The Designer's Critical Alphabet created by the author (all images courtesy the author)

If you invite students to choose who they will design for, you might discover they won’t choose to design for people like you. This was my discovery while teaching at an elite, private university in California in 2019. Six student teams were invited to choose their users for a design assignment. None of the groups chose to design for anyone like me — not women of color, not single parents juggling life and their children’s schedules, not immigrants or non-Americans trying to understand American life and systems, and not for people in their late 40s. It is impossible to reflect the complexity and diversity of the landscape of potential users with only six users. However, I was struck by who was chosen. Five of the groups chose to design for males (including the group that chose to design for a boy). Four of them designed for middle-class people. Only one group chose to design for a woman, and they weren’t able to identify challenges that she faced as a woman. None of the target users were Black or Indigenous people of color.

Why were students choosing to solve problems for people who faced so few structural problems?

The students were not at fault. My colleagues said, “The students just interviewed who they knew.” I had never been in this situation, having taught in more racially and economically diverse settings before, as a former lecturer at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad, and as a teaching assistant at North Carolina State University. As an undergraduate design student in Brazil, issues around power and social justice were always close by. If students in any of those three contexts chose their users, perhaps diversity would just happen. How could I ensure diversity was always top of mind, regardless of who the designers or students were?

On the surface the answer “They just spoke with whom they knew” seems acceptable, but what if everyone in technology, finance, public health, and other fields only chose to design for people they personally knew? That class made me ask many questions that have probably changed my design practice forever. Questions like:

  • Whose responsibility is it to help students see the issues of people who are different to them?
  • If we allow people to only design for people who they know, what’s to prevent them from continuing to do this when they move onto professional life?
  • How can we help to uncover deeper concerns even after talking with people who seem to have it all put together? Surely even people who have it all have issues.

The Designer’s Critical Alphabet I created in 2019 as a response to the issues in that class was one of a series of pedagogical experiments to help students see how positionality and identity can impact people’s needs and how products and systems are used. I created the deck as a response to my perception of a need for greater critical awareness among people in Silicon Valley, where the classes were taking place. and where design solutions might go out to the entire world. I was trying to make critical race theory language accessible to designers, and remind designers to think about multiple perspectives as they worked. My position as a Black woman and an outsider influenced the way I designed the tool.

The Designer’s Critical Alphabet created by the author

I was a bit intimidated by the idea of giving rich white students negative feedback on their design projects. I did not want to be perceived as confrontational. My idea was that as I listened and noted blind spots of critical awareness, pedagogy, identity, and inclusivity, I could drop a card on the table to nudge the design team towards something new. I felt that this way I could improve the designs at a distance. Participants wouldn’t even have to know if the feedback was directly about their project, and we would end up with a range of more inclusive solutions. 

The deck remained fairly invisible till Memorial Day 2020. Then, with the murder of George Floyd, and Amy Cooper’s false accusations against Christian Cooper my own anger at these incidents prompted me to write an angry post to show why we need to learn to talk about race and see inequity in America — even in the design studio. The Critical Alphabet (and the corresponding apps) are but one tool that people in design can use to remember to grapple with social issues, and should be considered a challenge to others to also engage with difficult and critical topics in their work.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel is Associate Director for Design Thinking for Social Impact and Professor of Practice at the Phyllis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking at Tulane University....