Don't pretend to be neutral

In a series of three articles, we reflect on a topic that is often regarded to be at the very roots of social design: inclusivity. This first issue is about bias.

Tekst: Sander van der Zwan (i.s.m. Afdeling Buitengewone Zaken)

On the 17th of October, a group of 70 visitors of the Dutch Design Week came together to participate in the 7th Social Design Showdown event about Inclusivity. Both onsite and online, they discussed a topic that is often regarded to be at the very roots of social design: inclusivity. In a series of three articles, this is a reflection on the results.

In his critique on commercialism, Victor Papanek, already made a plea for inclusivity of design in the 60s and 70’s, and thereby launched an alternative perspective on what design could do. Even though the topic is of high importance to social designers, the question remains: can social designers really say that they work inclusively?

During the event the participants pointed their gaze, not towards their stakeholders as they are often trained to do, but to themselves. They did so to be able to critically reflect, redirect and promote a more inclusive social design. In small groups they discussed, among other things, ways of designing, diversity in teams, exclusive language use and accessibility issues.


In this article series, I aim to reflectively engage with some quotes of the participants gathered during the event by relating them to concrete examples from a social design project. I hope it will both give you an impression of what has been discussed during the event as well as continue the discussion concerning inclusivity of design. Let's dive into the first few quotes:

"How do we reduce our biases in hiring people?", "I see it as every choice you make and step you take is influenced by your biases." and "If we weigh underrepresented groups more, it will be compensated by our own biases, making an equal influence in the end."

Even though the discussion topics were varied, the word 'bias' seemed to be of crucial importance when discussing inclusivity. To be inclusive, one apparently needs to do something with their biases. Because biases are already there in everything we do, they have to be reduced or compensated for. But what do we mean with a bias? In science, the word bias is often used to refer to our personal view that is constituted by our personal interests and histories, which obscures our access to objective reality. They are obstacles that stand in the way of producing results that refer to 'the real world' beyond our personal relations with it.

Foto: Keynote speakers inclusivity event Social Design Showdown 

Because talking about reducing such biases implies a striving for becoming objective, I doubt if it makes sense to talk about biases in design at all. Is such an objective view something we should strive for and is it even a possibility in design? Let’s have a look at a design project:

A social design studio was asked to investigate how public space could become a place for youngsters to decouple from their phones. Early on in the project, designers went out on the street to engage in semi structured interviews with youngsters in order to figure out more about their phone use and what draws them to their phone. One of their intentions being that knowing more about what draws them to their phones might allow for a design translation of those characteristics, from their phones and into public space.

In this example, there is already a very clear normative claim from the start of the project: youngsters need to decouple from their phones. Such a normative claim is very common in design, whether it be about sustainability, inclusivity, social cohesion, loneliness or other. In such projects, the information gathered, through for example an interview about phone use, may be true. But it is clear that the search for this particular information is already intertwined with values, such as social contact and care for your non-digital environment. In other words, by participating in such projects alone, designers are already non-neutral. Let alone everything that will follow once the project has started: the way the question will be approached, the way the project will be reframed along the way, the things that will be made, the people who will participate, and so forth.  

Foto: Street interviews about phone use among youngsters

Non-neutral position

So what might we do with such a non-neutral position? While situations can be imagined where trying to withhold your position can be of interest, opening up and being explicit can very well lead to valuable insights. Lets look for an example from the project:

After asking one of the final questions in the interview with a young guy of about 17 years old, he chuckled and answered the question. "May I ask why you are doing this research?" He asked curiously. After explaining the complete project to him, he responded: "Well, in the past we read books, now we just use our phones."

In this example, the designers were explicit about their position. Only when explaining the intentions of the project did the boy have the chance to respond to it from his perspective. From his point of view, the designers would do better to just accept how things changed, rather than fight it. While this response does not discredit the project, his response is a valid one that could open up new directions for the project. Rather than saying, all phone use should be reduced, the designers can now ask a question that might lead to a more nuanced position: what about the change from reading books towards using phones do we want to accept, and what would be worthwhile designing for? 

The idea that being open about your position and non-neutrality could be of value, was not unnoticed by the participants at the event as well. This is what they had to say about it:

"It’s better to let your opinion shine through so that people are forced to consider their own views and articulate an opinion of their own." and "We’re currently living in a time where you have to be explicit about your biases. You can’t pretend to be neutral, as a designer you have to be clear about your intent."


What can we learn from this with regards to inclusivity? 

During the event, it was discussed that to become inclusive, designers might have to reduce or compensate for their biases. The word 'bias' (as used in science) implicitly promises the possibility of becoming objective, but becoming fully objective as designers is unattainable. Already by participating in a design project we are non-neutral. Therefore, inclusivity in designing might not be about reducing our biases in order to become objective. Rather, it might be more helpful to accept this non-neutrality and reflexively try to be explicit about our position so that others may respond to them and add valuable perspectives to the design project.