Designer, You Can’t Control the Future

“How exactly is a design “racist”?

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article called A Hundred Racist Designs, detailing just a few of the millions of ways racism shapes design and how design shapes racism. The speculum? The tipping system, intellectual property laws? Racism intersected with many more examples than I initially realized.

Before, I thought it was enough, to sum up the point with a simple answer:

Just because a design isn’t intentionally made by a racist doesn’t mean it hasn’t adopted racist politics.”

As you might expect, though, I got some real pushback from the Internet about why this connection even mattered in the first place. Here’s a response someone sent my way:

“Some of these designs are straight up torture devices — like the lynching example, which has less to do with race, and more to do with the human body. Undoubtedly you’d find similar devices used by Asians, Arabs, South Americans, etc. all over the world. So not sure how the device itself, or it’s design is “racist”.
Same goes for medical equipment such as the speculum. If the device helps OBGYN’s to diagnose or study patients today, I’m not clear how it’s historical use matters. Surely countless black women’s lives have been saved due to their OBGYN’s diagnosis in the last 20 years just to pick a timeline.
Several other ideas, like the highway bypass, are implemented all over the world to solve the problem of routing highways through cities without disrupting city life. What would the ‘anti-racist’ design recommend in this case? That we not have highways? Or we not have cities, because racists live in cities or they use highways?”

Obviously, we need to be a bit clearer.

“The Vessel” structure in New York City, conceived by British designer Thomas Heatherwick was intended to serve as a vertical leisure space and park in Manhattan where horizontal space is incredibly limited. The Vessel opened to the public in March 2019, but is now indefinitely closed after a string of tragic suicides, unfortunately facilitated by the open structure of the building.

In recent years, the design world has been forced to pay increased attention to to how the biases of the creators — whether racism, sexism, ableism, or every other type of prejudice under the sun — can negatively impact the design itself. From AI that learns to mimic human racism, algorithms that deprioritize Black and brown creators, to medical school curricula that uses data and symptoms from cis white men as the baseline, it’s obvious that interrogating and undoing the biases of creators is a critical task for the design community. But if we only tackle biases in design on the creators’ end, we’re really only grappling with half the problem.

All designs, even the ones created with the best intentions and equity-rooted beliefs of the creators, can and will be shaped by the rest of the world once it leaves the designer’s hands. Designers can usually control the process, editing, and form of the design, but it’s the society outside a designer’s control that determines how that design is used. And as we’re all painfully aware, that society has racism, sexism, ableism, nationalism, and pure oppression in its roots.

The points above revealed how people see the relationship between racism and design:

  • Some designs were crafted to achieve racist goals. (e.g., redlining, or city highway divisions chosen to isolate largely Black neighborhoods),
  • Some design have racist histories built into its invention process (e.g., HeLa cells, which have since been used for a lot of good but are rooted in an inarguable injustice)
  • Some designs weren’t intentionally racist, but intersected with broader cultural elements that affect how they’ve been used for racist ends (e.g., Halloween costumes have a long history that’s not specifically race-oriented, but can certainly be abused in a way easily deemed racist).

So, should it be called a racist design, if it wasn’t intended as one?

If we use traditional definitions, not really. By defining some things as racist when it wasn’t the intention of the designer, it offers up an opportunity for superficial blame. The designer of the Halloween costume can be taken down, any single clown can be attacked for practicing a racist art. This also apparently violates rules of responsibility: if I didn’t intend, or do the harm to someone, why should you charge me for the act?

To people who ascribe to the kind of thinking in the above response, some of the designs are intentionally racist, and others are not. The difference is whether the designer’s intent or context shaped the design.

But here’s the problem with that thinking.

Racism is a system. It isn’t just the actions and intents of individual people; it’s a mythos, a network of institutions, relationships, policies, and more that make a structure of hierarchy we’ve lived with for hundreds of years. In the design world, it means things can become racist, regardless of the intention of the designer.

Each one of the examples, whether as blatantly oppressive and tangible as the cotton gin or as abstract and ephemeral as constructs of time, have been created as a part of a world where racism culturally organizes humanity’s entire structure of being. No one person or thing is responsible for creating it or perpetuating it, and even the folks that push back against it can only do so much within the constraints that system places on our choices, behaviors, and yes — our creations. Whether obvious or hidden, we all experience its effects.

These are artifacts of imperialism, of colonialism, of modernity that have been constructed over more than five hundred years.By naming these designs, we don’t just to lay bare the invisible miasma that racism — as well as any other type of oppression — creates in our society We also reveal the depth it’s sunk into our systems.

But, there’s another question innovators are asking.

Robert Moses, a prominent urban architect considered to be the “master designer” of US public roadways from the 1920s to the 1970s, developed the highway system that became the country’s cornerstone of mass transit. His bridge system discouraged public transportation by making bridges 9 ft. tall, barring 12 ft. tall buses used primarily by NYC’s marginalized communities, essentially locking them out of entire areas of the city.

“How can I defend how my creations are used after I make it?”

Designers should learn from the field of Society and Technology Studies (STS).

STS researchers don’t draw boundaries between intent and impact, and instead explore relationships between things and society. They understand that society affects what we make, and what we make affects society. When we say we ‘designed’ something, we implicitly believe we’re responsible for how it’s used. Calling it racist, in essence, both feels like a shackle and a source of blame; how can we make or use anything in the world, if we aren’t sure how it can be warped by racist systems?

This, clearly, brings up an important difference between design studies and social and technology studies. Design studies centers the designer as protagonist, while unpacking their relationship between products and services, processes and solutions, and what the designer(s) can accomplish. The main belief of the design world is built on this foundation: what makes us human is the ability to transform the world we’re a part of — hopefully for the better.

But we can’t predict everything.

If we create something that exists in the world — even if we intend the best — and instead, it gets twisted in the world for insidious aims. By excluding the social life of these objects after the designer finishes with them, we fail to grapple with our fear about our abilities as designers.

This, my friends, is a debate about a designer’s purpose. This discussion isn’t just about racist design. It’s about whether we have any meaning as a creator if we can’t predict what happens to our creations.

If we can’t control if our objects are seen as racist, why create anything in the first place?

Humans are both the creators and users of all design, and we have to recognize that while positionality shapes the design, it’s ultimately the society outside the designer that determines how it’s used. That society is shaped by systems of oppression, social control, and political power that impact every design — even ones created by folks with good intentions.

The genius storyteller, prophet, and sage Octavia Butler grapples with all these questions in her visionary Parable of the Sower, written in 1993. In the novel, Butler creates an alternate world in 2026 that tells the story of Lauren Olamina, a young girl who becomes a refugee in environmentally ravaged California and emerges as the vessel for a new religion — Earthseed. The central tenet for her new religion is thus:

“All that you touch You Change.
All that you Change Changes you.
The only lasting truth is Change.
God is Change.”

Subtle, harsh, and practical, the story discusses how the character comes into her position as a survivalist, bricoleur, and leader. One of the first lessons she learns: the world doesn’t care about you, your needs, or your future. This is an opportunity in disguise: it means learning to shape the change we see is how we make our way through the world.

Here’s an important point about Earthseed, though: humans aren’t the center of this change. Events happen that we can’t fully shape; in fact, ‘shaping’ change towards exploitation and oppression is what got us here in the first place.

There are many reasons why people have said Butler’s ‘Parable’ series predicted the future better than any science fiction writer we know. At their core, the books show us that we can influence what we can influence, and naming how things we’ve created have been affected in the world is not an indictment on our ability to shape it, nor is it taking away the power we do have. It is simply, an exercise in bearing witness — on things that have oppressive identities, and that we must grapple with.

That was the intention of the text, and many others I might create in the future: to bear witness, so we can use that knowledge for deconstructing, and remaking, a better world.

“All that you touch, You Change. All that you Change Changes you.” — Octavia Butler

But what does that look like in practice?

It starts with letting go of the illusion that designers’ role is to control the world. Designers have to learn our role as steward instead of commander; as a part of a system instead of the center of the universe. The world existed before design was conceived; and that’s okay.

It continues by learning about how our world affects our creations, and how our creations affect our world. The only lasting truth is Change, friends. We can shape that change, but we can’t assume the world starts with what we make. We have the ability to build off of generations of knowledge, from dozens of fields, towards more sustainable, equitable, and productive aims. Designs have a social life outside of our influence, and learning that will help us understand how to innovate better.

We have the chance to innovate with different values in mind. There’s no easy solutions about how to make sustainable, justice-oriented, empowering, antiracist design. The only surefire way to make a design that fails on these fronts, however, is to learn from the problems of the past, and don’t assume that designs, designers, and the contexts of these relationships aren’t deeply connected.

Don’t be scared of losing control. Be empowered by what opportunities that reality might bring.