An online resource for designing a better world.

Design for Equity: Introduction to an Eight-Part Feature Series

February 25, 2015

Over the past few weeks, news of the closure of Architecture For Humanity has led to many critiques and questions, not only about the future of AfH, but the future of the entire field of public interest design. Inspired in the 1960s by the civil rights movement and maintained by humble practitioners across the globe, this dynamic constellation of practices is not defined by the rise or fall of a single organization or figurehead. Instead of calling the entire field into question, what the response to the closure of AfH serves to highlight are major weaknesses the field is now mature enough to address head on.

Although there are many different practice types and priorities operating under the umbrella of ‘public interest design’ (or related terms), much of that work is not focused on ameliorating injustice. In order to ensure that the field is concerned with action towards beneficial impact we need a shift in priorities; we need to focus on designing for equity.

Equity means more than just equality; equity means fighting against systemic injustices, breaking down implicit biases, and helping people change their “existing situations into preferred ones,” to paraphrase Herbert Simon’s definition of design. To be sure, this is no easy feat, but we believe there are two important leverage points through which we can influence this system: 1) evaluating community design work by its equity outcomes and 2) expanding the leadership base so that our collective voice is marked by diversity, not heroism.



As the field has matured, many practitioners acknowledge the need for more thoughtful critique, a more rigorous focus on equity and impacts, and a better understanding of how this work gets done well. It is time to take stock in what we do, how we do it, and what types of change it creates in the communities we serve. There is not enough critical discussion about the actual impacts of our work; we operate under the assumption that our intention to work in the “public interest” makes our work inherently good. This is not enough.

As our field matures we need to aspire to setting a higher bar of practice – from our individual projects, to our employment practices, to our methods of community engagement. We have to think about how all aspects of our work can contribute to greater equity and social justice. We need to orient the profession more directly to notions of civil rights and collectively hold ourselves accountable to them.

What's Your Action


What is exciting about the moment we find ourselves in now is clarity that the profession no longer needs be defined by the work of one or two large organizations. There are thousands of nonprofit organizations, for-profit entities, and volunteer networks across the globe doing this work well, and without fanfare. Leadership pipelines that amplify this diversity are essential. The voices of younger practitioners, non-architect/planner disciplines, people of color, and grassroots community leaders are still notably absent in this field, and leave the conversation to be driven by only a few perspectives.

If we are to elevate the dialogue related to designing for equity, new platforms are needed in which new voices can contribute to the language, evaluation metrics, principles upheld, and narratives told about this work. And this will not happen until we also have a leadership model that pays attention to more than a few architect-heroes who dominate popular critique.



Over the past year, a group of leaders in the field began meeting informally to discuss how they might help bring more visibility to these critical issues. What began as a few friends seeking moments of collective reflection became a working group with two key goals; first to actively commit to equity outcomes, and second to promote diversity of all kinds throughout our field (and in particular, within it’s leadership).

This group looks at the field through different lenses and operates at different scales, including Christine Gaspar from the Center for Urban Pedagogy, Jess Garz from the Surdna Foundation, Theresa Hwang from Skid Row Housing Trust, Nicole Joslin from Women.Design.Build, Liz Ogbu from Studio O, Katie Swenson from Enterprise Community Partners, Barbara Brown Wilson from the University of Virginia, and Jess Zimbabwe from the Rose Center for Public Leadership.

We are writing a series of articles to dig into these topics and formulate a fresh approach. Our goal is to elevate the dialogue related to designing for equity by holding up new voices and new perspectives. In the coming weeks we’ll share a new article each Wednesday. We invite you all to join, comment, critique, and suggest ideas and topics on how to propel the public interest design movement forward at this critical juncture. Please check back next week and also visit our website,, to sign up for our mailing list and connect to resources.

– Katie Swenson and Barbara Brown Wilson

Check back on March 5th for the next feature article in this series – “Using Our Words: The Language of Design for Equity” by Christine Gaspar and Liz Ogbu – or sign up for the IDH newsletter to have it delivered straight to your inbox!

Image sources: Jess Zimbabwe, Metropolis Magazine

One Comment

  1. Inspiring stuff, with very important practical application! I look forward to reading more.

Leave a Reply

Continue With More Articles in This Feature

Using Our Words: The Language of Design for Equity

March 4, 2015
This is the second post in the “Design for Equity” series. Read all articles in the series in the design for equity section. Public interest design. Social impact design. Community based design. These are labels that... Read More

Designing for Equity: Using a Civil Rights Framework

March 11, 2015
This is the third post in the “Design for Equity” series. Read all articles in the series in the design for equity section. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s moved pivotal barriers that segregated and discriminated communities... Read More

Finding Your Path in Social Impact Design

March 18, 2015
This is the fourth post in the “Design for Equity” series. Read all articles in the series in the design for equity section. The pursuit to challenge traditional notions about what designers do and who benefits from their... Read More

Walking the Walk: Putting Equity Into Practice

March 25, 2015
This is the fifth post in the “Design for Equity” series. Read all articles in the series in the design for equity section. Over the years, each of us has experienced or seen firsthand organizations practicing social impact... Read More

Process and Collaboration: Why Community Design Needs More Cross-Fertilization

April 8, 2015
This is the sixth post in the “Design for Equity” series. Read all articles in the series in the design for equity section. I once had the good fortune to have lunch with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi at... Read More

When Good Intentions Aren’t Enough: Linking Intent to Impact

April 15, 2015
This is the seventh post in the “Design for Equity” series. Read all articles in the series in the design for equity section. Over the last few weeks, we’ve introduced the idea of “design for equity” and... Read More

Design for Equity: Participate and Contribute to the Movement

May 8, 2015
The last post in the Design For Equity series was meant to be a conclusion, but of course it is also a beginning. We’d like to use this final essay to reflect on who we... Read More