To deem [dēm], is to regard or consider something in a specified way; to make relevant. This is precisely the intention behind a new design magazine that borrows the verb for its laconic title, and attempts to redefine, or more likely reframe, our concept of what design is and ought to be.
Founded by Nu Goteh, Alice Grandoit, and Marquise Stillwell, Deem Journal—a glossy, biannual publication and online platform to launch this August—is a critical journal filled with longform interviews and essays that is predicated on the notion that design is a social practice: a discipline or form of ideas that is community-driven and focused on social justice. While this idea isn’t new, it still sits outside a more mainstream understanding of design. For the founders and editors of Deem, it’s a concept that needs to be introduced into the canon, and become part of a larger conversation around the practice of design across all disciplines.
At the core of Deem’s mission is a de-Westernization or decolonization of established design principles. In their editor’s letter, co-founder and editor-in-chief Alice Grandoit and editor Isabel Flower write that “when we question the criteria for popular metrics for ‘good’ design, we grapple with Eurocentric and post-colonial legacies of rationality, quality, and beauty that continue to pervade our perceptions of the world.” Instead of assessing what is or isn’t “good design,” Deem is more interested in probing the intention behind the design, thereby placing an emphasis on the design process rather than its output. “What we do know is that every output is unified by a process: the steps through which something transforms, with intention, from imagination to manifestation,” the editors write. “To us, that process of adding value is design.”
In that vein, the theme for the first issue of Deem is “Designing Dignity,” a motif inspired by the work of author and Detroit-based activist Adrienne Maree Brown, who is featured in the opening interview of the magazine. The inaugural issue takes as its point of entry Brown’s concept of Emergent Strategy—what the author describes in the interview as a way to use relationships, with each other and the planet, to create a better world. One method on how to achieve this, she goes further, is through “imagination collaboration”—a process in which diverse groups of people come together to forge new ideas.
On this premise, the editors asked themselves simply, “What is dignity?” What does it look like, and how can design be part of it? The editorial outcome starts with an investigation on how centralized food systems have historically been designed to maximize yield and profit, leading to the ongoing depletion of farmable land and causing massive inequalities when it comes to access to food. The brunt of the issue is a deep analysis into the history of co-living spaces. The texts that follow explore almost every issue on the topic, from how “co-living” has been branded and co-opted by for-profit structures to the history of the Alt-Erlaa public housing complex in Vienna to how Cooperation Jackson establishes community land trusts to build a “political revolution grounded in Black collective claims to urban land” in Mississippi’s capital.
The design questions that arise in these conversations and critical texts are centered around ideas of urban development and architecture. In fact, architecture becomes the focal point of how popular design has failed to address political and social issues that affect our everyday lives. The texts not only offer criticisms of gentrification and predatory development practices, but also alternative strategies for thinking through issues around wealth disparities and cohabitation principles—opting for a more human-centric approach to design.
Another crucial aspect to this vision of design, in keeping with Brown’s concept of Emergent Strategy, is a deep emphasis on community, collective imaginations, and a diversity of thought. At the end of the magazine, Nu Goteh and Alice Grandoit interview the Dean of the School of Architecture at USC, Milton Curry, and ask him “What role does publishing play in your work?” His response is that “like your publication, which will have a life both online and in print, I think [publications] are really important platforms for engaging broad constituencies.”
This could certainly be said about Deem, and it’s also a big part of the magazine’s mission, both in its design and editorial choices. “In thinking about the brand,” Nu Goteh tells me over Zoom, “one of our goals was to create an elevated platform to highlight different types of community work. It’s [about] finding people that don’t identify as designers and bringing them in to feel empowered, and to use design as a vehicle to create the solutions they want to create.” Grandoit echoes the same point: “On the editorial side we really just placed an emphasis on working with people that maybe don’t necessarily identify their work or their practice to be held under the traditional umbrella of design. So in this first issue you’ll see the point-of-view of farmers, artists, scholars, activists, organizers.”
Deem is launching in a moment in which design is more widely recognized as being a part of our social lives: activist and protest strategies are infiltrating digital spaces to a higher degree, and the idea of redesigning harmful systems and structures is becoming more normalized. As Marquise Stillwell puts it, the choice of using printed media is a political one: the magazine acts as physical evidence for the stories of underrepresented ideas and cultures—the precious and valuable object that mirrors the inherent value in the lives and spaces of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. “To deem is to help interpret through the understanding of the process of design,” says Stillwell. “And that allows people to see themselves.”