Step Out of the Shallow End of Business Strategy with Liberatory Design

Published on
February 16, 2023

In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of design's role in shaping our society. Design thinking is a way to solve problems that puts people first. It has become popular in business and has been used in many different fields. As we learn more about systemic inequality, it is becoming clearer that design thinking alone is not enough. Enter liberatory design, a powerful way to promote fairness and justice, especially inside our business. 

Origin of Liberatory Design

Liberatory design is a term coined by the National Equity Project (NEP), a nonprofit organization that works to advance educational equity and promote social justice. According to the National Equity Project (NEP), liberatory design is an approach that "recognizes the systemic oppression and inequities embedded in our current design practices and seeks to actively dismantle them through intentional, inclusive, and liberatory practices."

The concept of liberatory design draws on the work of several scholars and activists, including bell hooks, Paulo Freire, and Gloria Anzaldúa, who have all emphasized the importance of centering the experiences and perspectives of marginalized communities in the pursuit of social justice.

What is Liberatory Design?

Liberatory design is an approach that tries to get rid of systemic oppression and unfairness by making products, services, and systems that are made to be inclusive and promote justice. Liberatory design differs from design thinking because design thinking focuses on solving specific problems. Instead, liberatory design looks at the root causes of issues, which are often deeply rooted in systems of power and inequality.

Liberatory design is based on a set of rules that put the needs and experiences of people on the margins of society first. These principles include:

  1. Centering the voices and experiences of those who are most impacted by a particular issue.
  2. Examine the systemic causes of oppression and inequity and actively seek to dismantle them.
  3. It engages in a collaborative, iterative process involving ongoing feedback and dialogue with community members.
  4. It recognizes and values diverse perspectives, experiences, and ways of knowing.
  5. Creating products, services, and systems that are equitable, accessible, and promote justice.

How is Liberatory Design different from Design thinking?

Design thinking and liberatory design have some things in common, like how they both put an emphasis on empathy and working together. However, several key differences set the liberatory design apart.

First, while design thinking is primarily concerned with solving specific problems, liberatory design seeks to address the root causes of those problems. This means that liberatory design can look at how power and inequality are built into our products and businesses.

Second, liberatory design gives more weight to the voices and experiences of groups that have historically been left out or not heard. Design thinking may involve getting feedback from a lot of different people, but liberatory design focuses on the views of the people who are most affected by an issue.

Finally, liberatory design is guided by a set of principles that prioritize equity and justice. Design thinking may be driven by a desire to create innovative and marketable products, but a commitment to social change drives liberatory design.

Leaving the Typical Design Sprint Behind

I use it to create design sprints that include more voices, help distribute power on teams regardless of position, expand what good consumer research is like, and help products and tech teams not just include accessibility as an add-on feature but build it into the core product. 

It’s a process that keeps us curious, empathetic, strategic, and innovative. Because the path forward requires us to try new things. 

Ultimately, it’s how I keep myself, my team, and the businesses and organizations OpenHouse works with accountable for not falling into the business-as-usual paradigm. 

As we keep trying to figure out how to fix the systemic inequalities in our world, the liberatory design gives us a way forward that is both idealistic and realistic.

It’s an effective tool for the optimist and the realist. 
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