What is ‘Design Justice’? Notes on Costanza-Chock (2020)


The idea of ‘design justice’ has become a regular feature of socially-minded discussions of technology development. In practical terms, the ‘Design Justice’ Network formed in 2015 as a community of like-minded design practitioners, community organisations and tech-facing institutions. Now, to complement these activities, Costanza-Chock’s (2020) book for MIT Press lays out the principles, ideas and commitments underpinning the design justice approach– detailing the central tenets of an analytical framework that chimes with the DSS project’s interest in re-imagining the presence of data-driven digital technologies in schools and other educational settings.

The book addresses a series of questions about the design of sociotechnical objects and systems – from the values that get encoded and reproduced in design processes, through to fundamental questions of how design problems get framed, and who gets to design for them. Running throughout these discussions are two core beliefs relating to inclusive and active participation. First, is the assertion that “those who are directly affected by the issues a project aims to address must be at the centre of the design process” (p.7). Second is the ethos that “absolutely anyone can participate meaningfully in design” (p.7). To illustrate this latter point, Costanza-Chock evokes Victor Papenek’s (1972) definition of design as “the conscious effort to impose a meaningful order”. Seen along these lines, then, design is clearly something that everyone does as part of their everyday lives. As such, there is no reason that people cannot engage in the (re)design of the emerging sociotechnical systems in their lives.

Basic definitions and principles

The book starts with a basic initial definition – i.e. “Design justice rethinks design processes, centres people who are normally marginalized by design, and uses collaborative, creative practices to address the deepest challenges our communities face”. This is then expanded into the following ten collective principles ….

  • We use design to sustain, heal, and empower our communities, as well as to seek liberation from exploitative and oppressive systems.
  • We centre the voices of those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of the design process.
  • We prioritize design’s impact on the community over the intentions of the designer.
  • We view change as emergent from an accountable, accessible, and collaborative process, rather than as a point at the end of a process.
  • We see the role of the designer as a facilitator rather than an expert.
  • 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.
  • We share design knowledge and tools with our communities.
  • We work towards sustainable, community-led and -controlled outcomes.
  • We work towards non-exploitative solutions that reconnect us to the earth and to each other.
  • Before seeking new design solutions, we look for what is already working at the community level. We honour and uplift traditional, indigenous, and local knowledge and practices.

Intellectual precedents and guiding ideas

Running throughout these design justice principles is the ambition to reimagine design along explicitly justice-orientated lines. As such, there are clear correspondences with Costanza-Chock’s own background in Participatory Action Research and the Scandinavian tradition of Co-Design – both of which emphasise the need to position design as taking place within communities of shared inquiry and action

Nevertheless, ‘Design Justice’ is distinct in also taking its lead from Black feminist thinking. This includes ideas of intersectionality – foregrounding the idea of gender, race, class and disability as interlocking systems. In other words, these are not categories that operate independently, but are experienced in conjunction with each other by individuals and groups who exist at their intersections. As such, Costanza-Chock contends that designing an object along non-intersectional lines that focus on ‘single-axis’ conceptualisations of ‘fairness’ is not good enough. For example, designing a system solely in response to concerns over gender equity is unlikely to benefit all women. Instead, gender needs to be approached as one of many elements in a ‘matrix of domination’. In other words, gender interlocks with other systems of oppression (such as race and class), prompting different women to experience different forms of benefit/harm from a sociotechnical object or system depending on their location within this matrix.

Design justice also draws on Black feminist ideas of ‘situated knowledge’. This stipulates that any efforts to design for particular intersectionalities needs to draw on the insights about power and oppression that come from those who occupy the same subjugated standpoints. In short, only those with lived experience of their particular positionality will have genuine insights into how oppression is experienced on the levels of personal biography, group/community, and the systemic level of oppressive social institutions. These experiences and insights need to be a central element of the design process.

In this sense, design justice clearly follows on from long-standing debates in the field of disability justice around inclusive and respectful design. Indeed, throughout the book, Costanza-Chock evokes disability justice slogans such as  ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ and the advocacy slogan “If You’re Not At The Table, You’re On The Menu” (p.84). As such, Costanza-Chock duly acknowledges design justice’s precedents in previous traditions of ‘value-sensitive design’, ‘universal design’ and ‘inclusive design’. For example, the universal design ambition for making designs accessible to the widest possible set of potential users raises the idea of deliberately designing for those who are currently systematically disadvantaged within the matrix of domination. This raises the idea of designing explicitly for people who might otherwise be deemed in conventional design practice as ‘edge cases’, and seeking to shift advantage by prioritising the needs of the usually marginalised. Similarly, the tradition of ‘inclusive design’ also explicitly recognises that user experience is shaped by specific context. This pushes for the design of products that are sensitive and responsive to the diversity of their users – e.g. in terms of ability, language, culture, gender and age – rather than expecting each individual to fit the requirements of the system. As the inclusive design mantra puts it, design needs to start from the expectation that perhaps only “one size will fit one” as opposed to “one size fits all”.

Issues & Challenges Raised

The design justice approach is intentionally provocative – raising a number of questions and advocating for a radical divergence away from how many designers might conceive the purpose and role of their work. In taking these ideas forward, the following issues recur throughout Costanza-Chock’s discussions:

i.  Design Justice is not ‘blaming’ designers … but challenging them to rethink the outcomes of their work

First, it is important not to see design justice as blaming designers and prevailing design cultures. The starting point of the book is undeniably blunt: i.e. that the technology that we make “too often contributes to the reproduction of systemic oppression” (p.xvii). Yet, this is not to accuse designers of deliberately setting out with intent to systematically exclude or disadvantage already marginalised groups. As Costanza-Chock stresses, many designers undoubtedly consider themselves as liberal (if not left-learning) citizens, well-aware of social justice imperatives, and perhaps even an ally to marginalised groups. These are not people that set out to design biased, unfair and disadvantaging systems. Nevertheless, the fact remains that technology design is often beset by unconscious bias –reproducing norms, majority opinions, ideal types, ‘average’ users, and standardisations. This is especially the case when the primary consumer of a technology is the institution rather than the individuals within in. As Costanza-Chock puts it: “larger systems – including norms, values, and assumptions – are encoded in and reproduced through the design of sociotechnical systems” (p.4).

This slippage is illustrated if we unpack the popular idea of technology ‘affordances’ – i.e. what a technology is seen to allow users to achieve. Take for instance, the claim that a ‘Chat’ feature affords student/teacher communication, or that a ‘Shared Document’ platform affords collaborative co-writing of text. From a design justice point of view, these presumed affordances are not universally experienced, but depend on each person’s circumstances and context. As such, Costanza-Chock reminds us that the design of any presumed ‘affordance’ needs to be seen in terms of ‘affordance perceptibility’ and ‘affordance availability’. This first notion of  ‘perceptibility’ relates to the issue of whether the user can literally see, hear and/or decode what the technology is offering. Is text visible to different forms of sightedness, or written in a script that the user can decode?  Similarly, affordance ‘availability’ raises the issue that many digital objects are not equally available to all. 

Crucially, Costanza-Chock also goes onto raise the converse notion of ‘disaffordances’ (where the design of an object actively prevents some users from doing something), and ‘dysaffordances’ (where some users have to mis-identify themselves in order to engage with an object). Think of a non-binary person having to ‘choose’ a binary gender in order to progress through an interface. All of these disadvantages, micro-aggressions and exclusionary features might not be deliberately designed into technologies, but  are nevertheless prevalent throughout the digital landscapes that we encounter during our day-to-day lives.

ii.  Design Justice is primarily a process of community organising

Another key characteristic of the design justice approach is the emphasis placed on working with community groups, activists and others involved in already tackling the issues to which any technosocial object is being designed to address. Costanza-Chock starts by reasoning that any designer is very unlikely to be the first person to have identified a problem. On the contrary, where-ever there is a problem then there is likely to be people already acting on it in some fashion. The key starting-point for any design intervention, therefore, is engaging with these pre-existing actions and working to develop a rich understanding of what people are already doing. This is especially important in terms of identifying likely forms of contextually-appropriate technology use. Costanza-Chock makes the point that many effective forms of new technologies and technology-based practices are first imagined and initiated within marginalised communities, activist groups and other social movement networks. Paying attention to how people have already developed technology products and practices ‘on the ground’ is therefore crucial.

In this sense, Costanza-Chock stresses the point that a large part of design justice is community organising. This does not simply involve designers seeking to work with individuals in various ‘participatory’ roles. In contrast, “design justice practitioners choose to work in solidarity with and amplify the power of community-based organisations” (p.91). This requires designers to be prepared to give away power during all stages of the co-design process – to partner with community actors and concede power while doing so. This might involve handing over responsibilities for convening the group, choosing who participates, structuring the work, and making other key decisions along the way.

iii.  Design Justice should always look to build on existing subaltern uses of technology

One benefit of working with community organisations, social movements and local activists is the opportunity to explore resistant, subversive and oppositional forms of technology appropriation. As Costanza-Chock puts it, ‘Resistance Is Fertile’. Technological innovation can often arise from the ways in which lay-people ‘misuse’ systems, appropriate technologies for alternate purposes, and generally bend the rules and expectations of how technologies can be used. As such, “those whose needs have long been marginalised within the matrix of domination have a strong information advantage when it comes to anticipating those needs and developing possible solutions” (p.111)

That said, it is important for designers to enter into any exchanges of knowledge and ideas in an ethical and respectful manner. Design justice is not a case of designers looking to appropriate, ‘borrow’ or steal ideas. Instead, design justice involves designers working with marginalised design practices, attributing fairly and collaborating with lay-people as  genuine co-designers and co-owners. Technology design has a shameful history of co-opting resistant practices and stripping them of their political intent (as has been the case with the mainstream adoption of hackathons, hacklabs and maker spaces). Instead, designers should strive to support existing ideals of grassroots innovation, convivial tools, alt-tech and other existing forms of locally-relevant and “socially useful production”. As Costanza-Chock concludes: “The most valuable ingredient in design justice is the full inclusion of, accountability to, and control by people with direct lived experience of the conditions designers claim they are trying to change” (p.25).

iv.  Design Justice requires designers to call oppression out, rather than ignoring its existence

Finally, design justice compels designers to explicitly acknowledge and work to counter collective disadvantage and discrimination. This requires designers to move away from any temptation to adopt an approach that deliberately sets out to ignore issues – as is the case with ‘colour-blind’ or ‘gender-blind’ design, or buying into the logic of ‘individualised equality’ or ‘symmetrical treatment’. In contract, design justice is not aiming to somehow eliminate bias and unfairness, but actively and intentionally address it. As Costanza-Chock puts it, “racial hierarchies can only be dismantled by actively antiracist system design, not by pretending they don’t exist” (p.62).

This suggests that designers should foster deliberately antagonistic relationships with issues of equity and equality. Rather than striving to treat all users as equal, and attempting to erase difference and deny discrimination, designers need to explicitly identify disadvantage and oppression, call it out and act upon it. This requires designers to actively address issues of marginalisation and oppression in their designs:

“Regardless of the design domain, design justice explicitly urges designers to adopt social justice values, to work against the unequal distribution of design’s benefits and burdens, and to attempt to understand and counter white supremacy, cishetropatriarchy, capitalism, ablism, and settler colonialism” (p.68)

Implications for ed-tech designers

All these issues and ideas imply a number of practical shifts in how the design of new technologies is approached. As far as designers and developers of educational technologies are concerned, taking on the design justice approach implies deliberately refocusing their practices and work processes. This includes diversifying who gets to ‘do’ design within an ed-tech design team, who is involved in ‘participatory’ practices, who is featured in any user stories and narratives, and the diversity of any presumed ‘user personas’. This implies ed-tech designers spending more time developing intersectional user narratives, intersectional testing approaches, benchmarks and impact assessments. All told, design justice implies taking a slower, more circumspect and self-aware approach to all phases of the ed-tech design process. This is the opposite to the sociopathic compulsion within some sectors of the tech industry to ‘move fast, and break things’.

In this sense, design justice calls for more humility and less hubris amongst ed-tech design communities. This implies designers distancing themselves from the self-styled notion of coming into an educational context to ‘solve’ problems – what Costanza-Chock describes as a ‘Design Saviour’ mentality. Instead, designers need to see their work as just one component in a community’s ongoing ‘cycle of struggles’ (p.231). At the same time, design justice also implies that ed-tech designers actively embrace a radical set of aims and intentions – looking beyond goals of producing ‘inclusive’ or ‘fair’ ed-tech, and instead pursuing aims of technology that supports increased justice, autonomy and sovereignty for marginalised groups. Perhaps the most radical conclusion that design justice principles will sometimes lead to is making the decision to not design the technology at all. Evoking the #TechWontBuildIt movement that has sprung up amongst US tech workers, Costanza-Chock reminds us that “there are many cases where a design justice analysis asks us not to make systems more inclusive, but to refuse to design them at all” (p.19). These are all ideas that are not commonly expressed in ed-tech circles to date. In this sense, design justice implies a significant shift in mindset for everyone involved in designing, developing, producing and procuring emerging technologies in education.


Despite its strident appearance, design justice does not offer a neat treatise or set of solutions. Costanza-Chock is at pains to point out that design justice is an ongoing process rather than a prescription – raising questions, and pointing us in different directions rather than explicitly instructing people how to do design better. As ever, it is important to acknowledge that there are limitations to any approach. For example, design justice might be criticised for perpetuating a belief that ‘design can save us’. These are all issues and injustices that we need to learn to work around, mitigate, and minimise. Institutional racism, patriarchy and transphobia are struggles that cannot be completely overcome and ‘won’ through better design – socially-minded designers can never compensate fully for the horrors of contemporary society. As Ruha Benjamin (2019, p.175) writes, there is always a risk that ‘justice’ will be co-opted to legitimise “dominant notions of design as a universal good. I wonder how justice itself might be altered by its proximity to design as a buzzword and brand”.

Nevertheless, design justice certainly constitutes a useful rejoinder to the bleak analyses of technology that critical ed-tech studies can sometimes engender. It offers a ready way into thinking about how to disrupt the cycle of ed-tech working mainly to reinforce interlocking systems of structural inequality. It prompts us to take seriously “the relationship between design and power” (p.xvii), the ways in which ed-tech artefacts ‘have politics’ and are encoded with values, as well as the narrow ways, places and paradigms in which ed-tech products are conceived and developed. Perhaps the central message in the book is that good technology design is primarily a matter of social innovation – developing new communal formations and genuinely participatory processes within which different forms of interaction, mutual learning and innovation can occur. 

Design justice certainly raises questions for our own research interests in exploring the extent to which compulsory schooling can ever be a fertile setting within which to pursue genuinely participatory design interventions. Compulsory schooling (and, in particular, the use of data-driven technologies within schools) is not a context that readily lends itself to redistributive action and active advancement of marginalised interests. Yet, this is not to say that we should not continue to try. Design justice certainly gives us a set of ideas and ideals to aim for. Whether we get there or not remains to be seen.


Benjamin, R.  (2019).  Race after technology. Polity

Costanza-Chock, S.  (2020)  Design justice: community-led practices to build the worlds we need.  MIT Press

Papanek, V.  (1972)  Design for the real world: human ecology and social change. Thames & Hudson