A few weeks ago, Snapchat released a new addition to its face-altering filters that have become a signature of the service. But instead of surrounding your face with flower petals or giving you a funny hat, the new photo filter added slanted eyes, puffed cheeks and large front teeth. A number of Snapchat users decried the filter as racist, arguing it was the outcome of not having enough people of color building the product. In a tech world that hires mostly white men, the absence of diverse voices means that companies can be blind to design decisions that are discriminatory or hurtful to their customers.
The company countered that they meant to represent anime characters and deleted the filter within a few hours. They also said that they’ve recently hired someone to lead their diversity recruiting efforts.
But this isn’t just Snapchat’s problem. Discriminatory design affects all aspects of our lives: from the quality of our health care to where we live to what scientific questions we choose to ask. Let’s take a look at some tangible examples.
You can’t talk about discriminatory design without mentioning city planner Robert Moses, whose public works projects shaped huge swaths of New York City from the 1930s through the 1960s. The physical design of the environment is a powerful tool when it’s used to exclude and isolate specific groups of people. And Moses’ design choices have had lasting discriminatory effects that are still felt in modern New York.
A notorious example: Moses designed several Long Island Parkway overpasses to be so low that buses could not drive under them. This effectively blocked Long Island from the poor and people of color who tend to rely more heavily on public transportation.
The design of bus systems, railways, and other forms of public transportation has a history riddled with racial tensions and prejudiced policies. And zoning laws that determine how land is used or what schools children go to have long been used as a tool to segregate communities.
If maps are the visual manifestation of a design process, then designers can quite literally put discrimination on paper. Take, for instance, 1930’s-era redlining maps, which color coded neighborhoods based on their “desirability” to banks and investors. Areas with the lowest rating were outlined in red — and often traced inner city black neighborhoods. The effects are still visible today.
Industrial design plays a role as well, by steering human activities. For example, benches designed with prominent arm rests or shallow seats discourage homeless people from sleeping on them. This phenomenon is known as “hostile architecture” or “unpleasant design.” As one critic points out, it says a lot about a culture when its solution to homelessness is to put spikes on public surfaces.
Architects and real estate developers also play a role in discriminatory design. For example: designing buildings with separate entrances for affordable-housing tenants and market-rate tenants. So-called “poor doors” were banned in New York City, but are still being installed elsewhere.
Or consider the paucity or poor design of women’s bathrooms, which is a constant reminder of the many ways women operate in a world literally designed for (and by) men. It’s not just an inconvenience: it’s health and safety concern. Women who are menstruating need regular access to a bathroom; a filthy toilet that may suit men’s needs puts women at risk for infections; many women have no other place to breastfeed; and women are still responsible for small children who accompany them into the restroom more often than men.
Such design decisions are both caused by broader discrimination and have a way of enforcing it. Yale Medical School and Harvard Law School at one point claimed that they couldn’t admit women because there were no ladies rooms. Or, from our own generation, see the recent hysterics over transgender bathrooms — a perfect example of how the design of spaces can disadvantage some groups of people over others. And every day people with disabilities face challenges in getting around buildings and spaces not designed with them in mind.
It’s likely that as long as humans and their institutions hold prejudices and bias, their designs will reflect them. But some progress is possible. Two decades ago architect Ronald Mace imagined a new standard, in which anything humans make — a new piece of technology, a public park, a household product — is usable by everyone. He called this idea “universal design.” One way to help us get there? Make sure the design process itself is also accessible to all.
Adapted from Discrimination by Design, ProPublica (Sept. 2016)
Lena Groeger is an investigative journalist and developer at ProPublica, where she makes interactive graphics and other data-driven projects. She also teaches design and data visualization at The New School and CUNY and is on the board of the Society for News Design. Before joining ProPublica in 2011, Groeger covered health and science at Scientific American and Wired magazine. She is particularly excited about the intersection of cognitive science and design, as well as creating graphics and news apps in the public interest.