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Prejudice in Design

Design plays a big role in shaping the world around us. The commodities, services, experiences and systems we interact with every day are all designed by fellow humans. Designers, whether we like it or not, are vested with a lot of power. Designers, whether we like it or not, also have a lot of prejudice. This prejudice within a designer compounded by the power that rests with them, births systems of oppression. Systems of oppression, waste and pollution are designed problems. It's design's job to dismantle them, but first, let's acknowledge the prejudice.


It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have. ~ James Baldwin

image source - dossier


According to critical disability theory, disability is not, as the medical model asserts, an attribute of any human body. Disability is created for a person by the physical, cultural, economic and political environment. Universal design is a movement whose mission is to make the human-made world accessible to people with all kinds of abilities.

'Survival of the fittest' is an archaic statement. We live in a complex society with a social contract, systems and structures to provide a better life for every human on the planet. Below we will look at prejudice over 6 lines like class, caste, gender, sexuality, ability and race.



Classism


Design has always largely served the upper class of the society and design has always trickled down to the lower classes as and when new designs were made available to the upper class. Although in recent years, design has slightly gotten democratised but is still at the mercy of the rich for big fundings.

One of the most depraved and deliberate examples of how classism manifests in design is the hostile architecture, found in most urban spaces. It deals with designing objects and spaces to keep out the poor out, as they are viewed as a 'public nuisance' by the people funding the project.

image source - dragonite/flikr


Sexism


For time immemorial we have all been living in a man's world and it comes off as no surprise that design has been disproportionately favoured the men and at the same time disabled the women and trans community. Sexism in design plays out at various levels and circumstances, much like all other systems of oppression listed above.

To illustrate sexism in design, we will look at 2 examples, one from the sanitation world and the other from the tech world. For years now Potty Parity has been a movement to reduce the wait time outside women public toilets, which is a result of prejudice, taboo and bias towards a certain gender. In a given space more male urinals and latrines can be fitted, if a bigger space is not allotted to women's toilet it leads to long wait times (read more here). Women also need to use the toilet more often and longer than men do.

Now we will move into the tech giant google whose programs perpetuate the gender prejudice we have a society. Here is one example of gender bias in the google translate application. Below is an example of how google's related search suggestions reinforce gender prejudice in the case of women driving.

Racism


Much has been written about the nature of systemic racism that exists around us and very many protests and demonstrations have taken place for racial justice across the globe. Design aids the sustenance of racism in the products that are made, in the policies that govern us, in the service business models that employ millions of people etc. A conscious effort from the designer's side is required to make sure racial biases are removed. There are racism biases not only in the design outputs but also within the design community. The AIGA design census report 2019 claims that only 3% of all designers are black in the USA.

A prime example of racism is Hitler's Nazi Germany and a prominent fashion design brand Hugo Boss (that still exists and is thriving today) designed all of the uniforms of the Nazi regiment.

Source: pinterest Graphic is by Ian Moore


Casteism


Caste which is a prominent system of oppression in India makes for a huge prejudice in design. The idea of "Pure Veg" comes across as one of the foremost examples. Kitchens in most restaurants across the country are designed separately for veg and meat. The idea of 'purity' is associated with eating vegetarian meals, which makes it a social position rather than an ethical one. Anti-Beef law also stems from deeply entrenched prejudice towards lower castes and the out-castes. The strong hegemony of the upper caste has portrayed a global image of India as a vegetarian nation while only around 25% of the population are vegetarians.

Casteism can also be prominently seen in the urban design and planning where the segregation happens on the lines of caste and prominent castes get better resources. Read about Bengaluru's caste-based segregation here.


Heteronormative


Stephen Eskilson writes "The question of sexual identity, a central focus of a great deal of thought in recent decades, has received scant attention in the design world. The subject seems largely invisible in both the practice of design and of design writing where a blanket state of heteronormative assumptions still prevail. The term “heteronormative” itself, a key theme of queer theory that was coined by Michael Warner over twenty years ago, while a mainstream standard-bearer in art and literary studies, rarely appears in a design context. Of course, this invisibility in the design world, a circumstance in which heterosexual mores appear natural and normal to the exclusion of all others furthers a power dynamic through which heteronormative power is exercised throughout the culture. As Warner wrote “... so much of heterosexual privilege lies in heterosexual culture’s exclusive ability to interpret itself as society""

Below are some examples of advertisements and signs that reinforce heteronormativity.


Ableism


“Ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other.” — Leah Smith, Center for Disability Rights New York.

Design has been biased towards the 'abled' and we have built our world (both physical and digital) that's increasingly hostile for those who don't fit this bill. Christina Lall writes about digital ableism here. In the physical world, many attempts are being made to be inclusive but mostly they either become victims of tokenism or there is a poor understanding of the needs of the people they are trying to include.

the red tiles in the centre assist the blind to walk without using their stick

which is great until you see the tree in the way.

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