Discrimination Follows Design
Design Follows Discrimination A feminist perspective on design and design education by Anja Neidhardt and Lisa Baumgarten

Making is at the centre of both feminism and design. It is about more than representation, blue and pink packages, role models or a female vendetta. This is about a more equal world for all – not about simply ipping power relations. Design makes our world, and while doing so, it reproduces discriminatory structures. That is why it has to change fundamentally.

The design discipline emerged at the same time as the production of industrial goods in the 19th century, capitalism and the value system of modernism. All of them are interwoven and developed within patriarchal structures. Essential components of these developments are colonialism, and by implication, racism too.1Ece Canli,: “Design History Interrupted – A Queer-Feminist Perspective”, in: Marjanne van Helvert (Ed.): The Responsible Object – A History of Design Ideology for the Future. Amsterdam 2018, p. 187–207 Design is involved in creating our world. Our (hu)man-made environment in turn influences what and how we design. Standards of mass production and of industrial design, for instance, are primarily based on a young, healthy, heteronormative, male body. The more our body deviates from this standard, the more difficult it is for us to navigate our designed environment. The western, white, male-dominated context established the definition of good design (summarized in principles such as: “form follows function”, “less is more”), which is to this day very often understood as “objective”. The belief that it is a universally applicable design formula persists – not only in trendy lifestyle magazines, but also among designers, in professional publications, and in academies and universities.

As long as we follow these assumptions without reflection, we will become accomplices in the reproduction of structures that discriminate or privilege people based on certain characteristics – such as skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, class, disability or age. We can no longer close our eyes to the fact that the design discipline is embedded in a power structure that bell hooks names “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”.2bell hooks: feminism is for everybody. Cambridge: Southend Press, 2000, p. 45–46

The realization that there is neither neutral knowledge production nor a value-free design practice is by no means a novelty. It goes back to feminist scholars of the 1970s, among others.3See the work of Sheila de Bretteville and of Cheryl Buckley, just to name two They have repeatedly emphasized that the question is not how we can design without values, but instead which values we follow. We define feminism with bell hooks as a socio-political movement that aims to “end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression”.4bell hooks: feminism is for everybody. Cambridge: Southend Press, 2000, p. viii Feminism exists “not just in response to, but also in the form of, the lived experiences of real people,” as Mimi Marinucci says.5Mimi Marinucci: Feminism is Queer. London: Zed Books, 2016, p. 111 Women are not a homogeneous group and do not experience the same form(s) of oppression. Feminism must, therefore, be intersectional to acknowledge the complex relations between sexism, racism, classism, etc. and the various realities of life that go along with them.6Kimberlé Crenshaw: “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, in: University of Chicago Legal Forum, Vol. 1989, Issue 1 7Sister Outrider: “Intersectionality – A Definition, History and Guide”, 2016. sisteroutrider.wordpress.com

Feminism is committed to democratic values such as freedom, human dignity and justice. Putting these into practice inevitably also means critically examining the discipline of design – and changing it. Feminism is, therefore, not a topic that can be dealt with in a single project, but rather a perspective and approach that runs through all aspects of life and work.8Sara Ahmed: Living a Feminist Life. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017 There are different feminisms and consequently different focuses and actions. While the representation of marginalized groups is essential, we need to think further than just a levelling-up to the white, male standard.

“Feminism is a movement in many senses. We are moved to become feminists. Perhaps we are moved by something: a sense of injustice, that something is wrong, [...]. A feminist movement is a collective political movement. Many feminisms means many movements. A collective is what does not stand still but creates and is created by movement.” — Sara Ahmed9Ibid., p. 3

Let us take design education as an example: Who creates knowledge and how has a decisive influence on the construction and recognition of our reality. And the ways in which design educators then communicate this knowledge has an impact not only on us here and now, but also on future generations.

A radical, structural approach combined with an intersectional feminist perspective, implies significant changes from outside of design institutions as well as small ones from the inside – and the chance to create a more just design discipline and thus a more just society.10Sasha Constanza-Chock: “Design Justice: towards an intersectional feminist framework for design theory and practice.” June 3, 2018. Proceedings of the Design Research Society, 2018

We need to acknowledge that theory and practice, as well as form, function and content, are inextricably linked. From this arises the necessity for teaching at eye level, involving the students and their lived realities in the curriculum, which can be achieved by openly communicating one’s agenda, the goals of the course and the expectations of all those involved. Talking about and dealing with hierarchies can be a first step towards the collaborative creation of a space where students and educators can learn with and from each other.11bell hooks: Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge, 1994

For instance, in order to enable a respectful culture of conversation and to acknowledge the presence of everyone, we can ask the pronouns of the participants when getting to know each other – and also discuss our motivation to do so. Each person’s needs and abilities are very different. While some like group work, others prefer working alone. And while some flourish when they follow their own schedule, others reach their best potential when working within a given structure. We can respond to them by offering alternating formats with subsequent feedback rounds. In this way we can enable students to understand themselves and others better, but also to make better decisions for their professional future(s).

As educators, it is essential to reflect on our position and to work with experts if necessary: Which skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, financial background do I have? Where do I stand in the hierarchies of our society? Given my professional and personal experience and positionality, am I able to treat the topic in question appropriately and respectfully? Are there people more qualified than me?

Critical questioning is also an important method when it comes to content: How do we define design and which processes and people are included or excluded by this definition?12Cheryl Buckley: “Made in Patriarchy –Toward a Feminist Analysis of Women and Design” In: Design Issues Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall, 1986 What can we learn from the stories behind things?13Lisa Baumgarten and Anja Neidhardt: “Thingstead. [thing: Ding/Versammlung; stead: Ort/Stätte].” Presentation at the German Society for Design Theory and Research (dgtf) conference, Kassel, Nov, 15 2019 How did the design canon come into being? Do we need star designers at all (regardless of their identity)? Why do we continue to propagate the concept of the lone warrior and ignore the fact that design processes are all collaborative? Who develops design tools and based on what assumptions?

An examination of one’s positionality and responsibility must be part of design education. Reflective decision-making and action require a conscious approach to norms, the canon and tools – only in this way can possible adverse effects be recognised and prevented.

Additional Literature

Khandwala, Anoushka: “What does it mean to decolonize design?” In: AIGA Eye on Design Magazine, 2019. eyeondesign.aiga.org

Modes of Criticism 4: Radical Pedagogy. Eindhoven: Onomatopee (145.2), 2019.

Canli, Ece, und Prado, Luiza: “Design and Intersectionality. Materi- al Production of Gender, Race, Class – and Beyond”, Symposium Intersectional Perspectives on Design, Politics and Power at the School of Arts and Communication, Malmö University, Nov. 14 and 15, 2016.

Costanza-Chock, Sasha: “Design Justice: Towards an Intersection- al Feminist Framework for Design Theory and Practice” (June 3, 2018), Proceedings of the Design Research Society 2018. ssrn.com

Teaching Design: Bibliography, docs.google.com.

Tejada, Ramon (Ed.): Decolonising Design Reader, docs.google.com

Tunstall, Dori: “Decolonising Design”, Berkeley Talks (12), 2019, news.berkeley.edu

Ansari, Ahmed; Abdulla, Danah; Canli, Ece; Prado, Luiza; Kes- havarz, Mahmoud; Kiem, Matthew; Oliveira, Pedro, and Schultz, Tristan: “The Decolonising Design Manifesto”. In: Journal of Futures Studies 23(3), June 2016. researchgate.net/


This is the uncut version of the article “Discrimination Follows Design – Design Follows Discrimination. A feminist perspective on design”. Anja and Lisa were commissioned by form Design Magazine to write an accessible introductory text on the topic of feminism and design for their issue N° 287 “Women and Design”. A shortened version of their article was published well hidden in the back on p.160.

About the Authors

In 2019 Lisa Baumgarten and Anja Neidhardt founded the the platform Teaching Design, which deals with design education from an intersectional feminist and decolonial perspective. www.teaching-design.net

LISA BAUMGARTEN is co-founder of the platform Teaching Design, which approaches design education from intersectional-feminist and decolonial perspectives. She works as a freelance designer and art director and teaches at design colleges and universities. As a design educator, her focus is on exploring scopes for action and empowering students to question and break through established structures.

ANJA NEIDHARDT is a PhD student at the Umeå Institute of Design and tha Umeå Centre for Gender Studies. She also writes for different international design publications. Together with Maya Ober she is co-creating depatriarchise design. www.depatriarchisedesign.com

Graphic Artwork: Lisa Baumgarten(ref. here)
Reference as: Neidhardt, Anja, and Baumgarten, Lisa: “Discrimination Follows Design – Design Follows Discrimination. A Feminist Perspective on Design”, March 19, 2020.
Thanks to Maya Ober for supporting us with editing the English translation of the text.