by Dr. Amy Collier and Dr. Sarah Lohnes Watulak

“Paying attention is a pretty vital skill for a designer.” Rob Walker, The Art of Noticing

“Designing for inclusion starts with recognizing exclusion.” Kat Holmes, Mismatch

During the first week of our winter term class, Inclusive Design and Design Justice in Practice, we explored the topic Designs that Exclude, as a way into understanding inclusive design and design justice approaches. Kat Holmes says at the start of her book Mismatch–one of the key texts for our class–that noticing exclusion is a prerequisite for more inclusive approaches to design, so we spent much of that first week focused on helping students to hone their noticing skills. Students in our class hone their noticing by reading texts and exploring course materials that make visible some of the design exclusions of which they were not aware. For example, in our Design Justice text, Sasha Costanza-Chock shares a story that highlights the exclusion of trans folks in binary systems like airport millimeter wave scanners. We also asked students to begin noticing exclusions in designs in their environment around them and share those designs on our Exclusionary Design Wall of Shame, created using a tool called Padlet.

Noticing is a practice of where and how we focus our attention on the world around us, including the digital world. Sasha Costanza-Chock’s story of exclusion generated much discussion among the students in our class, particularly around the idea that it is hard to notice exclusion if you’re not the person being excluded. As Peggy McIntosh points out in White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, when systems are built for you (the privileged user) and when systems benefit you (the privileged user), it takes a concerted effort to notice the impact of those systems on people for whom they were not built. How can we, when coming from a place of privilege, begin to notice the impact of design intention on others? While some argue that empathy is a first step, Jess Mitchell argues that empathy might be “too big an ask for many. I think we need to begin with acknowledging personhood and build from there.” She suggests that we start with curiosity, by asking questions: what is failing? What isn’t working for someone? In the digital world, curiosity might involve asking who are digital platforms built for and for whom are they not built? For whom is this platform failing? And, who is most at risk from digital platforms’ extractive data practices and algorithmic drivers?

Noticing alone is not sufficient to become a more inclusive designer (or, if you do not see yourself as a designer, a more inclusive person). Costanza-Chock argues that framing exclusion solely as a design problem decouples it from “consideration of systemic, persistent, ongoing forms of oppression under the matrix of domination…the ways that algorithms are used by various actors and institutions to reproduce white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy and settler colonialism is reduced to a critique of ‘algorithmic bias.’” Noticing exclusion cannot focus solely on the intentions and impacts of single designs/designers; it must also examine the situatedness of that exclusion within broader and systemic exclusions. For example, in Dark Matters, Simone Browne centers the conditions of blackness in surveillance, so that “rather than seeing surveillance as something inaugurated by new technologies, such as automated facial recognition or unmanned autonomous vehicles (or drones), to see it as ongoing is to insist that we factor in how racism and antiblackness undergird and sustain the intersecting surveillances of our present order.” Costanza-Chock writes, “if we never zoom out to the big picture, then we never take on the larger structures that constantly militate toward the reproduction of designed inequality.”

How do we hone and situate our noticing, and direct it toward making a more inclusive world? In his digital detox Inhabiting Third Spaces & The Art of Noticing, Bob Cole quotes Jenny Odell: “if it’s attention (deciding what to pay attention to) that makes our reality, regaining control of it can also mean the discovery of new worlds and new ways of moving through them” (How To Do Nothing, p.94). Ruha Benjamin suggests that we must resist the frenetic and attention-seeking pull of the digital world, shifting from “move fast and break things” (an early Facebook motto) to “move slower and empower people” (Race After Technology, p. 17). We must choose, over and over again, to direct our attention to the exclusions that are all around us; to intentionally listen to folks who are typically marginalized by design, whether informally through hearing and reading their perspectives, or through more formal processes, like participatory design approaches including Inclusive Design and Design Justice that invite marginalized folks to the table as co-designers (and sometimes co-owners) of the design process.

Even if we do not see ourselves as designers (though Kat Holmes argues that “anyone who has ever solved a problem is, in a certain sense, a designer,” Mismatch, p. 47), our willingness to notice exclusions, and better yet work to counteract those exclusions, can help break cycles of exclusion in the designs of our political systems, built environment, educational systems, and yes, digital platforms and tools.

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Keep Reading

Recognizing Exclusion is the Key to Inclusive Design: In Conversation with Kat Holmes, by Rebecca Bedrossian

Inclusive: What Is It? by Jess Mitchell

Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, by Sasha Costanza-Chock

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, by Jenny Odell

The Art of Noticing, by Rob Walker

Photo by Matt Noble on Unsplash