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.