Traditional design won’t save us in the COVID-19 era

4 min read
Eric Blattberg
  •  May 6, 2020
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But equity design just might. 

COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, at least not according to a naked Madonna, who called it “the great equalizer” from a rose-filled bathtub in a video posted to her social media accounts.

But while the coronavirus itself doesn’t care if you’re young or old, rich or poor, its effect is not equally felt across all communities. Preliminary data released by the city of Chicago in early April shows that the city’s black residents, less than a third of the population, account for 72 percent of its coronavirus-related deaths. In New York City, the current global epicenter of the pandemic, the virus is proving twice as fatal for its black and latinx residents as it has been for whites. These tragic statistics are not attributable to underlying physiological disparities; they are a reflection of deep-rooted inequity in housing, health care, transit—in short, most essential products, services, and environments.

“Systems such as discrimination, racism, sexism, and even poverty were designed by people that made intentional choices around exclusion,” explained Antionette Carroll, founder of Creative Reaction Lab, in a 2018 TED Talk.

Antionette Carroll, founder of Creative Reaction Lab, in a 2018 TED Talk.

But this grim assessment contains a meaningful opportunity. “If these different forms of oppression are by design, then they can be redesigned,” she said.

The human-centered design framework, which many designers consider dogma, is on its own insufficient to tackle centuries of inequity. Showing up and talking to people, “users” in the dehumanizing parlance of Silicon Valley, about their experiences and feelings doesn’t equate to empowerment. Empathy alone isn’t a panacea for deep-rooted societal ills.

Only when coupled with equitable action can empathy serve as an equalizing force.

There is a group of designers, one whose ranks include Carroll and her equity design firm, working to develop a more-comprehensive framework that builds on the design-thinking practices of its predecessors. It has many names—equity design, equity-centered community design, liberatory design—but the goal remains consistent: to alleviate or counteract oppressive systems by working alongside the people most affected by those systems. To that end, equity design organizations have cohered around principles including:

  • Start with yourself, because designing without contextualizing your own perspective in a broader cultural and historical context risks propagating unjust dynamics
  • Design at the margins, so the powerful and privileged do not make decisions that harm or exclude communities to which they do not belong
  • Cede power to communities, so they aren’t just consulted but become co-creators of systems, processes, and products that affect their lives

There’s no cookie-cutter implementation of equitable design you can copy and paste into your workflow, of course. As with any new framework, it’s a process—one that entails constant exploration and reflection—not a destination.

But whether designers work for a non-profit or a for-profit, a government agency or a corporation, there’s a wide array of moral and economic incentives to implement equitable design practices, particularly as marginalized groups cope with a pandemic that is hitting their communities the hardest.

What equity design looks like in practice

Equitable design is core to the product development process at Edquity, a Brooklyn-based startup that helps colleges serve their students’ basic needs and financial security by offering access to emergency resources and funding. Inspired by the anti-poverty mission, I joined the company as its lead product designer in January—and I’ve spent the last few months reframing my own design process, knowing our products may be the difference between a student graduating or dropping out.

“I’ve had to unlearn the Silicon Valley mantra of `move fast and break things` and replace it with the notion of a `minimum virtuous product,` which builds in guards against potential harms,” said Nina Krishnan, who joined Edquity as its principal product designer in December 2017. “That means letting people be the experts of their own lives, letting them tell you where to start.”

Nina Krishnan, Edquity’s principal product designer.

That doesn’t mean equitable design is in conflict with an organization’s business goals, added Krishnan. By recruiting and forming relationships with less traditionally-visible students, not just 18 year-old freshmen in four-year institutions, Edquity’s product team realized there’s little value in building a financial management tool for students who don’t have much money to manage. Instead, the company pivoted toward getting students access to resources and emergency aid. Kristnan said that Edquity would no longer exist without those students leading the way on that strategic shift.

Forging those relationships often takes persistence, but that’s what practicing equitable design entails, said Sam Zucker, head of research at Edquity. Zucker presumes that students have other priorities beyond sitting down and chatting with her, from grocery shopping and caring for family members to their homework and classes, which continue during the pandemic. Yet a student who misses the first three sessions and makes the fourth is “exactly who we want to talk to,” she explained.

Sam Zucker, head of research at Edquity.

“I’ve come to understand my role as a designer not as coming up with a clever solution but as much more about facilitating, being the person who is responsible for making sure people get to the table,” Zucker told me. “That has felt like a fundamental shift for me. It is actually a process of letting go. I don’t have to solve everything; I am inviting in, facilitating, and engaging the right people who don’t often get to participate in the conversation.”

Zucker continually works to make her research process more inclusive. She makes it clear to students there’s no penalty if they sign up for a session and don’t show. She builds in consistent reminders and communication to lighten the burden of planning. She doesn’t require in-person attendance (not that there’s an office to come to right now anyway). And she’s explored letting students run sessions on their own with peers, creating a structure that doesn’t require her to be present. That builds trust and helps them develop new skills, not just earn compensation for a few hours of their time, she said.

Redefining who’s a “designer”

Equity design practitioners enable more people to practice design—not just by teaching more folks to push pixels and run research sessions, but by reframing lived experiences as an inherently valuable part of the design process.

Tania Anaissie, founder of equity design firm Beytna Design, spent half of 2019 working with members of the Obama Foundation’s Community Leadership Corps. As she encouraged design-thinking practices among the young leaders, she saw firsthand how participants’ backgrounds enabled them to forge communal connections, effectively problem solve, and passionately advocate for justice-oriented solutions.

Tania Anaissie, founder of equity design firm Beytna Design.

That doesn’t mean folks in the traditional design community no longer have a role to play on issues they haven’t personally experienced, Anaissie told me in a recent conversation. But it does involve reframing our understanding of that work as an alliance with “equity designers,” with people embedded in those issues.

“Equity design doesn’t mean don’t address things, don’t work on touchy subject material, it means we have to think critically about how to shift power to equity designers to have a role in making decisions,” said Anaissie. “And ultimately transparency is the most powerful thing in the world when it comes to building equitable relationships. That puts the power back in communities’ hands.”

This is challenging work, to be sure, particularly when community connection has been relegated to entirely-digital channels. Even at organizations that are ideologically on board, we’re all figuring out how to best implement the new framework. But as COVID-19 threatens to push 15 percent of the U.S. into poverty, the result of discriminatory systems compounded by a public health crisis, it’s more essential work than ever before.

Anaissie, for one, has a message for designers who feel pessimistic about their ability to make change to big, unwieldy systems, especially when the people at the top may not have the same perspectives or incentives as folks on the ground.

“Every designer at these large organizations feels like they can’t do anything about it, but you are the gatekeeper of ethics at these places,” she said. “Unless the environment is unsafe, please don’t leave, please don’t quit, stay inside and change the process.”


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