Review: Introduction of Sasha Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need

Sasha Costanza-Chock begins her new book Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need (2020) with a personal anecdote which illustrates why her book is necessary. While going through the airport security line, Costanza-Chock is ushered through the millimeter wave scanner, where their body is flagged as anomalous. This issue is predictable to Costanza-Chock, who is a nonbinary transgender person, and describes her experience thus:

“I know this is almost certainly about to happen because of the particular sociotechnical configuration of gender normativity…that has been built into the scanner, through the combination of user interface (UI) design, scanning technology, binary-gendered body shape data constructs.”

In this act of security theatre, the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) operator visually assesses Costanza-Chock, and selects the pink button for female, but since the design of the millimeter wave scanner is trained to a statistical norm which excludes transgender people, she is flagged for a pat-down. Such security screenings reflect a system in which design positions trans people as “risky,” as deviating too starkly from binary norms: for cisgender people, such marginalization is wholly invisible, while for many trans people, these forms of design limit and constrain their ability to move through the world: in 2019, when ProPublica reviewed publicly available complaint data from the TSA’s website and asked transgender travelers to provide accounts of their experiences at airport checkpoints, they found that 5% of civil right complaints were related to screening of transgender people, despite the fact that they are estimated to make up slightly less than 1% of the population.

Sasha Costanza-Chock’s work intervenes within the development of artificial intelligence, or AI, which is often trained on models that mark people of color as criminals, marks disabled people as threatening, a form of algorithmic injustice. In other words, these forms of design:

“reproduce systems that erase those of us on the margins, whether intentionally or not, through the mundane and relentless repetition of reductive norms structured by the matrix of domination.”

Building on Patricia Hill Collins’ concept of the matrix of domination and Kimberle Crenshaw’s legal concept of intersectionality, Costanza-Chock offers Design Justice as a tool of “intersectional feminist network movements.” In establishing working definitions of design, intersectionality, and design justice for the purposes of the book, Costanza-Chock points to those who are often sidelined, those whose work is often overlooked, those whose work as designers is pushed to the margins, and rendered invisible. In presenting clear working definitions of her terminology, Costanza-Chock offers a clear lexicon in navigating the chapters to follow. 


In her introduction, Sasha Costanza-Chock establishes ten parameters, including using design to “sustain, heal and empower” communities, centering the voices of those who are directly impacted by outcomes of design, and prioritizing design’s impact on the community over the intentions of designers. Framing her work through the intertwined methodologies of Participatory Action Research (PAR) which “emphasizes the development of communities of shared inquiry and action” and codesign, which grew out of Scandinavian efforts in the 1960s and 1970s to include workers and managers in design practices, Costanza-Chock’s definition of design justice builds on collaboration in both theory and practice. Scholars interested in PAR and codesign will have much to learn from Design Justice.

Costanza-Chock defines “design justice” thus:

“A framework for analysis of how design distributes benefits and burdens between various groups of people. Design justice focuses explicitly on the ways that design reproduces and/or challenges the matrix of domination… design justice is also a growing community of practice that aims to ensure a more equitable distribution of design’s benefits and burdens; meaningful participation in design decisions; and recognition of community-based, Indigenous, and diasporic design traditions, knowledges, and practices.”

In their introduction to Design Justice, Costanza-Chock clarifies that the term “design justice” is a collaborative definition. Through communities of practice, design justice is collaborative, “rethinks design processes” and “centers people who are marginalized by design.” Through this comprehensive and open definition, Costanza-Chock offers not only a working explanation of what is contained within design justice, but its expansiveness as a means of understanding design as primarily social, not technological or abstracted from human interactions. What might change if we considered not only aesthetics, not only practical intentions, but communities of people who are affected by such designs? Who is ignored when designs are considered, and who is excluded? Overwhelmingly, people with disabilities, who make up 15% of the world’s population, are excluded from participation in public life. They encounter barriers to full social and economic inclusion in the form of inaccessible physical environments and transportation. 


One example of exclusive design is the Vessel in New York City. Lauded at its unveiling, the massive hexagon-shaped structure is designed for those who are able to climb stairs and walk: people who use mobility aids such as wheelchairs or canes, or people pushing children in strollers, must rely on the few elevators, but are not fully able to appreciate the view from the sculpture. At its opening, the art installation lacked substantive barriers, and tragically, four people have committed suicide at the Vessel. Since the community had no place in designing or discussing the art installation, they had no say in making the Vessel a space which could address accessibility for all, not just a few. 

Video of Caitlin Doughty, describing the issues with accessible design at the Vessel.

 Universal design may be a means of addressing accessibility in public space. Like Data Feminism by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein, Design Justice offers practical examples- and considers a means of remedying such designs. 


Each chapter reflects a provocative question about how design “currently works, and how we want it to work.” Chapter 1 takes up the concept of values, that is, what values do we encode and reproduce in the systems we design? Chapter 2 takes up the question of practices, that is, who gets to carry out designs, and who takes control of that process? Chapter 3 establishes narratives surrounding design, asking “what stories do we tell about how things are designed?” Chapter 4 examines practical sites, that is, where do we design, how can we make designs accessible, and what sites are privileged and which are marginalized? Finally, chapter 5 examines pedagogies of design, questioning best practices around teaching and learning design justice. 


 Costanza-Chock’s introduction looks to design justice as a form of building communities and collaboration, and as such, her introduction ends with a question of limitations: that this design justice is a framework that is applicable to all forms of designs, which can be extended by others across fields. As a living document, Design Justice encourages readers to reflect on and develop these principles. Costanza-Chock’s work is a call to action to continue building design justice, working to thwart design models which marginalize, trap, and incarcerate. As Jose Esteban Munoz expresses in Cruising Utopia, Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality” (p. 1). In the same manner, design justice is not yet here, but it is imbued with the potential of community and collaboration. 

TED Talk with Elise Roy, a disability rights lawyer and design thinker.

In offering a variety of actionable tools for scholars interested in approaching design through community research, or other methods of study which center the margins, Design Justice offers a variety of conceptual means to imagine a more equitable future. 


One response to “Review: Introduction of Sasha Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need”

  1. Like others of the collaborative reviewers, you have written what is essentially an article, not just a chapter review.  You could very easily adapt and publish this in a journal. Your OER contribution here is invaluable. Thank you and congratulations!