the scale, in terms of space and time, of designs’ collective consequences.We are not adequately seeing all these sociotechnical systems. We are missing the designed relations between these systems and our various habits and values that are proving so resistant to change toward more sustainable futures.”

— Cameron Tonkinwise, Professor

Read his snarky call to action here: