Design Justice: “Design Values: Hard-Coding Liberation?” A Review

Sasha Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice is a framework that questions and re-imagines the role of design, power and justice in technology systems. Design Justice is a widely cited framework that complicates current technology design practices, testing, and conception. It’s an attempt to grapple with and align the numerous technological, ideological and social entities such as social justice, design, algorithmic bias, and reinforced structural inequalities in code and other programming mechanisms. Calls for new lenses to view technology design have abounded the last 30 years, and Costanza-Chock describes Design Justice as a lens that articulates a complex dynamic of values, ethics, and power that meet in technological design. They shift the conversation from building and innovation to asking questions about what is being built, for who, and who benefits from current practices. The author builds the argument of this chapter up to a question that sets the stage for the entire Design Justice Framework: “what is a just outcome?”. This book is relevant to anyone who wants to better understand how design, technology and power are intertwined. In Design Justice, Costanza-Chock’s personal and professional stakes in the field of sociotechnical design are clear and visceral, as they provide example after example of the impact design has at the intersection of queer, black, trans and gender identities.

Costanza-Chock establishes the Design Justice framework through ideas of affordances, disaffordances, and dysaffordances (WittKower, 2016) and explores how current design work continually favors certain groups of users. Costanza-Chock defines affordances as “match perceptual cues with actions that can be performed with an object” and contrasts that idea with disaffordances –  that is a match of perceptual cues to actions that are blocked and takes this further with WittKower’s description of dysaffordances: “an object that requires some users to misidentify themselves to access its functions.”. The author  places high importance on bringing intentionality into technology design, and also moves beyond such awareness by introducing justice as a key metric to design work. Costanza-Chocks’s framework is centered on the trade-offs that technology design unavoidably creates, privileging some users (usually white, cis, male) or over other users. The power of the designer is in this idea – they get to choose who gets the privilege in a system. The author demonstrates how this power dynamic has a ripple effect that appears in how a system is tested, improved and measured. A/B testing is used as an example; where initial design decisions privilege certain users who will participate in the testing. Testing decisions will then be derived from those select users, re-enforcing those early decision choices. Design Justice shifts designers (and users) attention to the mechanisms that drive and enforce design affordances, such as A/B testing, unmarked users, and cognitive load. Design Justice begins by querying each of these areas of design by asking: who benefits?

The author also distinguishes Design Justice from other contemporary design frameworks that focus on removing, countering or balancing out bias in systems. Frameworks such as inclusive-design and values-based design, which attempt to even the playing field for users, call on designers to expand their perspective on the affordances (what or how to match perceptual cues to user actions) to reach more users. Costanza-Chock contests this increase in affordance scope and demonstrates how context breaks down the idea of universal design, which assumes all users come to a design with the same privilege. This hides how discrimination disaffords and also dysaffords marginalized users, meaning that these users are forced to contort their technology use to fit a design for others.

This chapter in Design Justice vividly complicates the popular idea of ‘fairness’ in computing, particularly in artificial intelligence. Costanza-Chock does this with visceral examples that bring a texture to the disconnected universal design practices imposed on groups of users, contrasting what is fair versus what is just. The author demonstrates the nuance of this argument by showing how design is connected to the power of the designer, manager or organization. This refocuses the idea of ‘choice’ back onto the designer as opposed to the user. Users (and consumers) are often tasked with pushing back on harmful designs and technology, which is viewed as a source of power. Whereas Costanza-Chock shifts that work back into the hands of those who do truly have the power to alter the design, and therefore the outcome. This aligns with the author’s main point: the goal of design justice is illuminating the unavoidable choice that is encoded by designers and decoded by users and some will take on more load than others. The idea of universality in design orients design methods, and Costanza-Chock takes the impact of those methods to several difficult conclusions. The author contests that designing for all means that designers are building for ‘unmarked users’, or what a designer conceives as the default demographic. Here we also see Costanza-Chock’s call for awareness, and it is also here that they move us beyond that call to balance what design choices can be made to correct the historic harm done by technology. A deeper look into the mechanisms behind the enduring impact of design narrows the labor down to cognitive load. Costanza-Chock touches on this topic but stops short of exploring it further. I would be interested in hearing a fuller picture of the kind of labor design relies on.

Design Justice builds on a growing body of work at the intersection of design and sociotechnical systems. Costanza-Chock extends the spectrum of design concepts from inclusive, values-based, and fairness to the proactive stance of justice and challenges the audience to imagine systems and interfaces that actively empower historically marginalized groups. Design Justice calls on designers and users to resist in the places where structural inequalities stand rigid, aligning with the matrix of domination’s stances that resistance often happens in the same location as the oppression. Costanza-Chock demonstrates with vivid examples the power imbalance that current design practices create and reinforce, and carves a new path forward. 



Costanza-Chock, S. (2020). Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need.

Wittkower, D. E. (2016). Principles of anti-discriminatory design. 2016 IEEE International Symposium on Ethics in Engineering, Science and Technology (ETHICS), 1–7.