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

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: