In 2019 it’s a relief to see that the age-old stereotypes about feminists as “man-haters” and “bra-burners” are finally obsolete. However, in recent years, we have settled into a new wave of stereotypes that promote a different kind of misunderstanding about this word. Popular culture would lead us to believe that feminism is now a lifestyle manifest in cheeky phrases on tote bags and self-aggrandizing captions on Instagram for people who, according to Beyoncé, “believe in the social, political, economic equality of the sexes” (2014). It was even named word of the year by Merriam-Webster in 2017. While renewed visibility of feminist issues has sparked many productive conversations and rallies, performative activism around female empowerment is not feminism. As writer and activist bell hooks reminded us in 2017, “the challenge to patriarchy is a political movement, not a lifestyle or identity” (Alptraum).
With all due respect to Queen Bey, feminism is not just about structural inequities relating to gender. It is about power—who has it and who doesn’t. Intersectional feminism, coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989), is a conceptual framework for analyzing complex systems of oppression that marginalize and discriminate against non-dominantly situated people because of their social identity. This framework reveals the nuance and complexity of social power inequities at the intersection of varying identities, not just as they relate to gender but also race, sexual orientation, class, age, ability and more. For example, the sexism that a black woman experiences is often racialized, and the racism she experiences is often sexualized. When systems of oppression are examined through an intersectional lens, we are forced to consider individual experiences rather than lumping together large social groups.
Why should designers care? Traditional theories of design would lead us to believe that design is not political. Professional designers have long been taught to be neutral actors and universal problem solvers. But in recent years we have begun to grasp the disastrous impact of so-called “neutral” design—discriminatory technology, biased algorithms, systems that perpetuate historical stereotypes and prejudice—all reinforced by a “move fast and break things” mentality that leads to designs that re-victimize and re-traumatize vulnerable populations. Far from being neutral actors, designers are powerful change agents in conversation with—and often complicit in—complex systems of social, economic and political oppression. Design is political because the choices we make are inherently political. With every design choice we make, there is potential to not only exclude but to also oppress. Indeed it is a designer’s epistemological rejection of their political role that makes wielding their power so dangerous. According to the AIGA Design Futures paper Core Values, as we shift our focus away from artifacts and toward outcomes, all design should be accountable for producing positive social and environmental consequences (Davis, 2018). In other words, designers should be feminists.
Feminism is a natural ally to design given its commitment to issues such as agency, fulfillment, identity, diversity, and empowerment. However, even when pursuing goals that can be described as feminist, designers have neglected to engage explicitly with feminism. For many years, other disciplines such as architecture and human-computer interaction have applied feminist theory to bring more equity to both their industries as well as their practices. Professor and design historian Cheryl Buckley wrote: “a feminist approach is neither a side-issue nor a novel historical perspective—it is a central concern of contemporary design” (1986). So what does it mean to be a feminist designer?
Critically examine power. First, do the uncomfortable work of acknowledging your own privilege and implicit bias. How does your social identity influence your role as an educator or designer? Then take a critical view of the power dynamics around you—between individuals, formal and informal groups, businesses and institutions—and take action to redistribute that power. Who benefits from that power? Who is harmed by it? What would it look like to redistribute power equitably? Remember, equity is not meant to provide comfort to those with power and privilege. In fact, if you’re used to power and privilege, equity feels a lot like oppression.
Center marginalized stakeholders. Equitable design requires non-dominantly situated stakeholders to be centered as co-researchers and co-designers throughout the design process. Many design methodologies have traditionally centered the designer as the expert. But as designers, we can never be experts in someone else’s experience. Elevate others as experts and allow them to maintain agency over their story and how it’s represented. Abandon designer-centered research methods like “bodystorming” and fictional personas based on stereotypes. Design for the real experiences of real people, not generalized groups.
Understand the historical context. All inequitable power structures have history. All incidents of oppression have social and political context. Understand the complex systems in which your work is contextualized. Does your curriculum perpetuate colonialist values that “other” non-Western cultures? Does your social design project have characteristics of white saviorism? Does your diversity and inclusion initiative tokenize non-dominantly situated identities? Was your dataset collected through discriminatory practices? Utilize research methods that emphasize the contextualization of data and the re-centering of historically marginalized narratives.
Embrace complexity + plurality. Dismantling unequal power structures requires multiple approaches and outcomes, not one universal design solution. Marginalized experiences are complex. Social problems are messy. Get comfortable with the reality that a solution cannot be wrapped up in a neat and tidy toolkit. Instead, design for a plurality of open-ended, responsive outcomes that address not only individual issues of discrimination, but also the underlying causes of systemic oppression. Create outcomes that place the burden of change on institutions and those with power, and not on those who are marginalized.
Speak out. Feminism is a call to action. Do not speak for others, but speak out for them. Leverage your power and platform to be a voice of change. Call out bias and discrimination. Call in other educators with power and privilege. Hold institutions accountable for equitable policies and outcomes. Show up as an ally by listening and holding space for others.
As designers and educators, we carry a great deal of power and privilege. A feminist approach to design opens up space for critical reflection on our power as change agents and a systematic approach for ethically operating that power to honor the lived experiences of real people—not just in our designs but also in our research, our curricula, our recruitment, and our hiring. In the feminist spirit of challenging the status quo, we must question existing ways of knowing and doing in order to evolve—working within the disciplinary tradition of design while aiming at an intellectual revolution that will ultimately transform the discipline itself.
1. Adichie, C.N. (2012). We should all be feminists. TED. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_we_should_all_be_feminists
2. Alptraum, L. (2017). Bell Hooks On The State Of Feminism And How To Move Forward Under Trump. BUST Magazine. Retrieved from: https://bust.com/feminism/19119-the-road-ahead-bell-hooks.html
3. Angwin, J., Larson, J., Mattu, S., and Kirchner, L. (2016) Machine Bias. ProPublica. Retrieved from: https://www.propublica.org/article/machine-bias-risk-assessments-in-criminal-sentencing
4. Bardzell, S. (2010). “Feminist HCI: Taking Stock and Outlining an Agenda for Design.” Presented at the CHI 2010: HCI For All Conference, Atlanta, GA.
5. Beyoncé (2014). Flawless (Recorded by Beyoncé). On Beyoncé. Parkwood: Columbia.
6. Buckley, C. (1986). “Made in Patriarchy: Toward a Feminist Analysis of Women and Design.” Design Issues 3(2), 3-14.
7. Crenshaw, K. (1989). “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989(1).
8. Davis, M. (2018). AIGA Design Futures: Core Values Matter. Retrieved from: https://www.aiga.org/aiga-design-futures/core-values-matter/
9. Khandwala, A. (2019). What Does It Mean to Decolonize Design? AIGA Eye on Design. Retrieved from: https://eyeondesign.aiga.org/what-does-it-mean-to-decolonize-design/?mc_cid=b4992bd942&mc_eid=a50f6ff563
10. Merriam-Webster (2017). Merriam-Webster’s 2017 Words of the Year. Retrieved from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/word-of-the-year-2017-feminism
11. Morgan, K. P. (1996). “Describing the Emperor’s New Clothes: Three Myths of Educational (In)Equality.” The Gender Question in Education: Theory, Pedagogy and Politics. Boulder, CO: Westview.
12. Nelson, L. (2016). How Amazon’s same-day delivery service reflects decades of residential segregation. Vox. Retrieved from: https://www.vox.com/2016/4/22/11486672/amazon-prime-poor-neighborhoods
13. Simonite, T. (2017). Machines taught by photos learn a sexist view of women. Wired. Retrieved from: https://www.wired.com/story/machines-taught-by-photos-learn-a-sexist-view-of-women/
Ali Place is a designer and educator committed to equity and inclusion through design. She is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Arkansas School of Art and has over ten years of experience as a creative director and designer for higher education and nonprofit institutions. She earned an MFA in experience design from Miami University of Ohio, and a B.S. in graphic design and journalism from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning.