Design Justice by Sasha Costanza-Chock

The excerpts from Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice were many things at once for me as I read them-- informative, thought-provoking, and at times overwhelming. I appreciated the aspect of intentionality brought up at several instances. My impression of this concept was that the aspect of intentionality in design can help determine how to approach design justice. How do we determine the frame and scope of a design problem? Who can determine the problem and solution? I appreciate the idea of a “bias audit” (p. 63). The overwhelming aspect in thinking about design justice was, for me, thinking how to possibly account for and respect every perspective, need, and potential preference in design. My instinct would agree with Reinecke and Bernstein, that “it is not possible to design a single interface that appeals to all users” when it comes to a tech interface. As noted in this case, I would think that the best possibility for design is tending towards design that is sufficiently nimble and flexible that it can be adapted and altered given user feedback.

What about physical design construction? Some of the reading in Design Justice made me think back to a personal experience when I was on crutches for a few months and working in a lab. It took losing the function of my leg for me to realize that labs are in no way at all disability friendly. It’s not that I did not care previously about spaces being accommodating to someone with disability, I had just never thought about it in my personal day-to-day activities. Until I had a difficulty myself. Some of the practicalities of design, such as heavy double doors for pressurization, climate control and fire safety, likely plan first for the science and last for the accessible nature of the space. I see, though, that one of the main issues is that a laboratory space is not even approachable for many people. There will never be anyone to give feedback on the drawbacks of its design, because those who would have difficulty navigating it --but who COULD navigate it with design modifications-- are denied access from the start. How many other analogous design problems are out there? There are some programs and advocacy groups that exist, or departments within institutions, to modify labs such that they are approachable for many different kinds of people. However, it takes a lot to advocate for such changes, make accommodations, make any kind of lasting or widespread traditions to design. I can see how it is necessary to think about how the foundation of design can be laid such that it is amenable to alterations or customization-- whether it is a physical, technological, or digital design concept. In the end, something such as the design of a laboratory space would indeed encompass most of the stages and aspects of design that Costanza-Chock mentions, from framing to evaluating affordances to assessing how the biases perpetuate themselves to deciding who designs.


Veronica, I loved your post. You made some really good points. I especially loved how you made the connection to when you were on crutches when working in a lab. I had a similar experience when I was in a wheelchair in my 3 story high school. There was an elevator, but it could barely fit a wheelchair! I had to try and bend my injured leg just to get in the space. Plus, I was pushing myself by moving the metal rims of the wheel, so when I would push the metal elevator button, I would get a high voltage shock to my fingers! It was not ideal.

I agree with your point about perspective. Sasha Costanza-Chock brought up situations about buildings and their normal function that I do not think twice about. I have never even stopped to think about how airport security will look at me through a scanner. I also loved how personal she made the things she discussed. It was not just a second hand observation. She lived through these events. She would have the best experience to talk about design justice because she has faced design injustice so many times.

My favorite line from her is this: “build a world where many worlds can fit.” Many designers will think of a device, building, or system in the “one size fits all” mindset. This seems efficient, but it is not practical when dealing with real human lives. An individual should not feel left out or singled out when they use a product or building. They deserve to feel comfort wherever they go, and that starts with using “design as a tool for social transformation.”

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I had a similar moment of realization during my freshman year here at Hopkins. As a member of the JHU band, I helped our percussionists move their equipment from Mattin to the Glass Pav for dress rehearsals and concerts (while Shriver was still under renovation). Among the impossible-to-pick-up instruments were three timpani, the marimba, and the bass drum. Pushing those across campus was arduous work. We had to circle around in a very indirect path to avoid stairs and even curbs. I realized that I had never once seen a person using a wheelchair at Hopkins.

I think the typical reaction here would be for a designer having experienced moving heavy percussion equipment to recognize the inaccessibility of our campus and compensate for that. Perhaps install more ramps, more elevators, etc. But I think Sasha Costanza-Chock (especially in the 2nd chapter) would say that I (an able-bodied person) should not be the one to design. Instead they argue that a person using a wheelchair should be the designer. Perhaps a diverse coalition of students, professors, community members, and visitors should be part of the design process. They shouldn’t be an afterthought (consultants to the designer) but rather key members of the process.

I think we need to keep all of this in mind as we move into our work with BYI and BCC. I am a bit uncertain how we’ll go about acknowledging some of the other concerns Sasha Costanza-Chock raised. For instance, we’ll only be around as part of this group for 8 or 9 more months at most. How do we design for longevity and practice maintenance when we won’t be around? These organizations are also extremely busy and may not have the time to be involved in all of the design process. How do we make sure we are designing for them when they can’t be in constant discussion with us?


Accessibility in design is a HUGE issue! I am in fact working on a project for a Multidisciplinary Engineering Design Course at this moment in which we are partnered with the Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM) working to create a method of relaying production information to factory workers who are any and every combination of blind, partially blind, deaf, hard of hearing, and non-native English speakers.

This is a DAUNTING task that was dropped on the plates of five undergrads, but the first thing that our contact at BISM told us was to prioritize Inclusive Design over Universal Design (@emmett) – we are not designing for just blind people, just deaf people, or just people for whom English is a second language, and attempting to develop a single method of communication for everyone at once would be needlessly complex. Along with causing increased cost and difficulty of designing, highly complex solutions that attempt to encompass all members of a user group at once often end up being more difficult to use than the casual systems the user group has developed on their own.

For example, BISM once tried to implement a whiteboard that used tactile lettering to let blind workers who walked up to it read production information by touch, as well as allow seeing and low-visibility workers to read the information. While this seems like a simple solution to get information to workers regardless of ability, in reality it has a significantly higher barrier to use to fully blind employees. While a sighted employee can read the information from their workstation, a blind employee must stop working, stand up, start walking, find the board, find the proper information on the board, and return to their station. What ended up happening was that instead of using the accessible features built into the board, blind employees simply asked their sighted neighbors to read the information to them so that they did not have to stop work. Now, if this whiteboard had been designed BY a blind associate rather than FOR all blind associates, they would have quickly noticed the major flaws in the design before it ever implemented.

@ally, when we, a group of able bodied, english speaking, students started our design project this semester, the codesigning process you describe is EXACTLY how we attempted to avoid the pitfalls of designing for a community that we are not a part of. Our professor showed us an amazing article on Co-designing which outlined how to practically apply this concept. The major takeaways I got from this article and my time implementing it are these:

  • The act of prototyping and testing is time consuming. Where possible, ideate with your co-designers and give them space to come up with solutions, but do the actual building yourself. It takes a lot less of their time to come up with a concept or critique a design than to build it, which makes the design process less intrusive in their lives.
  • Be the minority in the room. The first instinct is often to pull in a few members of the community you would like to design with, and have a conversation between your group and theirs, but this will inject more bias than necessary into the conversation as both you and them tailor it towards academic discussion. Let people meet in their spaces and join as an observer and facilitator of discussion.
    • The point above does not mean not pitching your own ideas! You are are capable designer as well, but trust that your co-designers are as well, and value their critiques and suggestions.
  • When possible, design in one large group. If you are working with many small groups of co-designers, you are controlling the flow of information, and therefore filtering the discussion and injecting your own biases.
    • This is sadly not always possible. People’s schedules often interfere, or situations like COVID stop everyone from meeting in a single room. When this is the case, communicate with empathy and bring up the ideas that your other design group focused on, whether or not you think it is important or will lead to applicable solutions.
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Adding to Hopkins inaccessibility experiences: I do theatre tech and over last Intersession, this other person and I had to roll this giant fake desk from Swirnow to Arellano. During this trip, I realized there was exactly ONE wheels-friendly route into Arellano from outside Levering, which was locked off for whatever reason during Intersession. Once we carried this giant desk inside Levering, we realized that the only wheels-friendly way to get into Arellano was a backstage wheelchair lift, which, according to other students, has not worked for quite a while.

After the desk experience, I’ve been more aware of the locations of ramps/elevators around campus and my observation is that although most places have one ramp/elevator, often it will be the only ramp/elevator (i.e. only one way to get places).

Re: people using wheelchairs at Hopkins
I have seen 3 Hopkins students who regularly use wheelchairs. Although I don’t know any of them personally, I imagine they have to put considerably more thought into physically navigating campus (and the world) than I do. I have also heard of freshmen having to move out of AMR 1/2 to another building after becoming injured and getting crutches (AMR 1 and 2 are exclusively stairs).

Like you said, I think the best approach to this, as in any case where you are trying to help someone who has different experiences/perspectives than you, is to incorporate those people into the design process. Of course, this must be done mindfully and it’s a delicate balance of offering your expertise and resources without coming off as elitist/patronizing. I think @mitchell’s experience with co-designing is a really interesting lesson in this and, like you said, we definitely need to keep these ideas in mind for our work in the spring.

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Adding on to the discussion of disability inaccessibility on capmus, I have a close friend with night blindness and degenerative vision loss. Because of quarantine, we have been spending a lot of time hanging out at night on campus in order to socially distant and that has shown me just how dark campus can be. One particular spot that comes to mind is the long stairways down from Keyser quad to the Engineering Quad. The entire stretch has NO lighting whatsoever. While she is used to situations like this and keeps her phone flashlight handy, this can be hazardous to anyone, as it is incredibly hard to see hazards, or even the outlines of the stairs at night.

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Great point about keeping this in mind with BYI and BCC, Ally. Chapter 5 of this text read to me effectively as pointers for making our experience with these organizations starting now and going into the spring/summer as fruitful as it can be.

How do we design for longevity and practice maintenance when we won’t be around?

This question in particular sat with me for the reading. Costanza-Chock talks a bit about avoiding “parachuting” into communities, an extension of which is to avoid “cutting and running,” for lack of a better term. Don’t drop in expecting to save the day, and don’t just run off without planning for your absence. (And maybe even don’t let your absence be total, provided opportunities for continued - even if different - engagement.)

The importance of sustainable design solutions is driven home even more by the emphasis put on not falling prey to the “start-up discourse that valorizes failure” (p. 193). There’s no room for (comfort with, anticipation of) failure when that failure has legitimate consequences on (already struggling, oppressed, impoverished) communities. A project like this isn’t a test bed for the student’s ideas; though we bring something to the table, our priority should be the needs/desires of the community, not our egoism.

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This book makes so many important arguments. I’ll highlight the principle of feminist epistemology that “all knowledge is situated in the particular embodied experience of the knower” (p. 9) and the way in which that situatedness shapes the visibility of the power, privilege, and oppression structures intrinsic in designs. This made me think about how I (a white, able-bodied, cisgender, highly educated male) have been complaining for most of my life about the relatively benign design flaws that left-handed people like myself are confronted with—most notably the fact that I can’t use normal scissors. This has always been very visible to me, while the much more oppressive design choices that surround me everywhere remain invisible (I’ve never thought twice about airport security scanners) precisely because they do not oppress me. This is also, I think, why many of us cite moments of temporary Disability (e.g., crutches) or direct confrontations with the experience of third persons as extremely revealing. We are simply not universally well suited to see oppressive design flaws because most of us draw upon several privileged embodied experiences in thinking about design. A book like Design Justice serves as an important reminder of bodily situatedness and embodied knowledge, and, as such, as a powerful argument against hegemonic politics of design and in favor of codesign and inclusiveness.

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@douwe, to add on this point, I often have to remind myself that it is not possible to be aware of all of these oppressive systems in our society–and that’s okay. As a lefty who mostly fits the identities you listed above, I think it is still important to acknowledge poor design that affects you, no matter how seemingly small. What may seem small when compared to the poor design that affects others, I find myself falling into the trap of belittling my own lived experience. Even as an able-bodied white man, I have a lived experience which must be designed for as well–and it is distinct to that of every other able-bodied white man. While I believe that categorization of people into groups is necessary in order to comprehend society, I believe that it can lull us into a false sense of understanding. Being a white man does not mean I am capable of designing for ALL white men. Being a white, American, college educated man means that I have a sense of the lived experiences of others in this group, but does not me that I am capable for anyone who fits these criteria. I think this just highlights the importance of codesign–especially when so many of our designers come from such a small subset of people. At the same time though, I like to remind myself that just because many designs favor people like me, they are not designed for me–and trivial inconveniences I run into are still symptoms of the current design matrix (not sure if I’m using this term correctly so lmk if I’m not!) not taking into account the needs of each and every.


I appreciate the attention you give to an important phenomenon - that design flaws are most salient when we are personally affected by them. It’s on us, as individuals, to take the steps to notice the structural and systemic disadvantages that affect people of groups other than our own. This is especially important, in my opinion, when when such structural design flaws disadvantage groups that have been historically marginalized.

But I also want to ask a broader question: how do we pragmatically and fairly triage these issues as designers? For me, I would say that systems of design that hinder equality of opportunity for their users would be of utmost importance. But on the other hand, @mitchell - I agree, it’s important to bring light to all lackluster design that affects people. Are there any ways we can effectively balance the two?

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Ally, I really appreciate your points about designing for longevity and factoring maintenance into long-term plans. These are crucial considerations for the practice of sustainable design. Drawing from the Costanza-Chock reading and from my experience, designing lasting, equitable systems is less about front loading the heavy lifting of design and straining to divine and design for uncertain futures; and more about designing a flexible, adaptable solution that can accommodate adjustments. If resilience and longevity are desired, then initial designs should encompass procedures for regular evaluations along multiple axes of performance that can carried out well into the future.

A couple summers ago I was working at a national park and I was tasked with creating a trail conditions monitoring protocol. My initial exploration of trail conditions and engagement with stakeholders led me to places I hadn’t anticipated. By the end of the project, my mandate had expanded from improving trail tread through monitoring to using monitoring as a tool to enforce parkwide accessibility standards, which had been languishing for years due to lack of oversight and overreliance on the highly understaffed and overworked maintenance crew. By connecting with stakeholder groups, we were able to recognize that there was an underutilized eager group of park volunteers, many of whom were older and had personal experience with disability, who were willing to do the monitoring and carry out simple maintenance tasks. Through a monitoring effort, we were able to update the trail maintenance system and codify long-overdue improved trail accessibility standards into the new monitoring and upkeep procedures. My hope (and belief, based on updates from my old supervisor) is that creating a strong monitoring program led by trail users of differing ability will allow the evaluation criteria and trail conditions to evolve based on the needs of visitors rather than the ability of the park staff.


I will just say that I really enjoyed reading everyone’s posts here this week! It’s pretty awesome how all of these different experiences have shaped our perspectives on things. I just saw an email from the Office of the Vice Provost about convening a group to discuss disability concerns for PhD students. However they are limiting the group to 15 --while still hoping to represent all different departments and schools-- and will turn away students in excess of 15. Just from our discussions, it’s clear how many and different aspects need to be considered when thinking about design, everything from physical space to technology and accessibility. Certainly more than 15 points and perspectives to consider! It seems like there should be a direct channel so that everyone can weigh in, whether it is to discuss the lighting on campus, wheelchair accessibility, our educational tools or technological interfaces. What do you think would be the way to go about gathering input from an entire community such as JHU to improve aspects of University design?

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