Want To Fight Inequality? Forget Design Thinking

Born in the wake of Ferguson, the Creative Reaction Lab rejects “design thinking” for a more inclusive approach to systemic inequality.

In the days after a police officer shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, August 9, 2014, Antionette Carroll watched as her hometown erupted in protest. For weeks, hundreds of people showed up to the suburb of St. Louis to demonstrate opposite police in riot gear. Behind the scenes, community leaders and groups met to discuss the implications of recent events on a city deeply divided along racial lines, and to decide what to do next.


Yet Carroll, who was working as communications director at the St. Louis diversity training nonprofit Diversity Awareness Partnership, was skeptical that the disparate meetings and calls for dialogue would actually lead to action. “Everyone had a very top-down approach, and it brought the same individuals as always to the table,” she says. “Artists talked to artists, government was talking to government, and business to business.” In the wake of Ferguson, Carroll saw opportunity for change, but only if people could come together across those fractured lines.

In late August, Carroll went to work closing that divide, first by tapping into her own community: designers. With the support of the St. Louis chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (Carroll is the chapter’s president), she lead a 24-hour workshop to develop creative responses to the killing of Michael Brown—the event that would lay the foundation for her social justice nonprofit Creative Reaction Lab.

Today, the Creative Reaction Lab holds workshops and pursues other projects that address several areas affecting marginalized communities, such as education, employment, and gun and domestic violence. And the workshops aren’t just for designers; they also bring together policy experts, speakers, community partners, and citizens working in different fields. Importantly, they look and sound nothing like a design event. You will not hear Carroll preaching about “design thinking” or solutionism. Rather, the Creative Reaction Lab starts from the premise that design’s greatest value is in exposing the invisible mechanisms of inequality, many of which were by design themselves. Here are three key insights the CRXLAB has gleaned from using design to combat systemic injustice.


Design Thinking Has An Exclusion Problem

One thing you notice talking to Carroll is she is very careful with her words. This isn’t so much a case of controlled framing of a narrative as it is a belief in the importance of precise language.

She purposefully describes CRXLAB’s workshops, for example, as spaces that use “creative problem solving” to address instances of inequity, rather than the commonly used “design thinking.” The latter, which originated in the field of design but is now used more broadly in business and social sectors, is a solutions-based process that relies on the feedback of the end user. “While I’m a fan of it, I think it’s flawed, because it’s a system that continues to have outsiders,” says Carroll. The people who are being designed for are invited to give their perspective and to give their feedback, but are otherwise left out of the design process.

While that system may work in business, Carroll draws from a main tenant of activism for her philosophy on designing for social change: that the communities that are impacted the most by a movement should have a prominent place in leading the movement. “You cannot say that you are effectively addressing these issues if you are not including the people affected by them into your efforts, and giving them access to power,” Carroll says. To come up with community-led responses to racial inequity in St. Louis, CRXLAB not only consults with the black and Latino communities who experience that inequity; they are the people participating in the workshops, benefiting from the resources, and building out their ideas.


One example of that is a new initiative from CRXLAB called Design to Better [Our City], which will adapt the 24-hour workshop formula to a longer-term curriculum for middle- and high-school kids during the school year that will bring designers, business people, and legislators together to teach students about creative problem solving. Carroll says CRXLAB opted to make the program, which will begin in 2018, an after-school one so that it would bring together kids of all races, even as the St. Louis school system remains largely segregated due to districting. Last month, the initiative became a finalist for the Knight Foundation’s Knight Cities Challenge, and if it becomes a recipient of the grant in June CRXLAB will expand it to Detroit and Miami.

For most of the students—the program begins with seventh graders—it will be the first time they’ve learned about design or been given access to tools for things like building a website or designing an app. It will also be an opportunity for them to use their backgrounds, learned experiences, and specific insights into their own communities to develop new ideas—not to be used by an experienced designer, but for them to develop and put into place themselves. It’s easy to imagine how something like this could benefit a student as she goes on through high school and graduates with an idea for a nonprofit or digital product that will directly address the issues she and her community know well.

Act Fast—Then Keep Iterating

The original 24-hour workshop brought together artists, designers, and protestors to brainstorm how the creative community could address a long history of systematic inequity in St. Louis. At the end of the night, the group had developed 60 pitch ideas for public art projects, digital tools, awareness campaigns, and municipal programs, which they then whittled down to five. By the following day they had divided into groups and were presenting prototypes and business pitches for their projects, which ranged from a traveling interactive art installation around deflating stereotypes to a card game designed to guide public discussions about police brutality.


Importantly, the workshop did more than just get people together to discuss ideas—it got them to start working on them that night, which built momentum. Thanks to a small amount of seed funding from the AIGA dedicated to piloting these projects, three out of the five are still ongoing nearly three years later.

“Approaches, Not Solutions”

In cities like St. Louis, where access to education, food, health, employment, and security vary drastically from predominantly white neighborhoods to predominantly black ones, the roots of racial segregation can be traced back to policies like redlining—refusing mortgage loans based on race—or redistricting. These systems are so embedded into history and society they are invisible to many, meaning there’s no one simple thing to solve for. That’s why Carroll prefers to use the word “approaches” rather than “solutions” when talking about the results of CRXLAB’s work. “I like the word ‘approach’ because it shows this is not a finite type of solution—it’s flexible, it’s agile,” she says. “I’m a ‘drops in the bucket’ type of girl.”

For CRXLAB, that means that workshops result in several projects that address the same issue in many different ways. It also means that the organization addresses lots of different things affected by inequity, like access to education, as in Design to Better [Our City], or the prevalence of domestic violence in marginalized communities. For the latter, CRXLAB partnered with the nonprofit Safe Connections to run a workshop in St. Louis that featured a domestic violence survivor and author and an artist who deals with themes of domestic violence in her work. The workshop resulted in the formation of an advocacy group for male allies called NO MORE Abuse: St. Louis Guys Get It that recruits other men to speak out against domestic violence, as well as a campaign that celebrates survivors rather than painting them as victims to be pitied.


In a 2016 workshop, CRXLAB partnered with the Washington University in St. Louis’s Gun Violence Initiative, and invited both police officers and members of the community to participate. After hearing from an ER doctor from the university’s school of medicine and a local artist, several participants worked together to create a online platform and public service campaign called Body Count that seeks to reach people who feel unaffected by gun violence by tallying up the economic costs of gun deaths for the public, thereby “making a direct connection to their own pocketbooks.” Even though Body Count has yet to fully launch, it caught the attention of the United Way in St. Louis, which is interested in bringing it on as one of its official outreach efforts.

Ultimately, CRXLAB believes that good design can help correct the harm of bad design—that systemic inequality can be best fought by exposing what gave it rise. Carroll and her team want to find the lines that cut off resources to certain communities, then offer what they need to redraw them.

[All Images: via Creative Reactions Lab]


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.