Design + Racism in 10 Objects

“Design+Racism in 10 objects. What’s your pick?”

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In the first of a series of posts about ethics and design, I highlight a Twitter feed started by @LabSpecEth.

Right now across the US, people are rethinking and reexamining their own relationship with race relations across the systems and culture spaces. The design community and those interested in design must also examine the complicated and sometimes horrific role that design in the space of artifacts has played in perpetuating racist systems and cultures (e.g., “skin” colored crayons). The following twitter responses to @LabSpecEth (who asked “Design+Racism in 10 objects. What’s your pick?”) highlight how artifact design has played and currently plays a role in systematic racism and oppression, often by upholding the current “standards” held by the groups in power (e.g., Crayola executives, wealthy political donors, etc.). I selected some of the most “liked” responses to display, but I encourage readers to read through the whole feed for some incredible and terrible stories. All credit goes to the writers/thinkers on Twitter.

The answers range from artifacts that frame non-whiteness as non-normal (e.g., facial recognition software, Shirley Cards and skin-colored crayons), not Christian as non-normal (e.g., Mercator projection world maps), and non-wealthy as problematic (e.g., park benches with arm rests and highway overpasses). There are also designs which serve to maintain social classes (e.g. highway overpasses again and steel glasses for serving tea). Lastly, there are artifacts with which the process of design was obviously and outwardly racist and classist (e.g., the speculum).

These designs serve to remind designers to always apply a critical lens to framing problems (e.g., how can we make a skin-colored crayon?), to possible solutions (e.g., are there other solutions to homeless people sleeping in parks), and to design processes (e.g., are multiple different voices being heard?). Good design is hard. Critical good design is harder. However, reflecting about design mistakes can help designers think about how certain artifacts may perpetuate harmful systems or cultures (e.g., designing algorithms that prioritize majority groups). Such reflection can help designers connect ethical principles to design instead of just seeking solutions to business problems or user experience problems.

In fact, an emerging field of study in design and ethics include include frameworks like value-centered design, values at play, and concepts like value levers.1 These frameworks and concepts serve as mechanisms for raising ethical issues in design. In practice, several designers and design firms practice socially-centered design. For some of these designers and more resources about equity and design see this article by Pierce Gordon, co-founder of the reflex design collective.


  1. Batya Friedman, Peter Kahn, and Alan Borning. 2002. Value sensitive design: Theory and methods. University of Washington technical report December (2002), 2–12. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2007.08.009;

    Mary Flanagan and Helen Nissanbaum. 2014. Values at play in digital games. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444816631742;

    Katie Shilton. 2012. Values Levers: Building Ethics Into Design. Science, Technology & Human Values 38, 3 (2012), 374–397. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0162243912436985 

2 Responses to “Design + Racism in 10 Objects”

  1. Steven Weiner

    A well-done, if disturbing, post, Kevin. Robin DiAngelo addresses the notion of “whiteness as normal/ baseline” in White Fragility, focusing a lot on the accepted rhetoric in our culture around race. The fact that conversations around race have historically focused on people of color and omitted any discussion of whiteness was, in a sense, a design choice, a way to frame debates that made the status quo invisible and therefore unassailable. It seems that unearthing and interrogating these frames in artifacts, rhetoric, and all of the design spaces constitute much of the work white people need to do now.

    • Kevin Close

      Thanks! I think this article is best read as a “jumping off point.” And jumping to DiAngelo’s White Fragility would be perfect. Ideas/attitudes/designs that contribute to racism are omnipresent, but can be difficult to exhume (from where they were buried in our consciousness or buried in our education).

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