Freezing Change in Design Justice

Alastair Somerville
5 min readJun 19, 2021


Slides on Just, Justice, Ice model discussing in post

This is a post reacting to a news story this morning and reflecting upon some ideas about Design Justice in a Medium post “No, Design Justice is more than “including voices”, thanks.” by F. Okoye . The New Yorker story is on how a right wing researcher formed and framed the current Critical Race Theory arguments that appear in the media so much now. The Medium post is about how Design Justice can get changed when designers speak of it: more concentrating on the word Design than the concept of Justice. Words may seem clear but intents differ.

From my perspective in accessible design, there is a similar problem of wanting to create change but not recognising how differing layers operate and also how conservative forces manipulate debate thru changing layers. This post is just a few ideas about how to recognise where and why change freezes even when people speak in positive language.


Accessibility and Inclusive Design are both good movements that attempt to shift design away from a tight historic ideal of being human (in terms of widening out our shared sense of gender, race, culture, physical and cognitive capacities, and more). However, both movements are trapped in a layer of personal interaction. The design is making sure things are Just in the moment.

Just for the person. Just in the moment. Just just.


Design Justice notes this problem and talks about Justice that runs backwards and forwards from the moment of personal interaction thru the infrastructures of power and privilege that enforce the exclusion and oppression. Justice is just at a system layer. Justice is just both in recognising past failures and offering reparations and planning for future changes in power.

This is the reparative sense of Justice that designers can find deeply uncomfortable as it goes way beyond the sense of interaction design for individuals. This is the layer shifting that goes from human-centered thru service to system and ecological design. This is hard work as it mixes design with politics and power.

Design Justice is a good thing but it gets tangled up in the layer shifting of people who are used to designing at a personal layer in the present facing new problems of designing at system layers in the past and the future.

What makes this much worse is that the layer shifting is exactly where conservative movements operate to prevent change.


Freezing change prevents the new possibilities of futures and reinterpretations of pasts happening. Locking the future and past to a single narrtive of, for example, ‘national’ history means alternatives are blocked out.

Returning to the opening of this post and the New Yorker story, it’s important to see how the research and storytelling around Critical Race Theory work. The researcher saw current work in organisations to recognise bias and then went back thru the literature quoted in individual training manual materials to a range of academic work and theories on system layer exclusion and oppression. Branding this research as socialist and hate-filled, the conservative media is then able to tell multiple stories of Critical Race Theory ruining individual lives and hopes.

What needs watching is the layer switching. Academics try to note how historically the institutions and systems are created with biases and that the system layers need thorough critique to enable positive change. However, that critique is reframed by conservatives from aiming at the powerful and privileged organisations who maintain historic biases to be about individuals who may benefit in a range of ways from such biases. This enables a powerful narrative of populist victimhood to be shared widely. This sense of individual victimhood can then used at system layer to freeze change.

The layer switch pattern is thus:

1 Reasonable criticism of institutional bias spread from past thru present to future
Reframe reasonable system layer criticism as personal layer criticism of individual behaviour as unreasonable
Enable large scale narrative of personal victimhood and unfairness thru media and political speech
Reframe personal layer sense of perceived unfairness as system layer unfairness to freeze and prevent change.

This kind of change prevention has its own history. There is interesting book on how changes in corporate employment legislation around race and gender was reframed from being about institutional failures to individual employee failures. Racism and sexism becoming part of codes of conduct and employee misbehaviour punishment systems to avoid the corporations taking meaningful actions at infrastructure levels.

Layer switching is necessary and powerful. Shifting arguments between layers can change them radically. The Critical Race Theory article shows how layer switching an institutional critique to a personal critique enabled a powerful narrative to prevent institutional change.

This is the ice in design justice. Designer used to working with ideas of just in the moment of interaction facing justice problems that run thru time and systems. Their need for new allies and new tools to work. However, also that they are operating in a territory of layer-switching that other groups are more confident and capable of manipulating.

Just as final note: unconscious bias training and decolonisation work with individuals are good things. However, as noted in Matrix of Domination mentioned in the Design Justice book, watch the layers at which individuals can effect change. The layer-switch trick discussed in this post is about institutions ensuring institutional change does not occur by talking as if criticism of them is criticism of their staff. We (speaking as white man) need to change individually and we need to work together to ensure the more meaningful system layer changes occurs.



Alastair Somerville

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