Systems of Oppression Are Designed: Reflections on Harvard’s Black in Design 2017

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Systems of oppression, injustices, and inequities are designed.

Black in Design Harvard 2017

I already spend a lot of time thinking about design and just how many fields intersect with design. This slide from Antoinette Carroll’s presentation on building an equity movement reminds me that every decision, every feature of every object and system is the direct result of a series of design decisions.

I first attended Black in Design in 2015, shortly after graduating from Northeastern University in Boston. I had spent time in professional design spaces through internships, but I had already started to become somewhat disillusioned with what kind of change designers could really affect. We all love to talk about how design can change the world, yet many of my peers spent their time quibbling over typefaces and alignment and doing design work for Facebook and Apple and Disney—people who didn’t really need it.

Human-centered design isn’t enough, she says, and it rings true. Carroll, founder of the Creative Reaction Lab, was followed by Sharon E. Sutton who has worked for decades as a professor, author, architect and printmaker. She spoke to her experiences in urban planning: You can’t just host a town hall and hope the right people show up; if it’s at 8 in the morning people who take their kids to school won’t come. If it’s in the afternoon or evening, service workers won’t be able to come. It’s far more effective to go to them. This seems like an obvious solution on paper, but as is so often the case in design, the most inevitable solutions are never as simple as they seem.

Looking over my tweets in the airport while I waited to board my flight home, I realized about half of them are questions, and I don’t feel like I really got answers to all of them. There was definitely an air of pessimism throughout the conference—questions like, “how do you stay optimistic?” abounded, and of course there are no easy answers to any of these questions. But it was also an incredibly inspiring space to be in. I feel overwhelmingly grateful that such a conference exists, that hundreds of people gathered to have these discussions and are out there doing the work that needs doing. 

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