XXVII.6 November - December 2020
Page: 24
Digital Citation

Designing equality

Jonathan Bean

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Architecture, the academic subject where I spend most of my time teaching, has a longstanding diversity problem. Pretty much every way you measure it, the numbers indicate that anyone other than heterosexual white men are at a significant disadvantage. In 2018, the architecture and design writer Alison Arief wrote a column for the New York Times, noting that "the last major survey of the field found that women account for half of graduates from architecture programs in this country, but they make up about 20 percent of licensed architects and 17 percent of partners or principals in architecture firms" [1]. In the broader field of computing, there is a similar and significant bias, with just one in four jobs held by women, despite the fact that people of all genders use technology [2].

Things are starting to change, but the field of architecture still has a long way to go. Many of the efforts under way are based on the simple fact that the field appears to be starting off with a proportional distribution of graduates based on gender, but that many women are not making it to licensure, the first big professional milestone. At my own school, a student group called the Women in Architecture Society has made significant impact by organizing internship panels, intentionally building a support network among female-identifying students, and sparking a college-wide conversation about studio culture. Studio culture—often swept under the rug in celebrations of design thinking or romanticized notions of the suffering artist—makes it one of the places that has proved most difficult to flush free of gendered expectations. While in my current position I have not witnessed the kinds of abuses that I saw and experienced as a student, I do think it is worth interrogating the studio method that is gaining traction in other disciplines. Business and engineering are two of the most eager adopters of studio methods, and they both share a history of masculinism. Look beyond the statistics, and the traces are visible in other ways: the black clothes and militaristic hairstyles favored by architects; the standing-height desks whose default position best accommodates an able-bodied man; even the lopsided amount of bathroom space in buildings built for academic programs that in the U.S. admitted only men as recently as 1972.

The focus on mentorships, building networks, and increasing the number of women interested in a career in architecture—along with other efforts to "build the pipeline"—are valuable and important. In her book What Works: Gender Equality by Design, Iris Bohnet, a behavioral psychologist, points out that if we understand that talent and capacity are evenly distributed among all people, and an uneven distribution of people rise to positions of power and influence, then by definition there are people in these positions who are less capable than others who have been left behind [3]. The structure of this argument effectively addresses the straw man of political correctness. "Look," you can say to the CEO or firm founder, "you have seven male principals and two female principals. That makes it more than likely that you've passed over several people in your firm—people you've been paying and cultivating for years—in favor of someone less able to do the job." It's hard to argue with this line of reasoning—or, as Bohnet makes clear, the data that backs it up.

Increasing the number of women in a masculinist system is not a guarantee of more equal outcomes.

But increasing the number of women in a masculinist system is not a guarantee of more equal outcomes; this is where I think the wider field of design could aim higher. One thing common to many definitions of feminism is a fundamental belief in equality. This is not always an easy fit with the practice of design. Herbert Simon's famous definition, "to design is to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones" [4], conveniently elides not only who is doing the devising, but also whose future situations are preferred. It turns out that the answers to these questions are, to put it lightly, kind of important. One might observe that they have also been answered most loudly by men.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson's new book, All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis [5], is a needed change from the technical, data-driven, scatter-plot-heavy tomes on climate change to which we have become accustomed. It is also a model of a different, expansive, and powerful perspective for the discipline of design as it could—or perhaps should—be construed. The book, which the editors winkingly referred to as their "binder full of climate women," is a wide-ranging book of essays, poems, and other works that convey something better than a technological fix: a sense of purpose, an answer to the question of why bother? That is a question that many of us must be asking in the face of the cataclysmic cascade that is 2020.

All We Can Save also suggests the power of a deeply feminist perspective on design. It's not enough to achieve equity by counting categories within the design academy and design professions, though this is a necessary and important step. Design is long overdue to renegotiate its relationship with power. For a field that encompasses a profession where many people make a living by doing what other people, such as bosses or clients, tell them what to do, this is easier said than done. But it can be the province of the academy to raise the question of power (again and again and again), and to enumerate, outline, test, and pilot alternative arrangements. There are multiple legacies for this approach within the field of architecture. One haunting provocation dating to the dawn of the contemporary environmental movement is Victor Papanek's essay "Do-It-Yourself Murder" [6]. Its clearsighted assessment of the paradox of design's powerlessness strikes me every year when I read it with my students. "Design," writes Papanek, "is a luxury enjoyed by a small clique who form the technological, moneyed, and cultured 'elite' of each nation." If that doesn't cut you, dear design-aware reader, to the quick, just read on. In a chillingly prescient passage, he chides, "Isn't it too bad that so little design, so few products, are really relevant to the needs of mankind? Watching the children of Biafra dying in living color while sipping a frost-beaded Martini can be kicks for lots of people, but only until their town burns down. To an engaged designer, this way of life, this lack of design, is not acceptable."

From a technological and economic perspective, we are worlds away from the reality Papanek faced in 1971. Yet we are still watching children dying. And now our forests and towns are also burning. Here is where it seems that architecture—and some of the other legacy fields of design, such as product design, the target of Papanek's vitriol—has a lot to learn from interaction design. As a relatively new field focused on moments rather than things, it is at an advantage when charged with advancing equality. The same can-do engineering spirit that led to some degree of blindness about the systemic impacts of clumsy and gender-biased design decisions on Web platforms and in video games is visible in the efficient pragmatism of the GenderMag method, which helps designers become aware of potential issues stemming from unrecognized bias [7]. Architecture, perhaps because its practitioners believe it is as much of an art as a science, tends to reject any call to systematize design through the application of methods and data derived from an exogenous source. The newly enshrined AIA Framework for Design Excellence, for example, rearticulates calls for a basic assessment technique, the post-occupancy evaluation, the purpose of which is simply to ensure that buildings, once completed, are indeed functioning as designed. A broader shift is needed that recognizes that calculative capacities, heuristics, and a meaningful focus on equity do not threaten to dilute design, but rather are integral to its success.


The medium of design matters, but the lessons gained from one field should be transferable to all. Interfaces can be changed more quickly than bathrooms or desks, not to mention material specifications or the carbon content of concrete—the real elephant in the room when it comes to buildings and climate change. But perhaps the most important thing to do across all the disciplines of design is to tirelessly, relentlessly, and patiently advocate for equality. Buildings (and products, more widely) are built from intense interactions with the world; they are the realization and transformation of many acts of design, ranging from the extraction of iron ore to the arrangement of tiles on a bathroom floor. Each of these individual interactions has the potential to increase or decrease equality between people. The same pull can be witnessed through the ongoing energy use of a building or a terabyte of data stored in the cloud. Design does not stop at the door of the building, just as it does not stop on the screen of a device. Our challenge is to enlarge the field to the extent that we can acknowledge the boundlessness of design—and commit ourselves to improving its consequences.

back to top  References

1. Arieff, A. Where are all the female architects? New York Times. Dec. 15, 2018;

2. Stumpf, S. et al. Gender-inclusive HCI research and design: A conceptual review. Foundations and Trends in Human–Computer Interaction 13, 1 (2020), 1–69.

3. Bohnet, I. What Works: Gender Equality by Design. Belknap Press, 2016.

4. Simon, H.A. The Sciences of the Artificial. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1969.

5. Johnson, A.E. and Wilkinson, K.K., eds. All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. One World, 2020.

6. Papanek, V.J. Do-it-yourself murder. In Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Shange. Pantheon, New York, 1971, 65–95.

7. Burnett, M. et al. GenderMag: A method for evaluating software's gender inclusiveness. Interact Comput 28, 6 (Nov. 2016), 760–787;

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Jonathan Bean is assistant professor of architecture, sustainable built environments, and marketing at the University of Arizona. He studies taste, technology, and market transformation. [email protected]

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2020 ACM, Inc.

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