Designing out racism is “work for everyone”

Design educators Lisa E. Mercer and Terresa Moses explain in their new book, Racism Untaught, how design can offer tools for anti-racism accessible to anyone.

“Anti-racist work is work that is for everyone”, says Terresa Moses, one of two “veteran anti-racist design educators” alongside Lisa E. Mercer, who have co-authored the new book Racism Untaught: Revealing and Unlearning Racialized Design.

Working from the understanding that many of the objects, brands, spaces and systems around us today have been built against a backdrop of ongoing racism and colonial legacies, the book’s premise is that just as racialised experiences have come to be through design, they can also be designed out.

Mercer is associate professor of graphic design and design for responsible innovation at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, while Moses is assistant professor of graphic design and director of design justice at the University of Minnesota – as well as creative director at studio Blackbird Revolt, which also designed the book and related toolkit.

“As Black women and women of colour in academia”, the pair write, “we do not have the luxury of ignoring the social construct of race and how this conditioned ideology crafts a narrative about us before we have even opened our mouths.”

They explain that in the predominantly white institutions they work in and the design industry at large, race has been “historically overlooked”, with the onus to address its issues “disproportionately charged” to non-white faculty and designers. As well as increasing the burden on these individuals, they say, it also means that “topics of racism then become siloed as a part of people of colour’s culture, rather than an issue that affects all of us.”

“An anti-racist version of the design research process”

The book is the culmination of many years of work in academia and practice – “in tandem and conversation with many scholars, organisers and designers committed to the eradication of racism”, the authors emphasise.

Through an iterative process, they have developed a framework and toolkit to help those in “co-participatory spaces (workshops, courses and project processes) create anti-racist approaches in academia, industry and community”.

Just as existing design research processes contain different steps of research, ideation and prototyping, Moses describes their multi-step framework as “an anti-racist version of the design research process”.

It starts with establishing context, of which a subset is “breaking down how oppression and racism show up”, she says, on cultural, institutional and personal levels.

Examples in the book include urban planner Robert Moses’ commissioning of bridges with low clearance in New York to restrict public transportation access to areas dominated by Black and Brown communities; more recent is Pepsi’s much criticised ad featuring Kendall Jenner, seen both to whitewash protest movements and belittle the actions of Black Lives Matter.

The second step is “define”, where the participants “build out methods and theories to help us further contextualise and then build a thesis question”, articulating how design can be used in a specific situation to promote anti-racism; and the third step is “ideate”, where workshop participants create their ideas.

The fourth step is prototyping, moving through low to high-fidelity prototypes, before finally measuring impact and “figuring out ways they can continue measuring impact”, Moses adds.

Within the toolkit are physical prompts to help the process. There is the Racism Untaught set of cards – which break down different “artefacts, systems and experiences that you can create and reimagine and redesign”, Moses says.

There is also a “quadrant map” designed to “help folks measure how far they’re moving their idea from racialized or oppressive thought down to anti-racist and anti-oppressive action” Moses explains.

Mercer and Moses explain that an issue that frequently crops up with anti-racist work is an abundance of “good intentions” without measurable impact – which the quadrant map is designed to help differentiate for participants.

The importance of empathy

Mercer explains they discovered one of the first things that needs to be established at the start of anti-racist work is empathy.

The pair discuss how many people feel unprepared or unequipped to tackle issues of racism.

“We really needed to allow participants in a group setting to create a shared language around racialised design – and we define racialised design as any artefact, system or experience that perpetuates elements of racism”.

The deck of cards provide terminology for that shared language, to which the team has also been adding in intersecting forms of oppression such as ableism, sexism and capitalism, and “we plan to continue building upon that”, Mercer says.

Part-way through developing the workshops, Mercer and Moses also decided to introduce an “onboarding process”. Moses explains that it was an important “foundation” ahead of the workshops  “because not everybody’s just ready to jump in.”

Establishing each person’s positionality – breaking down the socio-cultural identities that each person identifies with – can help the workshops, as this “affects how we show up in the world and what we design”, Moses says.

“Starting out in that manner gets folks to be more critical about what they’re wanting to create”, she says.

Another element, however, is creating “racial-affinity spaces” in order that Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour, can opt to avoid “teaching white colleagues about race”, as the authors explain in the book.

From the classroom to industry

The work started in the classroom. They had been looking to incorporate “complex social issues” into their teaching for some time, says Moses, and at conferences “other educators were asking us how we were doing it”.

“We thought it would be really cool if there was a way to help other educators guide these conversations on race and racism that can be really tricky”, she adds.

However they soon moved to ask “how do we provide this opportunity for corporate and community folks”, says Moses. “We wanted to make anti-racist education and anti-racist design accessible.”

Alongside explanation of how and why the framework and toolkit was developed, the book also illustrates the learnings from using it in different settings.

Case studies include a project bringing together undergraduate design students and a local youth service to co-design representative children’s books; an industry case study where Mercer and Moses were “training-the-trainers” over multiple online sessions so that members of a large corporate organisation could facilitate the framework themselves; and a community case study for a mixed group engaged in social work, comprising individuals from academia, government agencies, NGOs and the private sector.

“Everyone is a designer”

Moses explains that they believe “everyone has agency to create an artefact, system or experience that can perpetuate systems of oppression”; in that way “everyone is a designer” and needs to “know how they impact communities of colour and other marginalised identities”.

“It might sound like we’re trying to over generalise”, Mercer adds, but explains that by bringing people together working in different disciplines and different areas of industry helps build awareness of “how one decision impacts the entire system”.

“In workshops we often hear from industry partners, ‘I don’t usually get to talk to that person, but it really helps me understand X,Y and Z”, she says.

Given the focus on making a measurable difference through the work, Moses notes that the iterative process is continuing to evolve. Speaking to corporate entities, for example, has provided further insight into “how they measure impact and create change”.

“Whether that be, different types of formation plans or ways of kind of figuring out where money goes, power mapping and things like that.”

A call to action

While the work was begun in advance of the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement, in the book’s foreword designer and long-time activist Cheryl D. Miller compares this moment in time with her earlier experiences in the aftermath of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.

“In my lifetime, I would begin to see the change I had always dreamed of for the graphic design industry. Black designers, Indigenous designers, and designers of colour were making demand – and they were being met”, Miller writes.

The final chapter of Racism Untaught, titled “A Collective liberatory future” refocuses this momentum as a widespread call to action to designers and educators.

Speaking about their hopes for the book, Moses reiterates that the design industry remains “mainly white”, but that the book, framework and workshop system looks to make anti-racist work accessible to all.

She says there is still work to do so that the “communities who feel uncomfortable and feel unqualified to talk about racism”, start to understand “that they are the most qualified to talk about it”.

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  • Tom Cornfoot November 14, 2023 at 10:19 am

    Great article — an important and shockingly overlooked aspect of design thinking. The design industry is always at pains to emphasise the essential part it plays in society, but with that comes the need to acknowledge how the bias and racism in our systems could be removed if our design processes were more inclusive and better thought through.

    Prioritising anti-racist thinking and giving it prominence in the design process makes a lot of sense. I look forward to reading the book when my copy arrives!

  • Andy McCarten November 20, 2023 at 5:41 pm

    Yes this is a very un-discussed area, so I too welcome any advances to how to make our social impacts as designers have better outcomes. I have felt that the under-representation of designers of colour has a hugely negative impact on how society bestows values on many marginalised peoples. Work in progress – we must do better!

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