Combination of all three diagrams discussed in this post

Allies, identities and feeling uncomfortable

Alastair Somerville
4 min readAug 8, 2021


Three discussions this week about diversity and codesign.

Moving from a organisation-centred world of:

  • compliance
  • categories
  • control

To many human-centred worlds of:

  • diversity
  • divergence
  • self-control

It creates so many issues around new language and behaviours.


Test only image of Ally Washing definition: the idea of creating special product or service for awareness while not changing core product or service

On Wednesday, there was news about Mattel making a special edition Barbie to celebrate the work of Dame Sarah Gilbert in creating one of the COVID vaccines.

I’m quite unsure what this kind of re-positioning of Barbie means. Does it show a real shift in Mattels’s toy brand or is it just a blip?

Ally Washing came up in a discussion of corporations and government agencies who appear temporarily supportive of some radical cause or minority group (particularly during an awareness week or month) but do not actually change their core processes at all. This relates to the existing idea of Greenwashing where ecological change programs are used to divert attention away from damaging industrial processes.

Maybe Mattel is changing but if the STEM Barbie dolls are merely collectibles with limited outreach and minimal effect upon the core Barbie mass production line then maybe it’s allywashing.


Triangle diagram of three I’s — identity, identification and impact. Is identity chosen or allocated? Do you identify with this category or title? How does it impact your life: does it oppress or privilege?

On Thursday, the issue of Person First language came up again. This form of language is used to focus people upon the individual humanity of people with disabilities rather than, as occurred historically, putting their impairment before their personhood.

Nowadays however, Person First language is not so clearly beneficial. Many disabled people do want to speak of their impairment as being part of what and who they are. This is notable in the preference for autistic person rather than person with autism.

Identity, identification and impact is something I’ve been talking of lately due to reading the book Design Justice. How power and privilege interact with intersecting identities is deeply complex and complicated.

How the three I’s are recognised by individuals and the society around them needs to be made more explicit. For many people, the ways in which they describe themselves is hugely important and deliberately choosing to change how they name themselves matters deeply. For many people, they simply accept the default identities and categories that are part of their society and histories. In order to discuss diversity and divergence, it is necessary sometimes to make naming explicit for both groups.

This can be uncomfortable.

Feeling Uncomfortable

Ideas around the basic sense of feeling uncomfortable when an organisation listens to its users

Finally, on Friday I was part of a discussion about museums, codesign and decolonisation. This is like the shifting of language of identity creating waves of discomfort amongst, particularly, people who were relatively content with the historical biases and privileges that have existed for many decades.

The diagram above is more of a word cloud of some ideas and phrases that came up in discussions of projects to shift how artefact are interpreted and exhibited in museums. The ideas of privilege and power, humility and equity, being vocal and listening honestly are all important to codesign projects.

Feeling uncomfortable is true for both people who are users or visitors and for people who professionals within organisations. However, how that discomfort is felt and how it affects codesign differs radically. Being outside or within an organisation and being part of an out-group or and in-group affects how the conversations and actions play out.

Like identity, this is where being explicit about these concepts is a way of enabling equitable spaces for action. To not speak of the ideas means that historic privilege and oppression becomes the default.

Three diagrams plus one

These three diagrams came out of three days of this week. They all matter as they are about the issues of human-centred design when foundational ideas of what it is to be human are shifting.

The expansion of language to encompass diversity and divergence is important to enable people to truthfully be the human they want to be. However, this expansion can unfoot those people who centre their identity on historic and tight definitions of being human.

How we facilitate honest discussions in the future depends on finding ways of making both novelty and history explicit in ways that enable positive change.

Perhaps one extra diagram might help? The tension, the uncomfortableness, is in how language is bring stretched outwards and inwards by people seeking sense of self in diversity and homogeneity.

Haidt described ethics differing between liberals and conservatives: both behaved in what they viewed as moral ways but their models of moralities did not overlay.

In vocabularies now we have people seeking greater respect and sense of self by expanding how we can describe our complex humanity. Yet this appears to be manufactured complication to people who prefer established patterns of language.

How do we facilitate and maintain connection when there is this tension?



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX