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Intersectional Design drives innovation while supporting social justice and environmental sustainability. It's about getting the design right for people across all of society—from the very beginning. Intersectional Design considers overlapping or "intersecting" factors—including gender, ethnicity, age, geographic location, etc.—that interact to shape a person's or a group's experience and social opportunities as a starting point for a more inclusive design approach.
The Intersectional Design Cards are designed to help teams explore and develop intersectional design solutions. The cards might be used to start a conversation, critique a product, experience, or service; or to brainstorm new ideas. The deck includes a guide booklet, 12 intersectional factors, 4 design levels, 12 design questions, and 16 case studies. The case studies tell the story of intersectional design—from inclusive crash test dummies, to voice assistants, to social robots, urban design, medical technologies, smart mobility, water infrastructure, marine science, and more.
This work has evolved out of an ongoing collaboration by an interdisciplinary team of researchers, designers, and practitioners, who conduct research, hold workshops, and teach classes at Stanford University's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, the d.school.
The cards, published in November 2021 and distributed by Stanford University Press, have been prototyped with students and start-up teams, presented at several conferences, and reviewed by industry professionals and academics. They can also be accessed freely on our website www.intersectionaldesign.com
In 1989, legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to describe how multiple forms of discrimination intersect in Black women's lives, in ways that are erased when sexism and racism are treated separately. Since 1989, this Black feminist term has been expanded to describe intersecting forms of inequity and inequality emerging from structural advantages and disadvantages in society.
Intersectional design considers overlapping or "intersecting" factors that interact to shape a person's or a group's experience and social opportunities as a starting point for a more inclusive design approach. Co-founder of Design Justice Network, Sasha Costanza Chock, describes this as a shift from what Crenshaw defined as a 'single axis analysis', where gender, or age are considered as independent constructs, to embracing multiple social factors in evaluating equity and equality in design, so as to include groups of people who are intersectionality disadvantaged. Here we move from a traditional notion of 'inclusive design', which takes single factors such as age or disability as a starting point, to 'intersectional design', which takes intersecting factors such as age, sex, and gender as a starting point for innovation. So, intersectional design can help us to tackle social and environmental inequities and inequalities in a multifaceted way, as well as uncover new opportunity areas in design.
Intersectional Design Cards
Our card deck includes a guide booklet, 12 intersectional factors, 12 design question cards, and 16 case study cards (largely drawn from Professor Londa Schiebinger's Gendered Innovations research platform at Stanford University, www.genderedinnovations.stanford.edu).
The 12 intersectional factors have been selected as the key factors that relate to our case studies. We recognize that there are many more factors, and include additional blank factors cards for people to add their own definitions to the deck, based upon factors relevant to their work.
Some of the factor definitions might be new to people on a team. Or people might have different definitions or understandings. For example, the words "race" and "ethnicity" have different, sometimes overlapping meanings and are used, or explicitly not used, in different countries. Some language used in the cards might be uncomfortable or mean different things to different generations or cultures. Exploring the definitions can help teams establish a shared language before applying them to their intersectional design practice.
Our Definition of Design
Designing for emerging technologies requires a comprehensive understanding of design, so that we can recognize where our work makes a positive impact and how it connects up to other aspects of a design context. Our definition of design is therefore organized into four interconnected levels: Form and Function, Experiences and Services, Systems and Infrastructures, and Paradigms and Purpose.
Today, we recognize that design encompasses many different things. Take, for example, the smart phone. Design might mean the look and feel of the device in your hand, the experience of video chatting or using a virtual assistant, the network of hardware and software that the device connects to, and/or the cultural trends that emerge through using the device in new and unforeseen ways.
So maybe you are an industrial designer considering the look, feel and physical dimensions of a product, or a computer scientist working on automated speech recognition (ASR) systems, or perhaps you're working on a futures-oriented team, thinking about how emerging technologies might create new behaviors or forms of interaction. This very broad definition of design encourages designers to evaluate equity and inclusivity across this broad spectrum of design, pinpointing where their work can best leverage change. It is also a call to action for more thoughtful connectivity and collaboration across these different areas of design.
Our 12 design questions and 16 case studies are organized according to these four categories.
Here are some examples from each of these levels:
Level 1: Form and Function
Design Question: How might your product be customizable?
Case Study: Pulse Oximeter
Intersecting factors: Race, Sex
Description: Pulse oximeters, used to measure oxygen levels in the blood, overestimate oxygen levels in the blood in patients with darker skin, putting them at risk for organ failure if supplemental oxygen is not provided. Oximeters can also be inaccurate for women, whose fingers are typically smaller and geometrically different from men's. Black women may experience the highest error rates.
Level 2: Experiences and Services
Design Question: Who might be marginalized within your target demographic?
Case Study: Virtual Assistants
Intersecting factors: Gender, Ethnicity, Sexuality
Description: Voice assistants have primarily been gendered as female, reinforcing negative stereotypes of female servitude. One of our student projects this year developed by William Parish and his team proposed the idea of a community-based VA, called 'Chorus', this team have since taken the project forward as a start-up.
Level 3: Systems and Infrastructures
Design Question: How will your design change as social relations change in the coming years?
Case Study: Transport Planning
Intersecting factors: Family Configuration, Gender
Description: Transportation planners collect data by journey purpose to plan infrastructure. Traditional data categories include, for example, employment, education, and shopping. None of these categories capture carework—caring for children, the elderly, and households—even though, when counted separately, "care-related trips," become the second largest category by trip purpose. Taking into consideration caregivers' travel patterns allows transportation engineers to design systems that work efficiently across broader segments of the population.
Level 4: Paradigms and Purpose
Design Question: What kind of future worlds would you like to see your design working within?
Case Study: Social Robots
Intersecting factors: Disability, Gender, Race
Description: Humans—whether as designers or users—tend to anthropomorphize and, consequently, gender machines (because, in human cultures, gender is a primary social category). Social robots are designed in a world alive with gender norms, gender identities, and gender relations. Social critics point out that, even though robots are plastic, most are white—and many have blue eyes, which may be problematic from an ethnic point of view. Milo—a robot designed for learners with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)—comes in a variety of skin tones. Customizable options might enhance human/robot interaction.
Intersectional Design Cards in Use
We have prototyped the cards in use with design thinking students at the d.school, Stanford. In our class 'Innovations in Inclusive Design', students work with partners from industry and research, analyzing specific technology products, including, for example, virtual assistants and driverless cars. Students work in interdisciplinary teams to generate intersectional design concepts and questions. Our class combines concepts and theories from intersectional innovation with an immersive and critical design thinking experience.
Guide Booklet Activities
The cards have been designed with a purposefully open structure. You can read through the whole deck, take a single case to review as a team, or spend time exploring a key question in depth. To get started we propose three ways to use the cards: to start a conversation, critique an existing product, and brainstorm ideas. We hope students, designers and others who use the cards adapt them and add to them to support their design process, and feedback the results, so we can continue to evolve this method in an open and participatory manner.