We first read this piece, written by Dori Tunstall, the dean of design at OCAD University in Toronto, in a publication produced by the L.A.-based non-profit Women’s Center for Creative Work (which we wrote about for the site). Originally titled “Seven Principles of Designing Conditions for Community Self-Determination,” the essay adapts seven principles of design anthropology, a field in which she has an academic background, as a framework for how to think about design in the context of community activism. Though she acknowledges that the design of posters, banners, buttons, and other forms of activist messaging do play their part in organizing, Tunstall also sees design a way to establish and maintain the “values systems” foundational to any community or activist group.
Here, we’ve excerpted her essay on the topic, which was originally published in Developing Citizen Designers and revised for the WCCW’s Feminist Organization’s Handbook.
When we think of design and community activism, we often think of the posters, banners, T-shirts, or buttons that represent the tangible ephemera of the social movements in which we participate. We might discuss our strategies and plans, even the participatory aspects of them, but not also think about them as a form of design. This is unfortunate, because design (especially combined with fields focused on human understanding like anthropology) provides many guidelines for how to design the conditions for community self determination in the context of activism.
Tangibility matters because it is easier for people to come to a shared understanding of positive change based on the things that they can see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and move through.
As a design anthropologist, I have been particularly interested in applying the seven principles of design anthropology to community activism. How does one understand the value systems of the community? How might the processes and artifacts of design assist in making value systems tangible and negotiable among community members and stakeholders? What are the processes and outcomes of aligning people’s experiences with the values they prefer—all under conditions of unequal power relations? This essay serves as a guide for why a design anthropology approach might assist your work with community activism.
One of the most difficult aspects of community activism is determining the core values of the various members and stakeholders as it relates to the issues at hand. Even when we say words like “equity” or “justice,” we cannot assume that every member of the community attaches the same meanings to those words. It is important to respect the differences and find the common meanings. The first three principles of design anthropology provide some guidance on how to approach understanding the differences and similarities of community members’ value systems:
1. Accept value systems and cultures as dynamic, not static. Each generation goes through the process of negotiating the elements that make up their value systems and community cultures.
2. Recognize the mutual borrowing that happens among value systems and community cultures, and seek to mitigate or eliminate the unequal circumstances in which that borrowing takes place.
3. Look simultaneously at what is expressed as that which is to be gained, lost, and created anew in the recombination of value systems and community cultures by members and stakeholders.
The process of understanding different and shared value systems and meanings has to be designed through visual, verbal, and embodied activities. Tangibility matters because it is easier for people to come to a shared understanding of positive change based on the things that they can see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and move through. The fourth principle of design anthropology emerges out of the critical dialogue between Indigenous, non-Western, and “minority” makers, whose work is often embedded within community activism:
4. Eliminate false distinctions between art, craft, and design in order to better recognize all forms of making as a way in which people make value systems tangible to themselves and others.
[The] processes of making values tangible must be designed, especially the ways in which people’s contributions are fairly compensated, not just materially, but also socially.
Even in community activism, there exists a hierarchy of activities in which art-based activism receives higher press recognition and, often times, more financial support. Craft-based activism receives the second highest recognition because of the perception of grassroots authenticity. Design-based activism comes last, as it is considered too “professional” for the grassroots but too “mass” for artistic expression. Yet, the distinctions between art, design, and craft that define European history do not always exist in other cultures. People make stuff for the struggle. Thus, one should be careful of journalistic narratives that seek to stratify the range of making activities in activism. This too can contribute to the further oppression of some communities.
The fifth principle of design anthropology draws upon the practices of Scandinavian cooperative design, which has its own history of labor activism. It informs how one can respectfully approach the process of design-making within community activism:
5. Create processes that enable respectful dialogue and relational interactions such that everyone is able to contribute their expertise equally to the process of designing and those contributions are properly recognized and remunerated.
In general, most community activism does this well. The fifth principle is a reminder that these processes of making values tangible must be designed, especially the ways in which people’s contributions are fairly compensated, not just materially, but also socially.
The final two principles demonstrate design anthropology’s close alignment with the goals and objectives of community activism. It too is engaged in processes of dismantling systems that bolster inequality and oppression and instead supports the co-creation of conditions of compassion and harmony:
6. Use design processes and artifacts to work with groups to shift hegemonic value systems that are detrimental to the holistic well-being of vulnerable groups, dominant groups, and their extended environments.
Is organizing this town hall meeting, painting signs, or printing out flyers going to help change detrimental value systems? If yes, okay let’s do it. If no, then we need to rethink it.
7. Define the ultimate criteria for the success of any design anthropology engagement as the recognized creation of conditions of compassion among the participants in the project and that are in harmony with their wider environments.
Principle number six reminds us that the purpose of all we make—whether big or small, strategic or aesthetic—is to change detrimental value systems that effect everyone’s well-being. This should be the main evaluation criterion for all community activism actions. Is organizing this town hall meeting, painting signs, or printing out flyers going to help change detrimental value systems? If yes, okay let’s do it. If no, then we need to rethink it. And principle number seven reminds us of why we do our activities: to create conditions of compassion and environmental harmony. While our objectives might be very narrow—for example: ending unjust incarceration of trans sex workers—our intentions need to be broad in order to use our community activism to make a more just world for everyone.
The seven principles of design anthropology help us to realize how community activism is “by design.” We co-design processes to understand the values and meanings of those values that the community wants to accept, reject, and create anew. We make tangible the desired values so they are open to negotiation and felt in community members’ and stakeholders’ everyday experiences. We remind ourselves of how we should be evaluating our activities and what is truly at stake.