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Research & Design Strategy

What does equity mean in design?

March 29, 2018

Our world is in flux. We are all aware of this.

As designers, it’s helpful to step back and consider our role in shaping our rapidly emerging future. I came across some work by Stanford d.School - K12 Lab Equity-Centered Design on “Equity Design for Education” and it really struck a chord with me. It resonated because it made me stop and think about how I as an individual can either reinforce our current culture and assumptions or change them. It gave me pause to consider my role, how I impact that structure in ways both small and large.

A few words about d.school’s work I learned that in spring 2016, a group at Stanford started exploring the intersection of design thinking and diversity, inclusion and equity. They reached out to the National Equity Project and equityXdesign to help develop an equity consciousness practice for education.

“Any system produces what it was designed to produce.” Of course, it does. However, this seemingly simple statement has a lot of power when I stopped to think about it in terms of education. What is our education system actually designed to produce? Consumers? Good citizens? Excellent test takers? It also has a lot of power when we stop and think of it in terms of our design work.

What exactly is our design work “producing” not in the material sense but in the social and cultural sense? What systems of thought are we purposefully or unconsciously supporting or undermining? I am quite familiar with the word diversity, but I had to take some time to consider the word equity. How is equity different from diversity?

When I dug into the concept of equity, several definitions came up, but the one that spoke most clearly to me is the following: “Equity means every child receives what they need to develop to their full academic and social potential.” It takes into consideration the individual and how we start in different spots and aim at different directions but should all have the chance to reach our potential.

Any system produces what it was designed to produce.

What makes equity seemingly impossible can be things like active oppression but also (and more difficult to spot) the oppression that is built into the assumptions, expectations and language of our everyday life. How does one even begin to imagine the scope of that or how to effect change? Again, what inspired me about the presentation from the d.school is that they suggest that we as individuals can make a difference and that starts with self-awareness. By being aware of our own biases and baggage, our assumptions and expectations, we can begin to design with fairness and a deeper form of empathy.

I invited my colleagues to a discussion on this topic to see what they thought. Our discussion was far ranging, at times emotional, and overall productive. We discussed that this starts with a personal journey of introspection. Looking at yourself, your situation, assumptions and expectations, and considering how these factors may be shaping one’s world view and thus informing the design work.

We discussed how being aware of and reflecting on the impact of our own beliefs and biases in relationship with/to the people we design for and their context can be practiced throughout the design thinking process. We talked about what might happen if we don’t take these things into consideration.

While we didn’t solve any problems over the course of our conversation, we all learned a lot and have committed to keeping the conversation going. We are endeavoring to build the time to notice our biases, address them, and move beyond them into our process. We will ask ourselves and each other to notice our own identity, values, emotions, biases, and assumptions in order to know what we are thinking and bringing to our work so that we can move forward with greater curiosity.

“All meaningful and lasting change begins on the inside.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

A very heartfelt thanks to the organizations for their great work and inspiration on the topic, especially:

Stanford d. School - David Clifford, Stanford d.school
design school X
National Equity Project
Creative Reaction Lab
Reflex Design Collective
Design Justice

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