Inclusive and universal design have gained wider attention and practice in recent years. Its goals are grounded in the belief that recognizing, problem-solving for, and learning from excluded groups yields universal benefits for all. But what if this isn’t enough? If the foundations of these structures are designed within systems of inequality, how can they be altered to serve a different purpose? How can we all activate our agency to engage with design work in socially transformative ways?
In this episode, our hosts Colleen Ammerman and David Homa speak with Dr. Christine Marie Ortiz Guzman about equity design and designers, organizational responsibilities to change, and the relationship between capital and lowercase “d” designers. Christine is the founder of Equity Meets Design, a think-and-do tank that works to increase the ability of those with creative authority to (re)design interactions, interventions, and institutions towards increased equity in process and outcomes.
Read the transcript, which is lightly edited for clarity.
Colleen Ammerman (Gender Initiative director): So, today we are joined by Dr. Christine Ortiz. She’s a serial entrepreneur with a passion for innovation through equity-centered design and her current venture is a think-and-do tank called Equity Meets Design. Welcome, Christine. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Christine Ortiz: Yeah, thanks! Glad to be here.
David Homa (Digital Initiative director): Thanks for joining us. I want to talk about equity design and equity designers. This seems like a good place to start. Can you share with us a little bit just to kick us off? What do you consider equity design, and who are equity designers?
CO: Yes. So, the premise of our work is this really core belief that racism and inequity are products of design. And, for us, that is the kind of most helpful way to think about inequity and racism, because if they are products of design, then that means that they can be redesigned. And, so, our work is really thinking about how we can get folks to think of themselves as designers. We think that everyone is a designer. We are constantly designing things, creating things, making things, tangible things, right? Whether that’s a product or a website or the more traditional ways we think about design. But, also, lots of intangible things — processes or systems or organizations or cultures or experiences or relationships, right? All of those things we see as being designed. And so, we believe that if everyone can see themselves as a designer, and then explicitly use an equity-centered design process to design whatever those things are that folks are designing in their day-to-day, then that is how we’re going to actually do equity.
One of the big questions that we kind of came out of trying to answer is, “People believe in equity and can talk about equity, but what does it mean to do equity every day?” That’s where equity design and equity designers come in, right? We think that everyone is a designer and you have to make a decision to be an equity designer. And, then, how do you be an equity designer? You design equitably. So how do you design equitably? Obviously there’s a lot more to designing equitably than just having a toolkit and a set of frameworks and mindsets to do that work, but that is one of the things that we think is really helpful to folks. To be equity designers is to have a process and a framework and a set of tools that [you] can use to engage in this design work. And, so, that is what we’ve been working on, really thinking about how do we create a truly equity-centered design process — and then all of the things that come with it, so folks can use it in their day-to-day work.
DH: So, what are some of the high-level tips? You don’t need to give away your entire work here, but what are some of the high-level tips for people to insert in that process? Again, not just for designers, but people thinking about all of their work. When they think about their work, what are some of the big ones they need to sort of stop and think about?
CO: Yeah, I mean, a lot of our work is about thinking about the “who.” One of the traditional problems in design is that folks who are capital “D” designers, trained in design, have a degree in design — largely folks who look a certain way, have a certain background — are given the power and the permission to design for problems that largely they don’t experience themselves, for communities that largely they do not live in themselves. That is just kind of a taken-for-granted separation, right? The designer is separate from the user. And so, a lot of equity design work really goes into thinking very deeply about who is experiencing the problem that’s on the table to be solved and centering those folks in the process. Ceding power to them, involving them in different ways in the process. That may or may not mean that they’re on the “design team,” right? Because sometimes that can actually be an additional burden of having to do the work. But it’s really thinking about when and how they are involved in the process and what decisions and parts of the process are actually ceded to them to make a final call on and influence in different ways that really move past kind of a token or an extractive relationship that we see in traditional human-centered design.
I think that real interrogation and thinking about who is involved in what parts of the process, and how, and what power they have, what decisions are being made, is one of the big things that we focus on. And we talk a lot about designing the design process — which every time we say that, we laugh because it’s so meta. [laughter] But, it’s so important, right? Because one of the other things that we find is that the way that inequity persists is that we’re just not intentional and transparent about things. Those things often go together; you can’t be transparent about something you’re not intentional about. And so, really thinking about, “How are we going to engage in this design work, in this creation work and this co-creation work?” before diving in is really important.
CA: I am intrigued by this point that you make about how everyone is a designer. Because I certainly don’t think of myself that way, right? It wasn’t until reading some of your work that I sort of recognized, oh, right — I do think about it in terms of the capital “D” designer. And it does seem to me that it’s probably important for those of us who don’t think of ourselves that way, but to your point, are designing all the time. For me to think, well yeah, in my job I do design processes — even if I’m not creating, say, our digital content, I am ultimately informing what it looks like because I’m helping to drive that process or lead that process. I am curious about what would you say to folks like me who don’t think of themselves that way, but now have this awareness — are there ways to reflect on that and identify where are the places you are designing? How can you then go to the stage that you and David were talking about, of thinking about doing that in the most equitable way possible?
CO: I think that this is one of the things that we thought was going to be a huge barrier when we started and actually has not been, as far as getting people to think of themselves as designers and their work as design work. Because I think — so, first, we made an intentional decision. And, we went back and forth on what language to use when we were thinking about this work. And we intentionally wanted to reclaim the words “design”/”designer” because of the power that those words hold, right? There is inherent permission to create, power to create. And we know that if we are trying to create an equitable world, that’s something that hasn’t existed, so we have to — we’re in the business of creating something that has never existed. So how do we help people kind of latch on to the power and the agency that they have in contributing to that work?
We’ve actually been kind of pleasantly surprised that people, once we give them kind of the nudge and a little bit of the permission to try on that feeling of being a designer — especially a lowercase “d” designer — then folks really kind of step into it and it’s really cool to see that happen. That being said, one of the things that we try to do is de-mystify, de-jargonize what it means to do, design — the steps of the process, and the tools, and whatnot. And, really start from a place of “You were already a designer, you were already doing design work, let’s just use our stuff as a lens to look at what you were already doing and see where we can strengthen it towards this goal of equity that we have.” Versus, “Here’s this whole new set of things or area of expertise that now you need to introduce and build capacity in.” It’s really more like, “You’re already doing this, let’s start from there. Now let’s just see how we can strengthen that.” And yes, maybe you were doing some things that we totally need to abandon or rework, etc. It might be more than just tinkering around the edges. But let’s not pretend like we haven’t all been creating things for a lot of our careers.
DH: I wonder if when you work with people and they get sort of — I bet you see sometimes in their faces they get just all jazzed up about what they can do, and then they go back into their environments and it’s hard and they face challenges, barriers, other people who don’t see it that way. What do you tell them?
CO: That is one of the reasons that we have decided to work with organizations and not individuals in our work. We are really focused on systemic change. And, in order for systemic change to happen, whole organizations have to shift the way that they work. And so, in our work, we actually target change at the organizational level or institutional level, and then at the team level, and then at the individual level, in that priority order. Which I think is a little different than a lot of more traditional DI consultants, [who] come at it in the opposite way, right? Like, working on individuals who will then influence teams, who will then influence organizations. And, I don’t think it’s either/or. I think we need to be attacking all of this from both ends. But, especially if we’re talking about process changes, which at its core that’s what taking an equity design approach is — really changing the way the organization does whatever it is that it does. In order for that to take hold, be sustainable, and lead to the kind of changes and output in whatever the work product of the organization is, we need those changes to be systemic and institutional. And so, because of that, we don’t train people. We train [organizations] and do systems change in organizations. Also, because people leave [organizations] — all of these kinds of things that we know are issues with knowledge management and sustainability and all of that kind of stuff. So, obviously, we’re training people, but the work that we’re doing with them is changing the kind of structures and the culture of the organization in ways that ideally will outlast the people who are currently there.
So, not totally an answer to your question, but it’s a huge problem, right? This is one of the things that we set out to solve. People go to a conference or a training or whatever it is, have this magical experience, are all fired up, they go to work the next day and it’s like just back to the same old, same old. And so, really thinking about “What does it take to actually see some change?” Part of that is, we need critical mass in the organization and we need that critical mass up and down the power structure, right? We actually will not work with an organization unless the CEO, executive director, etc. is totally on board, and is actually my point of contact for this work. Not delegated to a committee or to someone [else].
DH: That’s a fantastic view of the struggles of organizational change, but specifically this type of change, especially when you get people enthusiastic about it, to have them be in an environment that’s supportive of that. My guess is a lot of people watching this are like, “Wow, I wish I worked at an org like that.”
CO: [laughter] Yeah, I mean, one of the things that I think has been really interesting about our work is that we’re “Equity Meets Design,” right? So, we’ve really thought about the intersection of those two fields, or lines of work, or ways of thinking. They’re also two different motivations for the work, right? So, we have folks who enter organizations thinking about, “What is the driving force here?” Is it this moral, emotional, justice-seeking DEI stuff — it makes sense to me, it matters, I can see it. I see where it’s missing [and] that needs to be what we do. And, then the design piece is more of a, “There are these societal problems, oftentimes social issues, that we want to solve. And we’re going to use the best tools in order to solve those problems.” While there’s some overlap there for some folks, it’s not the same — they just don’t have that same personal, moral [motivation], or they haven’t yet really fully understood what racism really looks like and feels like to folks who live that every day.
And so, what we’re saying is okay, enter whichever way you want. Enter through the equity door, or enter through the design door. Either way, we’re going to engage in this work in such a way that we’re going to leverage the best of each of those things. And, that’s the only way that we’re going to actually solve these problems, right? Which is what these folks — the design door folks — care about. Or, the folks who enter through the equity door, “We’re going to create something that has centered this equity lens.” But we also can’t do that without doing the design work, fundamentally. This is one of the things that we heard all the time from traditional DEI experiences: “I can understand more, I can see more, I can speak more, but what do I do about it?” That’s how we bring these two things together. Which I think gives everyone an entry point, regardless of where they are in their own personal journey or how fluent they are in these concepts or having these conversations.
CA: You have this great tagline that we saw in a lot of your work online that says, “Racism and inequity are products of design and they can be redesigned.” So, just to kind of bring it to life, I would love to hear you talk a little bit about what that means. Are there even some examples that you can provide about, okay, what does it mean to actually un-design or redesign racism and inequity in any kind of particular place?
CO: So, one of our core beliefs of our work is process as product. And so, that is really a belief that we cannot think about equity as a checklist, or outcomes, or things that we’re trying to accomplish. We really think about equity as a verb. And, that’s actually as far as you’ll get, for a definition of equity, from us when we’re working with folks. We really think about equity as a way of being, of thinking, of making decisions, of being in relationship with people, of creating things, of running your organization, of being a leader — all of those things. It has to be something that we are living and being every day. That’s why we focus on the design process and actually less on the design outcome. Now, our bet is that if the process is equitable then the thing we design will be equitable, or at least be directionally moving towards increased equity. And, oftentimes what we hear from our clients is that as we are facilitating them through an equity design cycle, it’s the first time that they have experienced what it can be like to be in a work team where folks feel like they can be their authentic selves or their experiences are valued, or they can share what they believe without repercussion, up and down power chains. Or, they can be totally honest about their lived experience and it’ll be taken care of, where they actually can impact the direction that things go. All of these kinds of things.
And so, you know, we’ve been struggling with thinking about, like, how do we measure the impact of our work? What does it mean to increase equity? And, one of the ways that we’ve been playing around with that is thinking about power: distribution of power, the use of power, the sharing of power. And, thinking about that in relationship to identity-based sources of power. Our society says that people who have lighter skin have more power, or people who are male-presenting have more power, right? Our society gives people power and takes people’s power away based on identity. So, how can we create environments that counter that, where that is not the way that power is distributed? And also thinking about the differences between power and responsibility and authority. So, thinking about people’s titles and roles and that kind of power structure, and redefining all of that in a way that folks who are most proximate to the problem get to have the power to make decisions about those problems, regardless of these other kinds of influences and ways of thinking [about] and distributing power.
CA: I love the point you are making about power. I often get a little uncomfortable with a focus on “inclusion and belonging,“ with those being the end-goals, because I always thinks, well, if people feel included and feel like they belong, that doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about their access to opportunity, access to power, to development, etc. And so, I just really like that you’re bringing that emphasis to bear. That was a great answer.
DH: We asked our broad community how they do equity, or what they think about it. They spoke about critical listening, about biased assessments, maybe looking at the technology they have, certainly employing some design thinking, and then obviously hiring practices. Both, as you say, the process for hiring, but then whom they’re hiring. Is that on the right track? And, what else would you add to that list?
CO: With organizations, when we tackle the hiring or pipeline or retention question — when we get to the root cause of the problem, it’s always a culture issue. It’s never a technical solution that we land on as the first thing that needs to be implemented. And so, the first work that we do with any organization, regardless of how many people of color or whatever other kind of identity markers are missing from that organization — even in all-white organizations, there are not high levels of trust, there are not high levels of psychological safety — all of the things that we know are necessary for good work to happen and for people to feel good about themselves every day at work, regardless of these other pieces. That always ends up being the first thing that we tackle. How do we fix some of these culture things through this lens of equity. Fixing culture through a lens of equity is so much more than this cosmetic diversity question that oftentimes we start with.
DH: I’m wondering, what do you think about organizations that are sort of building technology? They have a special obligation in this space, but also special challenges and I wonder if you have a perspective on that?
CO: Yeah, I don’t think it’s special — I think it’s amplified. I think it’s the same problems that our society has been created on. It’s capitalism and patriarchy and racism and all of those things. I think it’s amplified because of the scale and speed at which technology companies work. And so, I think therefore the solution’s the same. If every tech company decided that they were going to use an intentional equity-centered design process to design both themselves and the products that they ship, [we] would be fine. But that’s not the norm and that’s not what is rewarded by VCs, by funders, by markets, et cetera. Well, actually — not true, I think we have found that markets do reward this work. It just takes a little massaging [laughter] to get there.
CA: What you were just saying made me think of a concept that I was reading about in some of your work that I think connects to this. It was a new idea for me — this term you use: “meta empathy.” I think it’s related to some of these questions of process and power and agency. I would just love to hear you kind of explain what that is and why it’s important.
CO: Yeah, so, you know, we, we made this decision to start from design, design thinking as it currently exists, and then put it through all of these lenses and tools from the DEI space. Put it through critical race theory, put it through identity development frameworks — put it through all of these things, and take a critical lens to each piece. We were doing that with this empathy step. This empathy step is really the reason that human-centered design and Lean startup and all of these things took off, because that was a kind of revolutionary way to think about it, right? Like, we should talk to and and learn from the people who are experiencing this problem that we want to solve. We as political experts — however that is defined — cannot do this without talking to the folks who are actually experiencing the problem and theoretically will use the thing that we’re creating to solve this problem with them. That was a big shift in how people thought about things and people saw how important and useful it was in getting them closer to a good solution, closer to solving the problem. But, what we’re still finding is that while we’ve moved closer, we haven’t gotten there yet. And so, thinking about why that is and especially going back to [how] power is at the core of all inequity. So that is the first lens that we use to think about things.
That whole empathy stage was still premised on this idea that the people who are experiencing the problem are fundamentally different people than the people who are the designers on the design team. And, at the end of the day, the power lies with the designers — so the power lies not with people who are experiencing or proximate to the problem. And that fundamental disconnect is where we think a lot of problems lie. And so, if we want to shift to a place where the people who are most proximate to the problem have the power in the design cycle and the design process, then what does that mean for designers? It means that designers need to shift from thinking about the relationship with folks who are experiencing the problem as an extractive one where, “You have information that I need so I can go build this thing” to a relational one: “How can we be in a community together and how can I support you as a designer?” Like, you have lived expertise with the problem, I have expertise from a design perspective, how can we work together to solve this problem? And that requires that the designer does a lot of self work and understanding of who they are, their relationship to the problem, why they’re interested in solving that problem, how they feel and interact with the community that they are entering, if it’s not their own. That is at the core of a shift to “meta-empathy” from a traditional empathy lens.
CA: In addition to your own writing, your own work, what are some resources that folks should look into, whether it’s books, other organizations, other people? What would you point listeners toward?
CO: There’s a whole group of folks, the Design Justice Network, that have been doing this work for a long time. [I’m] super into their work. We’ve also kind of informally created our own little network called the Equity Design Collaborative.
You can go on the Equity Design Collaborative website and see some of the other folks who have been working on creating the space, and some tools and frameworks around that. But I would love to highlight specifically Antionette Carroll’s work with Creative Reaction Lab and the work that she’s doing, creating an equity design framework, and specifically using it with Black and Brown young people to redesign their own communities.
DH: Your own personal lived experience and who you are, where you’ve lived, and how you’ve lived your life — how do you bring that, or those experiences, into your work and how do they influence your work?
CO: Yeah, so one of the things that I have been reflecting a lot on is actually Valarie Kaur’s 2016 prayer in which there’s a quote about the darkness of the moment that we’re living in. She was referring to 2016, right after the election darkness of the moment that has now spanned four years. But she — and I am getting chills just thinking about it — she says, what if the darkness that we are experiencing is not a darkness of a tomb, but the darkness of a womb? And what if what we are doing right now is giving birth to the promise of this country, of this world, of a truly equitable world? Having literally given birth this year myself, that has really resonated with me as a powerful metaphor for this time. This idea of growing things inside of ourselves in darkness, and then this idea of laboring. I’ve been thinking a lot about my work these days as laboring, and how that allows for this simultaneous experience of pain and agony and also joy and ecstasy and just the miracle of creating something out of nothing. And that’s the work that we’re called to do right now, to labor, and as a new mom, that idea has really just resonated a lot for me.
And, on that note, come in! Here’s little Lucy. [laughter]
DH: Hi, Lucy.
CA: Thank you for joining us, Lucy. We appreciate your input into this conversation. [laughter]
DH: Thank you, Lucy, for making time in your busy schedule.
CO: Oh, it is busy. It is busy!
DH: Christine, thank you so much for spending time with us today.
CA: Thank you, Christine. This has been a really fascinating conversation. We really appreciate your time.
DH: That’s a wrap on the interview. But the conversation continues and we want to hear from you.
CA: Send your questions, comments, ideas, and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.