On Design Justice Principles – William Wu

About a week and a half ago, I worked with a team to run a makeathon to address open issues around the MIT student community, such as mental health, access to food, finding study spaces, and more. We brought together student makers, leaders, and admins alike, to brainstorm, ideate, and prototype possible solutions.

Planning for the event began no earlier than September of last year. As a fairly meta “using the design process to design a design process”, we thought about how to create an environment of inspiration, a microcosm community around community improvement. Who would be the people involved? For how long? Which kinds of perspectives would be the most diverse?

Without realizing it, we had already incorporated many design justice network principles into our thinking. Namely:

2. We center the voices of those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of the design process.”

We, as students, are directly impacted by decisions by the administration. We believed that students, of all people, have critical insights and feedback to offer to improve student life and the MIT community.

“8. We work towards sustainable, community-led and -controlled outcomes.”

In fact, a few students have already stepped up to the challenge of improving the community. Services, platforms, and student groups have been formed with this intention – Firehose, a course planning app, LeanOnMe, an anonymous support network, Random Acts of Kindness week, to name a few. The we wanted our makeathon to serve as a springboard for future projects.

“6. We believe that everyone is an expert based on their own lived experience, and that we all have unique and brilliant contributions to bring to a design process.”

It can be tough as a student to envision life as an MIT administrator. Admins participating in the process were able to share their woes about project maintenance, lifecycles, and other unique viewpoints.

In retrospect, it would have been beneficial to document and share the design work during the makeathon for future events, as per “7. We share design knowledge and tools with our communities.” Even posting snippets and quotes during the event to the web, for example, may be useful to future designers.


Empowering Local Entrepreneurs

“The Entrepreneurship Expo” is a design project I’ve worked on that’s intent was to provide community support and exposure for local current and aspiring entrepreneurs. The organizers believed that the lack of these two assets were hindering small businesses from fully thriving. This led to the birth of this project.

Of the Design Justice principles, the most present in the project would be:

1. We use design to sustain, heal, and empower our communities, as well as to seek liberation from exploitative and oppressive systems.

  • The purpose of this project was to empower those within our community. We wanted to provide entrepreneurs with a platform to engage, inform, and share stories/support with one another.

3. We prioritize design’s impact on the community over the intentions of the designer.

  • It was clearly understood and communicated by all organizers that this project was not about us, ourselves, but about the impact on the community and those we sought to influence. The community was always first throughout the design process.

In addition, the principles that could have been more engaged include:

2. We center the voices of those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of the design process.

  • After many discussions of participatory design in this course, I’ve realized that the people most impacted by this project weren’t necessarily present throughout the entire design process. We planned and organized with a limited number of stakeholders, which caused voices to be unheard. Having consistent discussions and involvement from all stakeholders would have led to a more impactful outcome.

10. Before seeking new design solutions, we look for what is already working at the community level. We honor and uplift traditional, indigenous, and local knowledge and practices.

  • Our first step should have been to examine and discuss what is already working in the community. Instead, we went directly toward what needed to be fixed in regards to this project. I believe this stemmed from the goal of shifting away from what has been traditionally done, to introduce something new. However, taking time to look for what is already working would have been a beautiful thing to celebrate and honor. It would also be great in showing that things may not be as bad as they seem.

From the sidelines to the streets

I worked on part of a project in Nashville with main partners Conexión Américas (CA) and the Nashville Civic Design Center, an organization supporting development of the latino community in middle Tennessee. The project focused on the Nolensville Pike, which runs as an autocentric corridor through the South Nashville, a region where many immigrants have settled. In this area that has a large population of immigrants, many Latin Americans, a large Kurdish population in the U.S., and many immigrants from south and east Asia. The population of this area, just outside of the urban core, is growing quickly, but continues to maintain very typical suburban infrastructure. This means that the area is sprawling and not built for people but rather cars. Along the Pike speed limits are high, roads are wide, sidewalks crumbling, crosswalks few, (but growing number of) bikelanes sparse and it is just plain challenging to navigate these streets as a human and not an automobile. Auto-related injuries and deaths of pedestrians along the Pike are higher here than anywhere else in Nashville.

Despite the infrastructure, this neighborhood is thriving culturally and commercially. Casa Azafrán is a very active community center run by the beloved Conexión Américas; the Pike is home to a popular mosque; and many immigrant-run businesses dot the corridor. For economic and socio-cultural reasons, many residents in this area walk. Many rely on public transit, and walk from home to community centers, businesses, schools.

My team at Transportation for America & Nashville Civic Design Center worked with the latino community of Conexión Américas to address safety issues as they pertain to transportation infrastructure. With CA we held a workshop bringing together a wide variety of community members (members that CA typically engages with) to talk through some of the most pressing transportation-related challenges. Through these workshops, we identified that there was a divide between the older and younger generations about how they thought about transportation as well as the future of the area. To address this generational divide, we (the three organizations) facilitated a radio workshop in which the youth interviewed older residents about their experiences with transportation and hopes for the future and vice versa.

 conexion 1

Through this arts-based research we collectively learned that there is no safe way for residents to cross the busy street to get to the very active Casa Azafrán building. The groups also identified language barriers in signage that was only in English. Many older residents aren’t bilingual and can’t read all signs. The group proposed a bilingual crosswalk in front of CA as a solution. This crosswalk would be the first of its kind in Tennessee!

conexion 2

The design justice principles which I believe this project implemented was that the process helped sustain and empower the participants and users. Through the workshops, participants began to understand their creative agency and learned a bit about how to work with the city and advocate for community needs. The effort was largely focused on centering the voices of the people who use this infrastructure to learn what is working for them and what isn’t. We also had to slow down our process and add in a new step of the radio interviews, acknowledging that design is an ‘emergent’ process. We collaborated with a design firm and my team’s role was more of facilitator. The design team, however, participated as well as facilitator. I think we could have spent more time learning more about what is already happening in the community to address transportation and linguistic challenges.


Addressing Issues of Harassment, Abuse, Assault on an Organizational Level on College Campus

At Wellesley, the only formal outlet to address issues of sexual assault, harassment, or violence and to have them be recognized was through Title IX. Going through the Title IX process can be incredibly emotionally and mentally taxing, and may invalidate the reporter’s experience, especially when it involves members of the LGBTQ community. This process can be draining and painful yet still not hold the respondent accountable. Other colleges, however, have systems in place to hold individuals accountable at an organization level when the reporter wants to feel safe and comfortable in their community but not go through the Title IX process.

A person who had this experience explained this oversight to a group of organization presidents and myself. We recognized this constraint and saw that our organizations had no systems to address issues of harassment, abuse, and assault at an organization and community level along with the Title IX process or instead of going through the Title IX process. If a member of an organization was abusive, there was no way to hold them accountable without bringing in the college.

Though this is collegiate policy work, the process we went through felt similar to design justice work. We researched how other colleges’ organizations addressed these issues and spoke to Boston organizations that had experience in this domain. We then drafted our initial system and process to address these issues (along with outlining community standards at a broader level) and went through months of iteration to create the most comprehensive document that would make our communities safer. We included our respective communities in the iteration process as well.

After refining each system to work in our organization’s structure, we sent out a template for other organizations to apply a system like this and a system of community standards in their organizations if they were interested. We are now continuing to iterate with the college to create a more refined system that the college can offer to organizations that already exist or as they are created.

The first design justice principle, I believe, resonated most with this project: design to sustain, heal, and empower our communities, as well as to seek liberation from exploitative and oppressive systems. In this process, experts were not involved in the collaboration enough, which made the process inefficient and perhaps more strenuous and iterative than needed.

Creating a real reality show

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The design principle I relate to most is Number 7: We share design knowledge and tools with our communities.

In summer 2016 we did a televised version of the youth program I’d been running for 10 years. The goal was to document the social emotional learning process that occurs for youth creating media in a multicultural environment.

Our goal was to be transparent with our own process while simultaneously providing education and access to new technology. We first did a challenge on analyzing how the kids “showed up” in their auditions and what our first impressions of them were. Then they had to share how they felt in an “own your narrative” exercise. Then we taught them how to pitch and they had to give a 1 minute pitch to a live audience about why their short film idea should be picked. Then finally, we taught them how to shoot 360 video and they had to shoot a short 360 VR film.

Not only were we trying to be transparent in our process with the students, but also to the audience so we were tasked with the challenge of both highlighting the students’ progress without exploiting their experiences. We were doing a process while we were teaching a process while we were filming the process of us teaching the process.

The ethos was to challenge the dominant narrative that says inner city youth of color are unintelligent, lazy, powerless, victims of environment, etc. We wanted to highlight the creativity, ingenuity, resourcefulness, resilience, and general power and potential that I saw in my students every year that I felt the mainstream media rarely showed.

Youth Media and News Literacy

As Youth Coordinator at Billerica Access Television, one of the primary focuses of my job is to develop curriculum and media projects for the kids who join BATV’s Youth Programs. Several of my programs are collaborative efforts with the local schools, which creates a more academic atmosphere. For these after school enrichment programs, I tend to structure the projects and curriculum more than I would with some of my other programs. The typical structure of my enrichment programs is that I explain a media literacy topic, give the students in the group a chance to discuss the topic, and then present a media-related project relating to the topic. One of my favorite units is my “fake news” video project, which I have done for the past two years. I’ve geared this project towards 4th-5th graders as well as 6th-8th graders due to the demographics of my enrichment groups.

Kicking Off The Project
I begin the unit by having students describe where people get their news and collaboratively creating a list. In the past year, I noticed there has been an uptick in kids listing off specific websites and apps rather than broad categories of news sources like television or radio, which I’ve found to be interesting. After that, we talk about what makes a news source “good” and create another list. We discuss things like bias, objectivity, deceptive headlines, balanced reporting, and diverse viewpoints. In some groups (particularly the elementary schoolers), we’ve dived into discussing what bias means and why news might be bias (ex. a news source might have political leanings, may not want to be critical of advertisers, etc.) We then wrap up our conversation by talking about “hard news” and “soft news” as well as “click bait.” I then give students time to share their experiences and opinions regarding news sources. One of my most memorable stories was from a young girl who challenged a misleading article her aunt posted on Facebook, which turned out to be a fake story.

The Search for the Fake Headline

Find the fake one!

Find the fake news headline!

After our discussion, I give students a sheet of paper with several headlines. They must work as a group (usually groups of two or three) to determine which headline is not from a legitimate news article. They must also explain their reasoning. Most of the time, they select the headline based on if there is a questionable time stamp near the headline, font styles that don’t “match up” with what they’ve seen in other headlines in the past, and also cite the ridiculousness of the article headline (ex. “How can goats get fired?!”) Students typically are unable to accurately guess which headline is real, which makes for an interesting follow-up discussion about misleading headlines and how news sources often cover “ridiculous” news articles in order to draw an audience in and receive more page views. We also touch on how ad revenue plays a role in news coverage (i.e. the more people you get to check out a page –> the more people you get clicking ads on sidebars –> the more money the news source gets). This conversation in particular brings up a lot of anecdotes and discussions among students, especially surrounding targeted advertisements based on web searches, etc.

The Final Video Project

After this activity, I introduce the video project to students. In groups of three, students must come up with their own fake news headline. They must go through the planning process of brainstorming an idea, writing a basic synopsis, writing a script, storyboarding, filming, and oftentimes editing their piece. I encourage creativity throughout this process and have gotten some very elaborate news stories including the following:

  • A Horse Becomes President of the United States
  • A Kindergartner Puts Cockroaches in Trump Tower (You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!)
  • Amber Quits BATV In Dramatic Departure
  • Lack of Funding For State Park Leads To Pop Tart Forest Fire

The students really take this idea and run with it. They also troubleshoot issues that arise in the production process and work on their critical thinking skills. It’s made for a very popular unit among the enrichment programs I’ve worked with.

Design Justices Principles

In terms of the Design Justice Network principles, I feel that I’ve tried to make this project do a good job of meeting several of the principles without even realizing it. For instance, I place great importance on centering the voices of those directly impacted by the design process by giving space for students to not only discuss news-related issues, but also to take ownership over the development of their video. I’ve done this through taking feedback about whether the project is engaging to them, improvements that can be made to it, allowing them space to talk about their thoughts on what they’re being presented with and assisting students to allow their full vision for the video to come to life (i.e. When a group needed me to dramatically speed away in my car after “quitting”, I had no qualms about helping out!). Similarly, I’ve made an effort to view the project through viewing change as emergent from an accountable, accessible, and collaborative process. By having discussions with students about news sources, a mutual learning environment is created. I’ve learned a great deal about what kids deem to be relevant news, how they perceive news systems, and how they feel they might be able to change things. Students learn how to work together to develop this news project as well as learning from concrete examples of misleading news articles. I’ve also altered the project in some cases to make it accessible to the different needs of students I work with (i.e. explaining the project in a different way, working more closely with groups that struggle with the production process, etc.)

As for what I’m lacking with this project, I think I can work on look for what is already working at the community level. Librarians and teachers in the school system are already doing lessons related to how to do research (i.e. look at sources of articles, look at diverse articles, etc.) as well as basic news literacy. It would be great to team up with them and see what is already working in order to better shape my curriculum. Additionally, I think I can improve on incorporating the idea that everyone is an expert based on their own lived experience. Students encounter a slew of news and media every day in a variety of forms. I need to be better about trusting that they are also experts and allowing more flexibility in how I present the topic to them.

Overall, this has been one of my more successful units and I’m excited to improve it for future groups!

Working with Griot Museum to design the Choteau Greenway with Design Justice in mind..

This semester Mallory and I will be working on the Choteau Greenway project in St. Louis.  For this project, we will be partnering with the Griot Museum, a museum that collects, perserves, and shares Black history, stories, and culture using art, artifacts, memorabilia, and life size wax figurines.

As an outsider to St. Louis, I expect that I will need to use the design justice principle of seeing the designer as a facilitator rather than an expert.  I plan to use my inquiry skills to learn from the expertise of the Griot Museum, Mallory as a native St. Louisan, and Mallory’s fellow designers.  By having a learning, facilitator mindset, I think this will also help me make sure that our work is centering the voices of those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of the design process and priotize design’s impact on the community over the intentions of the designer.

I also want this project to use design to sustain, heal, and empower our communities and seek liberation from explotative and oppressive systems. I know this is a lofty goal, and I think that Mallory and I are both excited about the opportunity to use a greenway to break down spatial barriers between people.  Though I am an outsider to St. Louis, I am a member of communities of color and a community that wants to highlight Black history.  I am eager for Mallory and I to think creatively and intentionally about how our design can connect people to the resouces of the Griot Museum and learn to see the power of Black history, culture, and stories.

I think the design justice principle that will be the most challenging for us to continually apply will be remembering that change comes from an accountable, acessible, and collaborative process, rather than a point at the end of the process.  A design for the Choteau Greenway is a concrete final outcome and there will be many stakeholders who will be pushing us to get to that final outcome.

Lisa – thoughts on Design Justic Principles

As I have been studying many interventions around refugees, I have seen a lack of community design approaches. More recently refugee groups are asking NGOs in their space to adopt design principles, which could be transformative.  Current approaches are focused on empowerment, sustainability and are non-exploitative.  I have seen little work noting the healing aspect of the refugee experience. I have overlooked that as well. I find that most interventions when discussing scaling are focused on increased staffing and doing more “for” refugees in the process.  I seldom see frameworks where communities are part of the process. A refugee-designed and –focused process would look very different and could be an opportunity for a more scalable solution.     

Making Policy Public

Making Policy Public

“While the effects of public policies can be widespread, the discussion and understanding of these policies are usually not. CUP’s Making Policy Public (MPP) poster series aims to make information on policy truly public: accessible, meaningful, and shared. We want to create opportunities for advocacy organizations to reach their constituencies better through design and for designers to engage social issues without sacrificing experimentation.”


I collaborated with the Center for Urban Pedagogy and the Public Utility Law Project last year to create a visual guide that teaches New York State’s utility law. People who face hardships in regards to utilities are mostly low-income families that are highly vulnerable. Because many of them are older citizens, they might not have internet access or have difficulties reading small types. My project hasn’t been announced on CUP’s website—I will share it once it does!

The helpful—at times life-saving—utility policies are largely unknown and hidden to the public. Therefore, this project is successful in sustaining, healing, and empowering the constituents (principle #1)—because it educates the public about how to deal with exploitative utility companies and hold them accountable.  As a designer, I also respected the design constraints (i.e. type size, color choices) in order to prioritize design’s impact on the community rather than value my aesthetic preferences (principle #3).

Because PULP is an advocacy group and not a community organization, we didn’t have a community member present in all of our meetings. During our testing sessions, we asked a set of questions to the constituents and reflected their comments on the next iteration but didn’t share design knowledge and tools with them (principle #7). Although it wasn’t part of the process, a research on what is already working within the community (principle #10) would have been insightful—how did people actually communicate with aggressive utility companies? What kind of utility programs or policy was the easiest to understand and implement? In hindsight, these are the type of questions that I wish I had asked.

network principles

Last spring, I was part of a research group that went to a local high school and taught the students computer science principles through digital games. We had created a platform with which they could make their own maze-type levels, and the way the players would get through the levels was by implementing simple code. We also had different versions of the platform that allowed the students to create their own avatars, some of which looked like them and others which did not.

While we taught the students these CS principles and aspects of level design, we also picked their brains regarding how playing avatars based on themselves affected their performance in-game. A lot of them liked to be able to see themselves in their games, especially since they’d never really had the chance to play characters that represented them before.

After we finished interviewing the students, we started designing a curriculum for computer science teachers based on the project we had done. The curriculum is meant to get students interested and engaged in computer science, while also addressing themes of identity representation. We designed the curriculum so we could share the tools we had created with students and teachers all over. We also regarded the students’ responses with importance, so that when designing the curriculum we would be sure to include what they responded well to and downplay what they didn’t.

Even though our subjects were “just” high school students, we recognized that being high school students makes them experts on what students would respond well to and what they would like to learn. These kids had a lot of interesting things to say about playing games where they saw themselves represented, and how that made them eager to do well in-game and learn more about computer science. A lot of them said they’d like to continue finding out more about CS as well as identity representation, and that was pretty cool to hear. 🙂