Designers imagine better futures. We are inherently optimistic: when we see things in the world, we imagine them differently. And we remake them. But it’s not that simple. Our current climate reminds us that many are resistant to change — or more importantly — too comfortable without it.
We can pursue justice for everyone through our work.
Design justice is a framework that assesses how design systems harm or help individuals. For example, we have recently watched big brands like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben reinvent themselves in response to racial injustice. It was long overdue. But the reformations we are seeking focus on empowering communities harmed by oppressive systems. When used as a default in design processes, this assessment helps designers question biases and act justly.
Considering the real-world effects of our work is relevant in any field of design. As a designer for an impact branding agency, I see design justice challenging our work in three ways: accessibility, co-creation, and community.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides a modern example of improving justice through design. Instead of demanding that those with disabilities adapt to a world that excluded them, the ADA set out guidelines to help the world adapt to varied abilities. In other words, they are changing the physical world to be more equitable.
As applied to branding, this has led to the establishment of accessibility best practices. For example, making sure buttons are big enough to be clicked by those with mobility impairments, and colors have enough contrast to be seen by those with vision impairments. With a design justice mindset, designers must build these considerations into the foundations of a brand or website, not as checkboxes at the end of a process. Recognizing that the average user does not exist means we work harder to give access to those who need it. We are designing for everyone. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
Designers aren’t working for clients. We are co-creating something new together. Clients want to be part of the process; they desire an insider’s view of design. But they often claim they aren’t experts, censoring their thoughts and potential solutions. Designers can advocate prioritizing everyone involved. Clients and designers can have a seat at the table together.
While we have different skill sets and knowledge, our work becomes better through collaboration. An important part of design justice is listening and communicating with others effectively. If we are doing our job well, we are collaborating to solve a unique problem.
Design work is about supporting communities. At Bullhorn, our strongest example of this is our Good Works program.
Design justice asserts that our work in this area is to, through co-creation, find and emphasize these communities’ strengths instead of imposing new frameworks. In branding, this can look like understanding that a logo has a connection to its community and should be refined, not redesigned. Or perhaps language and messaging should be reimagined, not tossed out. And with more agile web design tools, designers can spend more time serving the specific needs of the client and community.
Too often, rebrands become acts of white-washing that destroy a brand’s character in favor of trendy design styles. The result is bland. Community building, like co-creating, comes down to communication — to listening.
While these three areas seem like small, simple considerations, together they have a considerable effect. Designers can get involved and improve social justice. By adopting new postures and keeping fresh eyes on our processes, we can make a better future.
Read more about design justice in Sasha Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need.