Collaborative Book Review: Interview with Prof Sasha Costanza-Chock, author of Design Justice (2020)

R. Baker (interviewer & editor)

Galen Bunting (interviewer)

Nanditha Krishna (editor)

On Jun 12, 2022, HASTAC scholars R. Baker and Galen Bunting met over Zoom with Prof. Sasha Costanza-Chock, to discuss their book Design Justice (2020) .

This interview has been edited for length and clarity (under the guidance of Prof. Costanza-Chock) by HASTAC scholars Nanditha Krishna and R Baker 

Follow Sasha Costanza-Chock @schock , and the Design Justice Network @design_justice

Galen Bunting: You begin the book with a personal anecdote, about navigating security theater as a trans femme person–that is, how the actual design of the millimeter wave scanner that travelers pass through at the airport obstructs people across both ability and gender, especially gender non-conforming people, or those with disability status. You use this opening to lay out the ten principles for practicing Design Justice. What are some other instances where Design Justice might be of use?

Sasha Costanza-Chock: Thanks so much for inviting me to the interview. I’m really excited to have this conversation!

The ten principles of the Design Justice network that I talk about in the introduction, after I share my experience with airport security – those principles come from the Design Justice network community of practitioners. So those aren’t principles that I wrote personally; those were co-created by many people over a period of several years, from 2015 through 2018, and they continue today as a living document. Those principles continue to evolve, so I think it’s important to clarify that the principles come from that community of practice–in terms of both where those principles are showing up and how people are activating them. It’s extremely exciting how many different types of fields and subfields where I see people are using those principles now.

For example, there are nurse practitioners and public health practitioners applying a Design Justice lens to health and caregiving. They wrote a paper about applying Design Justice principles in medical device and service innovation, by looking at what nurse practitioners and patients are doing, as they often co-design improvements. Classically, most research funding, money, and credibility to do medical innovation is going to doctors. But–because of historical, intersecting forms of inequality–doctors are more likely to be white cis men than anything else, whereas for nurses and nurse practitioners, it’s much more diverse. Nurses, and other types of subordinated medical care workers, actually have the most contact with patients, and people in need of care. So they are, in some ways, more likely to be able to innovate at  the point of care and contact. There’s actually a whole history of nurse innovation, and some of that is being recovered now.

Another example: There’s a working group within the network which is called “Principles at Work” and it’s created by people who work inside highly professionalized Big Tech companies in various places, especially in the Bay Area. They’re all trying to talk together, and think and learn together about how you can apply these principles in that context. So people are making their living, they’re doing design work, but their personal values may be deeply non-aligned with the values of the firms that they’re working at. So they are exploring what are different strategies and approaches to try, to push to incorporate at least some of the principles and learnings from the Design Justice Network. They have a zine that they’re going to publish soon, about applying the Design Justice principles in daily life inside tech companies.

I’ll give one more, just so that we have three examples. The Design Justice Network does a monthly session, a member highlight session, where we interview or call attention to the work of different members. There was a really cool highlight on a member named Leila Sidi and the company they created, TunaTone Instruments. Leila is a luthier, a guitar maker, and was looking at how the “Big Guitar” industry has a highly standardized scale, size, materials, and production process–all built around normative assumptions about certain types of bodies, all standardized decades ago. But for people with non-normative bodies–or even just smaller body types in general–often the only thing available is guitars made and marketed for children, often created with less expensive materials and less high-quality craftsmanship. So TunaTone, inspired by the Design Justice principles, crafts instruments for other types of bodies–but with great attention to care, detail, and materials.

So, I really think these principles can and are already being applied across many different fields.

R Baker: It seems to me that a lot of humility is involved in the Design Justice principles and perspectives–I’m using “humility” here to mean the acknowledgement that neither you nor your work stands alone. The Design Justice principles are explicit in their acknowledgement of the deep web of relations between design, community-centered praxis, infrastructure, and social justice in all its forms. They also push against the neoliberal fable of a hyper-efficient, “one size fits all” design model. It seems like a fundamental queering of design thinking, which can often be–for lack of a better term–very “dude bro”.

Sasha Costanza-Chock: I agree, and I would go even further with that, because the Design Justice Network principles were crafted by people who don’t all identify as designers. At the original workshops at the Allied Media Conference–where the principles were drafted, reworked, revised, and then eventually published in their current form–there have always been people involved from various professions and fields. There are some who do identify as designers–whether it’s graphic design or user interface design–but there have also been architects and urban planners involved from the beginning. And there have always been people who don’t identify with any of those professions: for example, community organizers who interface with designers in different moments of the work they’re doing, or artists and cultural workers who don’t necessarily identify with “design” and “design fields”; many members are either design-adjacent, or not even in design at all!

But, having had to deal with people–“dude bro-ey” designers especially–coming in and making a mess of things, wanting to establish a space, a playing field and a conversation, we realized how the things that “professional design” imagined itself to be doing includes a lot of stuff that 1) everyday people do all the time anyway–they just don’t get visibility, credit, or money for it, and 2) that for those who do identify as designers, or as experts in the field, that there can be a different relationship between what counts as “expertise”. For example, maybe I studied for years about how to craft really wonderful user interface design in a mobile application, and I have that particular skill set and expertise. But the community-based organization that I’m working with also has deep expertise, in many other things–including the daily context and desires of the community and the assets they already have, which are both crucial and fundamental to making a successful project together. There is no reason why the types of expertise that I might carry, as a professionalized designer, are the most important. In fact, in many instances that’s going to be the least important element of a good outcome, which includes a process that feels good to everybody involved, as well as whatever tangible object or project comes out the other side.

R Baker: Just to follow up on this a little bit: one of the really salient arguments in your book is that, although design justice–and design in general–certainly draws on technological advances, materials, specialized skills, etc, it is primarily a social issue. In other words, you seem to be arguing that the real challenges faced by design justice lay in changing minds, in centering marginalized voices, and in rearranging extant structures of power. Long-term change, changing communities, is slower and less “efficient” than shiny new technologies, but is absolutely necessary to the principles of design justice. Can you speak to this?  

Sasha Costanza-Chock: Yes–the book is kind of an extended meditation on the relationship between design, design theory and practices, and an understanding of power inequality, oppression and resistance. It’s grounded in Patricia Hill’s concept of the “matrix of domination”, from her text Black Feminist Thought (1990). Hill talks about the matrix of domination as a way to conceptualize the interlocking and mutually constitutive axes of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism. So we kind of can imagine this space or field, with multi-dimensional axes–sometimes I even imagine it even as a sort of geometric shape–and individuals and institutions sit at different locations within that field. And then various privileges and penalties, or benefits and burdens, flow towards or away from us depending on our location within that multi-axial field. This matrix can be extended to consider other axes of structural and historical inequality–so we could extend it to talk about ableism, for example–or we could extend Hill’s discussion of “patriarchy” to talk about heteropatriarchy, cis normativity, and so forth.

So in Design Justice, I’m thinking about how we can relate this concept to the way we’re thinking about the design of systems, interfaces, objects, and built environments. The affordances and disaffordances of the things we make often reinforce the existing matrix of domination, unless we’re intentional about trying to restructure it. Going back to your idea of “queering all the things”: I wouldn’t say that I’m more interested in the social versus the technical, or relationships versus objects. I would queer those boundaries and distinctions too. I’d say I’m interested in how the social, the structural, the relational is always shaping, constraining, and guiding the ways that we create objects, interfaces, and the built environment–and vice versa. Platforms, interfaces, and environments are always shaping, constraining, and shifting our experiences–often in ways that reproduce the matrix of domination. But we could–if we so choose–do things differently. In choosing the affordances of objects and interfaces, we can always be attending to the ways they can to shift, dismantle, and reshape power inequalities, rather than just automatically reproduce them–which is what happens when we don’t pay attention.

Galen Bunting: You establish Design Justice as a living document. Given that your work is informed by Participatory Action Research and codesign, how and why did you make the choice to designate the book as a living document, and how did it impact the writing choices you made along the way? 

Sasha Costanza-Chock: I think of the Design Justice Network principles as a living document–those are evolving, and we revisit them as a network and modify them as we go. The book itself–it’s interesting, because on the one hand there is the text, there’s this physical object [holds up book] which is somewhat static. You can update books by making new editions, of course, but a book is pretty much a fixed text. But at the same time, there’s the open access version. I had a great experience with MIT Press–from the very beginning of this project, I told them that I really wanted there to be a “gold open access” version of this, meaning that the full text is freely available. I had been down that path once before with my first book, Out of the Shadows and into the Streets: Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement (2014), which is also open access. I think that it was the second open access book ever published by MIT press–after Peter Suber’s book, Open Access (2012)–so that one took some more convincing! But in the time period over the last decade, many academic presses have become more open to the idea of publishing OA versions of texts, so it was easy to get them to agree.

What is nice about that is that each of the chapters appears as its own text on the OA platform, and I can edit them as necessary. Over the two years since Design Justice was published, people have commented and found some minor errors, and I’ve been able to update those and then publish new versions on a chapter-by-chapter basis. For example, Chapter Two is most likely going to be reprinted in an upcoming edited collection about feminist AI, from Cambridge University. And in the process of editing it down to fit  into that new volume, we found an issue with my citations of Alison Kafer’s really phenomenal book on disability justice, Feminist, Queer, Crip (2013). It was cited multiple times in the footnotes, and also described in detail in my text, but then in the “References” section, the full reference didn’t appear! So I added that yesterday, and republished it with a comment. Whereas in a previous moment in publishing history, we would have had to wait for a full new edition of the book to make that modification.

That said, I don’t have plans to write new chapters of the book, or make major revisions to the argument and republish them, so in that sense I don’t think that the Design Justice  book  is really a fully living document. But the Design Justice Network principles certainly are.

Galen Bunting:  I think it’s also still kind of controversial, within academic presses, to have OA work–even if it’s a peer-reviewed work, even if it’s still within the umbrella of the academy. But making it open access was very useful; for example, it made it really easy for me, as a reviewer, to go through and search for exactly what I was looking for. I’ll often lose my place on a physical page in the way that I don’t on a web page. More of a comment than a question, sorry!

Sasha Costanza-Chock: No, absolutely! I have really strong feelings about open access. On the one hand: yes, we need to find ways to ensure that people who are doing different types of intellectual and creative labor are compensated. If we’re talking about academic publishing, the theory is that people are being “paid” to do the writing with faculty and staff positions. Because you’re not writing a scholarly text hoping to make enough money off of its publication to live on.

But I think that theory starts to really break down if we talk about the larger trends within the academy: the elimination of full-time and tenured positions, and the massive amounts of underpaid labor that graduate students and postdocs are increasingly expected to perform.  There’s a lot of things that are broken about that whole model. So when you’re thinking about how to fix this overall model, to me certain things would be non-negotiable; one of those would be my fundamental belief that scholarly publication, especially, should–as far as possible, as much as possible–default to open access. That’s the way, ideally, we would like ideas to live, move, circulate, and respond to one another.

So if we take that as a kind of axiom, that these things should be OA, now let’s figure out the different ways we can ensure that people who are producing writing–and also doing the labor of editing and reviewing–how are we making sure that people are getting their access needs met, and getting the care and resources they need to live decent lives in the meantime?

Galen Bunting: Talking about open access: we talk about gatekeeping as a metaphor, as a form of “lack of accessibility”. But I think it is very literal too, in this sense. Who gets access to publications, who can use those publications? And also, who is allowed to even enter the academy, in general? I think that question is very salient to the book as a whole.

Sasha Costanza-Chock: That points to another one of the reasons I think that the book has been successful; it’s definitely traveled more widely than my wildest dreams when I first published it, for sure! I’m embedded in a whole network of people who are interested in this stuff, and the conversation has been unfolding and developing for some time. There was a lot of critique surrounding ideas about “design for good” and “human-centered design”, and lots of standard design frameworks that were developed pretty solidly with a neoliberal lens. I think Design Justice really came out of conversations and practices for many people who were asking, “design for good, what does that really mean? Design for whose good? What is the process? How is this going to impact people, especially people who are most marginalized by the matrix of domination?” The conversation was already bubbling before the book came out, so I think it hit an audience that was really receptive to it.

But I will also say that pushing to make sure that it was OA helped a lot– I also paid a lot of attention to trying to make the language accessible. By that, I mean in moments in the text where I talk about complicated concepts, or specific terminology that’s used within scholarly or practitioner communities, I tried to define my terms clearly, in plain language. And a lot of people have written to me about that, saying thank you. That was intentional; I’m not trying to write a text that will only be readable by people with PhDs.

R Baker: I’d like to follow up a bit on a point you keep coming back to, with regard to social justice–including educational justice, technology justice, design justice, everything. In various ways, you’ve been talking about how all of these are deeply interconnected. With that in mind, I wonder if you could speak more to the necessity of coalition building between different groups, who perhaps have different goals? 

For example, you talk about how some design trade-offs are inevitable, but others are simply unacceptable. How can design justice practitioners enact community design that truly challenges systems of power, but also focuses on pragmatic results?

Sasha Costanza-Chock: I think a good design process is kind of like a dance: between all the directions a thing could go, at any given moment, and the necessity of narrowing back down, of considering, “which version of these many possibilities are we going to actually create?”. You also find this in standard design theory: the “double triangle” model where you start broad, then you narrow down and create your first prototype, then you broaden out again, and so on. What a design justice framework adds to this is an additional layer of thoughtfulness and questioning. It asks, “if we go this direction, versus that direction, who are we privileging most? And is that what we want to be doing?” Of course, a design justice approach never gets us to a “perfect” design. There’s no object we can make that’s just going to single-handedly dismantle the matrix of domination! But the objects that we make can reflect or challenge that matrix in certain ways, and design justice approaches are saying that spending the extra time and effort in doing so is worthwhile.

In terms of  building coalitions and collaborations: Different organizations and communities are working with different sets of issues, from within particular  locations, or identities. When different groups are working together, it’s unlikely that everyone’s interests and desires are going to be aligned. But we may have something that hits our Venn diagram. So I think of coalitional politics, and more formal coalitional practices: like signing on, together, to a set of  strategies and goals–things everyone agrees that they want to advance through this project. People who identify as designers have specific skill sets and professional knowledge; good design justice process means mutual, clear communication, in order to come together with community-based organizations or social movements in a meaningful way.

I actually encourage people to create and sign agreements beforehand, that clearly lay out the thing we’re working on together, the structure of our design process, how long we have, the resources we have, who is going to attend meetings, who is responsible for making decisions, how this thing is going to operate, and what’s going to happen with the outcome–like who’s going to own it, and who will maintain it. And when we tell the story of this product: how will we describe the process, and who will we include in that story? In my experience, a document that describes all those things–in plain language–that people can write and edit together, then agree on and sign together, can actually really help structure and clarify a design process–which means it’s more likely to have a good outcome.

R Baker: That’s a great idea for pedagogy, too– like with group projects in the classroom!

Sasha Costanza-Chock: Yes–in the context of pedagogy, and my role as an academic faculty member teaching a collaborative design studio–which I taught for many years, and I talk about this in the “Design Pedagogies” chapter–I think scaffolding is really helpful. I had a template MoU [memorandum of understanding], or working agreement, that I would give to student teams at the beginning of a semester to work on together with their community design partner. So I wouldn’t just ask them, “you need to go make an agreement”,– I actually provided a template, with all the kinds of things to consider. I’d tell them that they didn’t have to use it, but that other people have found it helpful, and that they could modify it as necessary–you could add new categories, for example. But I think having a starting place can really be helpful, especially in a learning environment.

Galen Bunting: Your concluding chapter points in promising directions, with movements like #techwontbuildit: where employees from Big Tech companies–like Google and Microsoft–lobbied their employers successfully to drop contracts from the Department of Defense (DoD) and ICE (Immigrations & Customs Enforcement). But you also make it clear that movements like these, while important, don’t address the much wider, ongoing issues with Big Tech: constant surveillance, data brokering, algorithmic bias, etc. What do you think can be done to promote inclusivity in Big Tech, where the rules are made in the interest of profit and competition above all? How does democratizing tech happen practically, given these very toxic waters that we’re swimming in?

Sasha Costanza-Chock: In terms of inclusivity inside Big Tech–which I also talk about in the book–neoliberalism is fine with certain forms of inclusion, partially because there’s lots of managerial literature on how “diverse product teams” make firms more profitable. So on the one hand, you have all this management literature that says, “we need more women, people of color, queer and trans people, and neurodivergent people inside our companies! Because that makes our companies more innovative, better at coming up with products that will appeal to broader segments of society. So we’ll be a better company–and beat our competitors–if we can successfully incorporate multiple kinds of people  into our firm”. All this is aligned, of course, towards the goal of capitalist profitability.

So, there’s the rhetoric, and then there’s the reality: which is that Big Tech, year after year, continues to be a pretty homogeneous space. The numbers don’t move that much, in terms of  women, and people of color, and Disabled folks–and heaven forbid, for anyone at intersections!–being able to actually move up the corporate ladders, and make the changes that we would really need for those spaces to truly become more accessible and inclusive–even according to the criteria of neoliberal multicultural diversity.So that’s a battle, and I do think it’s an important one. I’m not opposed to diversity, of course–-though what that word actually means is a whole other discussion–and I do think that a more diverse Big Tech space would be better than a homogeneous Big Tech space. But I also don’t think it gets us to collective liberation and ecological sustainability. We could very easily imagine a world where Big Tech does a good job at becoming “diverse”, but continues with its same goals, and the planet is destroyed and we all die, right? And that’s not acceptable.

So the bigger challenge is: how do we get out of the deep bind that we’re in, having constructed an entire global economic system that is devastating ecologies, devastating the possibility of non-human and human life on planet Earth, at this point, just a few generations out into the future? And so I think diversity is a good goal, but it also won’t get us there on its own. It’s only part of the puzzle, alongside other sets of things happening now: including worker power inside the Big Tech companies, organizing for better working conditions and better pay, along with professional respect–fewer divisions between the contractors and elite programmers, for example. We’re at a very exciting moment right now, because there’s tons of organizing happening. There’s the Alphabet Workers Union, there’s Amazon warehouse workers organizing. The #MeToo movement has had a big impact inside many of these spaces as well. I certainly support workers organizing inside these firms–both so that everyday people, under the existing system of globalized capitalism, can survive and live better, healthier lives, but also because organized labor constitutes a potential power base that can push back against the worst impulses of the executives. This includes the examples you mentioned, of workers successfully organizing to get their companies to drop some of the worst contracts, which would have required them to help build the most unethical and oppressive types of systems.

But in order to rein in the power of the tech industry more broadly, tech workers can’t do it alone. That’s a bigger social movement: the question of breaking up monopolies, and de-privatizing certain aspects of the net. Actually I’m reading this book, Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future (2022) by Ben Tarnoff, which I highly recommend. It’s an extended discussion about the need to think about the Internet and its various layers–-the stack–as a public good, as something that was built with public money, yet was intentionally privatized at almost every layer–and that could be reversed, if we made the decision. Basically, he’s arguing that the general conversation we’re having, about the evils of Big Tech, can’t be addressed unless we also address the question of de-privatization.

Galen Bunting: We’re almost out of time, so just one more question: What suggestions would you offer early career academics–graduate students, people who are just entering the workforce of academia–who want to work on collaborative research projects, or within working groups and communities such as the Design Justice Network?

Sasha Costanza-Chock: I would say get connected to locally based organizations, whose values and mission align with your own. And show up–initially, just to listen and learn. What is the work, what has been going on, and what’s needed? You have a particular set of skills that are extremely valuable–and it doesn’t make you the most important person in the room!–but it’s extremely valuable to be able to do research and synthesis, writing and public speaking, and these are all skills that we learn in the academy. Those can be a real asset to social movements, and to community-based organizations. And so I think it’s great to show up, both with that humility, and also with a knowledge of the value and worth that you’re bringing. And then figure out what’s really needed–rather than just showing up and declaring, “here’s my research question, let me research your community,” or “let me use your organization”. That’s not an approach that I recommend. I’ve certainly had this experience.

Even though there’s a certain discourse, saying the way you should do research is you show up with your research agenda and then you extract–-although it might not be phrased in exactly that way–there’s also a sub-discourse, saying that if you don’t do that your work won’t be taken seriously, and won’t be valued. But in my experience, both personally and within networks of people I’ve seen, there is incredible value in more just partnerships with social movement organizations and community-based organizations. These values are also more likely to align with the values of social justice. And honestly, that approach also tends to produce work that is very valued by the academy. Because things can happen in that type of relationship, which don’t happen otherwise: understandings of the world and how it operates, frameworks and theoretical innovations, experiences. Those things are all very deep and powerful within community spaces, but they may not get as much visibility or lifted up as much as the types of knowledge produced through academic networks and spaces. But if you can become something of a translator between those different types of knowledge, different ways of seeing and knowing the world, there’s a lot of value, potentially, for both.

So I would say follow your heart and your gut and your values, and partner with organizations that you really believe in. And then work together to develop knowledge and understanding,  synthesis and work that will actually be useful for people “on the ground”–and it will be phenomenally interesting and important in academic networks as well.