A response to ‘Design & the social: Mapping new approaches to inequality in design’

A response to ‘Design & the social: Mapping new approaches to inequality in design’

By Arvid van Dam

“Global inequality is not an accident – it is by design”

On 7 February 2017, the International Inequalities Institute of the London School of Economics hosted a seminar on design and inequality. Mike Savage opened the seminar by asking, “how is inequality legitimised and produced?” The answer that resonated through this meeting was through design. But how? Here I reflect on some of the aspects that stood out to me in this intersection between design and inequality.

One. Does the social always overwhelm design?

During the meeting, a particular question was raised: “Does the social always overwhelm design?” In other words, to what extent can design really change existing values and structures, or do these structures persist in how the design becomes enveloped in the social? This question appeals to ideas of how ‘malleable’ society really is and how susceptible it is to interventions.

One problem underlying it, however, is that it assumes design should be read as an intervention. To the contrary, recognising that design is always already emerged in the social undermines the question: design comes from within the social and is not external to it, and as such the social produces design as much as it may resist it. Understanding de intersection of design and inequality must also emerge from the insight that the social cannot overwhelm design because design is social.

Two. What design?

As was also pointed out by Lucy Kimbell in her talk, the word design can take various forms. She distinguished the meanings of design between a professional domain, an activity, the result of an activity, and an academic discipline. It is useful to return to these basic disparities of meaning because of the ways in which each of these forms of ‘design’ is embedded in the social. As a result, Inequality and design were related in various ways during the seminar, including inequality in design (of who is included in design processes), by design (how design deliberately (re)produces inequalities), and in spite of design (how designs fail to be inclusive).

Three. Who designs?

For me, thinking about inequality and the power structures in which design operates is about calling into question who is able to design, for whom, and who else is affected. Who designs, indeed? The ‘designer’ Dimitros Charitatos talked about was an individual or small company involved in product design. He challenged the view of the designer as a powerful figure, and rather placed ‘him’ in the grip of commercial demands. The designer, he said, must follow global trends and balance these with local needs. In this requiem for the creative professional, smothered by capitalism, Dimitros portrayed a pessimistic image of what design can do. To the contrary, the ‘designer’ of factory housing in Fani Kostourou’s talk was not an individual, but the company. And the ‘designer’ of technological and governmental innovations in India, as discussed by Smita Yadav, was a collaboration of global finance and the Indian state. Together, these examples showed that design can become intertwined with inequalities at a variety of intersecting scales, affecting people in very different ways.

Four. For whom?

The second part of the question, “for whom?” is important, because very often design is commissioned and as such serves particular interests that are not those of the user. For instance, the historical rehousing of lower classes in company towns in France, as shown by Fani, did not serve the interests of the factory workers, but those of the company: it aimed at pacifying the workers and increasing their dependence on the company.

Five. Narrating design

Ellen Foster discussed current developments in makerspaces and maker cultures. Even though these operate under the banner of “everyone is a maker”, she showed such ideals of equality are challenged by a critical investigation of who occupies these spaces that reveal a reality of inequality. The question she asked, of who has the time, resources, and knowledge to be part of maker initiatives is a very interesting one. This reminded me that designing is accompanied by narrating and that both the resulting designs and narratives are politically informed. Challenging inequalities in design, then not only requires changing designs or design processes, but also the narratives they materialize.

Six. Challenging inequalities

Drawing on the case of mental health institutes in London, Evangelia Chrysikou gave a vivid example of how design can exclude, either in the form of architecture (the physical forms and aesthetic appearance of the institute) or in urban planning (the geographical placement of the institute in terms of its visibility and its connectivity to infrastructure such as public transport). The design of mental health facilities, it appears, both reflects and reproduces dominant stigmatizations of those we call ‘the mentally ill’. Evangelia’s account was a clear call for the need to expose such inequalities design produces and to challenge the injustices done.

However, the distinction between design “for daily use” versus “institutional” that was raised during the discussion seemed to me like a weak and, to be frank, quite useless dichotomy. The everyday and the institutional do not stand in opposition to each other but are interwoven in ways that make such a distinction in understanding design redundant. Again, narrative and scale seem like more appropriate lenses for looking at the variety of ways in which design and inequality intersect.


This was a very interesting and thought-provoking meeting. It showed that design and inequality are interwoven in sometimes unexpected ways and that there still is a need to dislodge design from its connotations with “improvement for everyone.” We need to continue questioning the assumptions that inform design and its functioning in (or as!) mechanisms of differential inclusion and exclusion.

Some related references on design and inequality 

Many thanks to the organizers, Nell Beecham and Mona Sloane.

Posted by : Arvid van Dam

Posted At : 10:04 am

Posted On : 15th February 2017

Posted In : Our Blog

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