To kick off the new year, I interviewed Tania Anaissie, the Founder and CEO of the social justice design firm Beytna Design and the co-creator of a new form of design thinking called Liberatory Design.
Liberatory Design combines the innovative potential of design thinking, the systemic lens of complexity theory, and the healing powers of equity practices to redesign how people work and live.
I met Tania when I was a coach for the Designing for Social Systems program at the Stanford d.school, and was struck by her deep commitment to design processes in which people experience belonging, exercise their full agency and power, and collectively co-design the future. In her work, Tania builds new frameworks and tools that expand upon the traditional design thinking framework with the goal of creating greater equity for those most impacted by oppressive systems.
This new and “evolved” approach to design thinking work is complementary to work being done in the museum sector by groups like OF/BY/FOR ALL, MAAS Action, and The Empathetic Museum, and is timely with the discussions in our sector about how museums can foster more equitable and inclusive practices and connect with our communities in effective and authentic ways.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
Q: Tania, how did you get into this work?
Much of this grew out of my lived experiences with inequity growing up as an Arab-American in Arkansas. As I made sense of my own experience, I saw how many systems were designed to oppress, and wondered if we could use new tools to redesign them. At the same time, I was practicing and teaching design thinking at Stanford, where I previously earned my design degree. I had questions about how design thinking was being practiced. I felt there were some unethical elements built into the design process itself, for example, in the re-creation of unhealthy power dynamics.
I basically reached a point where I was having a “crisis” about how design was practiced, and I felt a strong pull to re-examine the whole thing to imagine it as a force for equity.
Q: So what did you do during your “design crisis”?
I found other people who were asking the same questions. A group of us, designers and equity practitioners, came together to merge our best practices. We launched our co-creation, Liberatory Design, at a workshop for SXSWedu in 2017. We started meeting people across the nation who were doing similar work, and we started connecting and eventually came together as the Equity Design Collaborative.
I also founded my firm, Beytna Design, and I now work to support social sector leaders to bring their visions of equity to life using Liberatory Design.
Liberatory Design is a way of being and working that facilitates change towards equity. It’s an innovation practice rooted in sharing power, recognizing oppression, and centering those most impacted by inequity.
Q: Tell me more about how this is different from the traditional design thinking approach.
The biggest shift is in who is considered a “designer.” We believe that in order to create equitable outcomes, you have to design equitably, and that means involving people most impacted by the problem in the decision-making. Traditional design thinking consults those impacted, but the design team still goes behind closed doors to make interpretations and decisions. We’re pushing towards co-design and community-led design, which means those most impacted are on the team, making decisions with you as you transform power together.
Liberatory Design also includes a deeper examination of the history of how systems were designed, the equity implications, the origins of a problem, and the systemic ripple effects.
This is about prioritizing the design’s impact on the community over the intentions of the designer. It’s about being incredibly intentional about potential unintended consequences to a solution, and having protocols in place to reduce the risk of harm to those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of the design process.
And by design, I mean create with intention. You can design an experience, program, policy, system, product, or relationship. But if you are designing for equity, that means your end goal is to create greater equity.
Q: What can we as practitioners do in order to create with intention and design for greater equity?
We can examine the ways in which we practice, and question if (our practices) truly align with our values and are creating the kind of change we seek.
It starts with inquiry. For example, ask yourself, who is present at each stage of the project, and why? Who gets a say in how a problem is framed, or if it’s even a problem in the first place? Do those impacted get a say in decision-making, or if not, what other ways can you share power with them?
A lot of this work is also tied to personal reflection, like exploring your own identities and power because they all come to play in our work.
Q: What might the Liberatory Design process look like in museum?
My invitation is to consider, “How much are we willing to share power with the community we want to design with, and how might we invite them to collaborate?” In my opinion, the more they are involved, the higher the chance you will create truly transformative and equitable ideas.
The best way to engage a community is to authentically involve them, while remembering that no one owes us their trust or time, and the best we can do is design an invitation with respect and humility, and be willing to listen to their feedback.
Think about ways to build trust with the community and learn from where they are, for example, Chris Rudd, a friend and amazing designer was working on a project related to shared public spaces in a neighborhood of Chicago. He wanted to involve folks living there in the synthesis of empathy interviews, so he set up a “synthesis station” with Post-Its in a shipping container to engage passersby and invite them to make sense of the learnings. He shared what his team was hearing and seeing and asked them to tell him what was relevant and important.
One of the challenges of working this way is being willing to acknowledge that despite your academic expertise, there are other sources of knowledge that are critical to design work, including lived expertise. There are many kinds of expertise, and all bring richness to the work, but if we get caught up in feeling like we know “better” because of our education or work experience, we need to pause and ask instead, “What do I not know given I see one view of this, and how could I learn from others?” This shift requires you to share power and act as an ally and/or facilitator.
In my work, this means that I’m not here to make final decisions; I’m here to facilitate. I believe that people can solve their own problems under the right conditions, and my goal is to create some of those conditions. This gives space for a more sustainable, community-led approach.
Q: Any final thoughts for emerging or experienced design thinkers?
I invite everyone in the design field to be dedicated to questioning and iterating their own practices. The work isn’t easy, but I’m committed to it, and it has deepened relationships and sharpened my practice in ways I never imagined. I invite everyone to access the tools we’re creating, share your ideas, and join the movement!