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Inside Design will commemorate the year’s cultural moments and holidays through the theme of ‘Looking Back for a More Inclusive Future.’ Each month, we will explore the intersection of design and history through commissioned illustrations and articles. In celebration of Black History Month, Dr. Nichole Carelock (currently working with the US Presidential Transition to ensure teams are equipped with the right policy, people and practices to succeed) discusses how design insidiously maintains the status quo, endangers people of color’s lives and livelihoods, and doubles-down on inequity. Jhonny Núñez (IG, Behance, Dribbble) provides an illustrated variation on the same theme.
“Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works” – Steve Jobs
In March 2020, restrictions aimed to slow the coronavirus’s spread shut down America. Barber shops, taco trucks, and boutiques shuttered overnight, with Black-owned businesses closing at a higher rate. As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, legislators announced the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to save American small businesses through loans that would provide funds for payroll and benefits for up to 8 weeks. The PPP application opened on April 6th 2020. By April 16th, the funds ran out. Of those that received PPP loans through the CARES Act, only 2% were Black-owned businesses. Disbursement virtually excluded businesses in low income areas as well.
Systemic flaws in rollout pique my curiosity. As a tech anthropologist and UX researcher, I examine the human outcomes of entire tech ecosystems. My service design work with the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) focused on orchestrating infrastructure, communication, interfaces, policy, and people to create value for all citizens. At the base of this was the search for a more comprehensive understanding of exactly who we build systems for.
Design is a funny word. Who exactly did the government design these social safety nets for if not those who needed the support the most? For one, the government has a long history of bureaucratic disentitlement that limits the effects of social services. In other words, products and processes are “designed to fail” to cap the number (and type) of people able to successfully collect and qualify for benefits. Bureaucratic disentitlement in social welfare programs is not new—and as COVID-19 forces these applications and processes online, governments replicate these roadblocks in a new form. For example, the Florida government intentionally made its unemployment benefit application a complex process using confusing, unstable websites.
But maybe the PPP rollout wasn’t designed with malevolence in mind. Maybe it was all because the loan application process was simply designed based on the default, or assumptions based on abstractions that fit the “majority.” Abstractions that, by definition, lose or assume low value for certain details. Like many benefit programs before, large banks primarily distributed the first round of loans. Black business owners have a historically fraught relationship with these major banks: Federal Reserve reports indicate banks deny Black business owners loans at twice the rate of white business owners. This forces many minority entrepreneurs to seek funding elsewhere. Additionally, applying for a PPP loan would be the first time requesting a traditional loan for many Black and Latino business owners, and according to the New York Times “many banks considered applications only from existing customers.” So the PPP application process primarily benefited those companies most likely to have existing bank relationships. Using the default design reinforced long-existing inequalities.
Codifying inequity is not a new practice—it has shown up in new forms across all of American history. Like bureaucratic disentitlement, many instances have been outward in its aims (e.g. Slavery, the Chinese Exclusion Act, Trail of Tears). However, more recent examples persist insidiously under the guide of the default. Most times, new policies and practices that could act as an opportunity to rebuild for equity end up maintaining the status quo. We saw this with the PPP rollout, but examples run all the way from Kodak’s Shirley card of the 1940s to today’s crime prevention AI. These designs do not take into account that the unbalanced systems this nation was built on have not just disappeared over time. Instead of bringing about just solutions, accepting the default inhibits and endangers people of color’s lives and livelihoods while doubling-down on inequity.
For those of us involved in the design, digitization, and modernization of services and systems, we can no longer afford to code “default” judgments and assumptions into technical systems and absolve ourselves of the racist and sexist outcomes. For this reason, diversity and inclusion in service design must be seen as integral to the effective delivery of any technology. This must be our version of doctors’ Hippocratic Oath: to do no harm.
Maya Angelou stated “If you know better, you do better.” Change starts with knowledge. Examine how falling back to default designs impact what you create. Augment your design library with work that challenges that default thinking, like these resources below:
- Race After Technology, Ruha Benjamin
- Data and Society Research Institute
- On Racism and Photography, Rosa Wevers
- This Is Service Design Thinking, Jakob Schneider, Marc Stickdorn
- Good Services: How to Design Services that Work, Lou Downe
- “Design needs to actually champion its Black community—us included,” Sagal Muse
- “How design can help create systemic change”
- “How to design more inclusive products, according to Google’s Annie Jean-Baptiste”
- “Why this Brooklyn-based leader thinks design needs to explore beyond the binary”
- “‘I’ve been designing for the Black queer trans person from day one’: A Planned Parenthood designer on identity, career, and craft”
- “6 ways you can make your design more inclusive and equitable”