Design Justice, the More Equitable Sibling of Universal Design

Design Justice

Sasha Costanza-Chock defines Design Justice in their book as affordances, disaffordances; objects/environments; services, systems, and processes.

Design Justice harnesses universalist design principles and practices to uplift intersectionally disadvantaged and multiply burdened groups under the matrix of domination (white supremacist heteropatriarchy, ableism, capitalism, and settler colonialism).

Design Justice is fundamentally about the power struggle within the design process - Who has it, what they do with it, and how it affects those without it - ensuring that power isn't something that we have over people but something that is shared amongst people.

The idea of Universal Design, or "designing for everyone," actually means that we end up designing for what we subconsciously consider to be "normal." We must acknowledge that designers tend to default to imagining users whose experiences are similar to their own. Essentially, Universal Design says, "let's design one thing that every single person can use the same way" vs. Design Justice, which pushes us to question and design a multitude of equitable ways groups can participate and engage in an experience or design.

Recently, there has been a shift in design thinking, questioning: what version of design have we learned? Who is teaching design? What do they look like? If we cannot truly understand someone else's lived experience, how can we design for them?

This becomes inherently problematic due to the current structure of the tech industry, which is largely cis-gendered, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, college-educated, literate, with access to high-speed internet and smartphones. Most technology product design ends up focused on this relatively small but potentially highly profitable subset of humanity. Unfortunately, this produces a spiral of exclusion, as design industries center the most socially and economically powerful users while other users are systematically excluded on multiple levels.

Designers often enter a situation and adopt the position of “expert” – Design Justice pushes you to consider yourself a facilitator rather than an expert. Good design requires us to determine whose voices need to be heard and decipher how we speak to them/with them in a trauma-informed and equitable way. Bringing Design Justice to practice, to the classroom, and to the streets is essential to moving toward a more inclusive future – and it all starts with unlearning what we might have considered core to our beliefs as designers.

Mad*Pow is a member of Design Justice Network, an international community of people and organizations committed to rethinking design processes to center people who are too often marginalized by design. The Design Justice Network challenges the ways that design and designers can harm those who are marginalized by systems of power and provides opportunities to engage in the histories and futures of design with open eyes and enhanced vocabulary. Recently, Mad*Pow hosted the Design Justice Network on Mad*Pow's podcast, Better Experiences.

Here are a few ways to learn more and become involved:

  • Listen to our Better Experiences Podcast featuring members of the Design Justice Network.
  • Sign up for the Design Justice Network Newsletter
  • Read Design Justice, by Sasha Costanza-Chock
  • Become a Design Justice Network member:
    • Access the Design Justice Network Slack channel
    • Network with movement builders around the world
    • Invitations to DJN Member Story sharing sessions
    • Amplify your work
    • Learn new skills and justice practices
    • Share and apply to new opportunities
    • Build the design justice movement in your local community
Contributed by
Nedret Sahin
Job Title
Senior Experience Strategist