Using Our Words: The Language of Design for Equity

Public interest design. Social impact design. Community based design. These are labels that many of us use regularly to define the work we do… but what do these words actually mean? As Barbara Brown Wilson and Katie Swenson acknowledged in the introduction to this series, we are at a time when our movement is blossoming. Yet, as the numbers in this field increase, it has become clear that there is not only a broad range of labels, but also a broad range of definitions for what constitutes good work. Many believe that developing common metrics is the answer to this challenge, but we can’t agree on metrics until we first agree on the words we use to discuss the work and its impacts.

Public interest design. Social impact design. Community based design. These are labels that many of us use regularly to describe the work we do… but what do these words actually mean? As Barbara Brown Wilson and Katie Swenson acknowledged in the introduction to this series, we are at a time when our movement is blossoming. Yet, as the numbers in this field increase, it has become clear that there is not only a broad range of labels, but also a broad range of definitions for what constitutes good work. Many believe that developing common metrics is the answer to this challenge, but we can’t agree on metrics until we first agree on the words we use to discuss the work and its impacts.

You say tomayto. I say tomahto.

We all say things like we want our project to “benefit the community,” we are “interested in diversity,” or we have an “engagement process.” But a little poking reveals that we often have different definitions for seemingly simple words like “community,” “diversity,” and “engagement.”

For example, Liz Ogbu is currently working on a project in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco to convert a former power plant site into a neighborhood-serving hub. The neighborhood is one of the poorest in the city, but is now experiencing significant gentrification. Liz and her team describe this as a “community-based” project, but who is the “community?” Is it specifically the African-American residents who have been the historic base of this neighborhood? Or is it all low-income residents in the neighborhood, regardless of color? Or is it all residents of the neighborhood regardless of color or income? Although it is easy to align “community” solely with underserved populations, designing for equity here means addressing the complexity of the broader community. How that community is defined significantly impacts the outcomes of the project, and could mean the difference between a project that supports existing power dynamics and one that dismantles them. A common language is critical if we are to achieve equity and enable accountability for how we practice and what we create.

Where do we begin?

We recognize that there have been other attempts to define terms in this field. However, there are a number of important words that remain either under-addressed or undefined, so we began exploring our own list of terms.

With input from a varied group of about 30 practitioners — from different sectors (academia, nonprofits, private sector) and fields of design (urban planning, architecture, graphic design, service design) — we’ve put together a hefty list of terms we hope to tackle over the next several months. In the meantime, we’ve started with a few terms that are highly critical to — yet notably absent from — discussions in the design fields

We have attempted to provide initial definitions of these terms, along with some thoughts on why they are critical to the field, especially at this moment in time. Throughout this series of posts, our collaborators will share projects and practices that further illustrate what these terms mean in the context of design.


“The condition of having or being composed of differing elements: especially: the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.”

Diversity means having representation of all groups. And one of the themes in this series is the call for more diversity in the field: based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, field of study, type of expertise, and other factors. This call for diversity is based on the belief that there are real barriers keeping talented people out of the field, and that we must work to reduce and eliminate those barriers. We have also come to believe that it is critical that our organizations should ultimately look more like the communities we serve, and be working to build capacity and leadership in those communities.

We start with diversity because it’s fairly easy to understand. But, perhaps because of that, we often end there as well. While diversity is important, it’s only a step on the way to a larger, more critical goal of achieving social equity. Achieving equity isn’t just about representation (making sure the field looks like the communities it serves); it is about significant action to transform the environments we engage in a meaningful and sustained way. That is why our focus here goes far beyond increasing diversity in the field and instead calling for a focus on equity as the end goal that all of our work should build towards.


“The quality or state of being equal, of having the same rights, etc.” [ii]

Before we talk about equity, let’s talk about equality. They are often used interchangeably but are fundamentally different. Equality is defined by access to opportunity. When we cut up a pie among eight people and each pie slice is the same size, we have equality. It sounds great, but equality only works if everyone starts from the same place. In reality, we know that we do not all stand on a level playing field, especially in the communities in which our work is often located.


“Equity means fairness. Equity…means that peoples’ needs guide the distribution of opportunities for well-being. Equity…is not the same as equality… Inequities occur as a consequence of differences in opportunity, which result, for example in unequal access to health services, nutritious food or adequate housing. In such cases, inequalities…arise as a consequence of inequities in opportunities in life.”[iii]

So what is equity, then? Equity, is concerned not just with opportunity, but also with the barriers that make those opportunities unequal. Whereas equality would demand eight equal pie slices and diversity would require that the pie slices be distributed to a broad range of people, equity would lead us to ask, “How much pie does each individual need? Have some individuals eaten already? Are others particularly hungry? Are some allergic to this flavor of pie?” An equitable slicing of the pie might lead to slices of different sizes.

Equity is particularly important when we recognize that equality is often an illusion because some populations face substantial barriers to accessing their “equal” rights. For example, distributing school funding based on equality would mean grants are available to any school that applies, and the school with the strongest application will be awarded the funds. An equity lens would recognize that some schools are more in need of the grants, and that those same schools are less likely to score high in their application due to lack of resources. It is critical to recognize that in cases like this, an equality model would, in fact, perpetuate the disparities that keep poorer schools behind.

The focus on equity makes clear that our projects are not “good” just because we are bringing design to communities that have not had access to it. Our work should also strive to create greater equity in society and to eradicate the barriers that prevent some from accessing resources. It means that how we do the project and the result of the project really matters. This has implications for a broad range of factors, including how we engage with communities we are not a part of, how we treat our own employees, how we share credit for our work, and how we measure impact.

On some level, everyone in this field understands that, which is why we’re all bringing resources into communities that are not able to access those resources already. But focusing the larger frame of our work on equity means that we are working towards alleviating the access discrepancies in the first place, as well as the policies, biases, and institutional barriers that create those discrepancies.


“A right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others.”[iv]

“Refers to the unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits and choices bestowed on people solely because of their race, class, socio-economic status, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or other characteristic they largely do not control. Generally people who experience such privilege do so without being conscious of it, and often don’t witness the experience of those who lack privilege.”[v]

Privilege is an intense word, but it underlies everything we do in this field. The act of bringing a resource into a community that has not had access to that resource is entirely predicated on one group of people being privileged enough to offer that resource. Privilege is a word people use for name-calling, which makes us shy away from understanding it and talking about it. However, as a field, that means that we are not training ourselves to responsibly and humbly enter a community with a frank discussion of privilege. Our actions are informed by our privilege, which may stem from our race or ethnicity, our socio-economic status, our class, our family history, our gender, our schooling, our social connections, or our access to power.

Whether or not we seek privilege or power, we have it, and we have to address it. We can use it for good, we can give it up, we can put it on the table when we talk with or about the people who don’t have it, and we can put it in the hands of others. Arguably, the latter is an intention many of us have when we enter this field, but intention is not the same as action. Acting on privilege means tangibly acknowledging that the pie can’t be cut equally to be equitable, and doing something about it. It means recognizing that we are often in situations where a community isn’t in a position of power to push back at us when our design doesn’t reflect their input. It means acknowledging that the person funding our work can instill us with more power than the community members we’re hoping to serve. It means helping the community members who lack connections and access to have just as much of a voice and power as those who do. It is about understanding that achieving equity requires us to create an environment where everyone regardless of status or background can articulate their needs and the differing power dynamics.

The field of community organizing, where an active effort to take on issues of privilege is common, has helped our group find a way to productively talk about privilege. In particular, we have found that a guided activity that allows a group to explore and visualize their own privileges can be an eye-opening experience that creates space for this kind of conversation in our work.


“The ability or right to control people or things.”[vi]

“The ability to coerce others’ behavior. Power also includes access to social, political, and economic resources.”[vii]

Understanding privilege means also understanding power, as they often go hand in hand. Privilege gives many of us an invisible, yet highly influential, level of power— the power to determine how the pie is cut. By not acknowledging privilege or power, we often fail to acknowledge (or properly leverage) the scale of our influence on projects. This can lead to stand-alone projects that are conceptually interesting but limited in terms of deep and sustained impact.

We must remind ourselves that design itself is a tool of power — it is a specialized skill that not everyone has access to. As someone who has that skill, each one of us makes decisions about in whose hands we will place that power. For example, as an intermediary in a community, we might have power to push policymakers on their own thinking about the community. Christine Gaspar saw this happen many times in her work in Mississippi at the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio. As a white, educated person with significant credentials, she was often privy to conversations about low-income communities of color in which significant decisions were made, while those communities had no place at the table. While she was not in any way elected to represent those communities, she felt that it was her duty, as a person with the privilege of being in that room, to use any power she had to advocate on their behalf – at least until such a time when those people could be in the room themselves (ideally as the decision-makers).

Many of us are drawn to this work because we instinctively understand that and are intentionally making choices about where we place power. But few of us have had the opportunity to discuss what that power even means and to learn how to simultaneously diffuse the power dynamic when working with communities, while wielding our power to bring about greater equity.

Help us create a shared language.

This essay is a starting point. We hope we have opened up some space to talk about thorny issues like equity, privilege, and power. But this is a work in progress and part of a larger iterative process. We hope you’ll help add to this list. If you have words to share, add them as a comment to this article or email them to us. We also invite you to visit the Design for Equity website. In the coming months, we’ll be using that platform to add new words and definitions related to design for equity, share more information about the overall effort, and identify more opportunities to advance this conversation. We hope you’ll join us.

Merriam-Webster online at: retrieved on 2/15/15

[ii] Merriam-Webster online at: retrieved on 2/15/15

[iii] “Glossary of Terms,” from the Public Health Agency of Canada, retrieved from The glossary was compiled by Dr. John M. Last in October 2006 and revised and edited by Peggy Edwards in August 2007. This quote has been edited to remove references to public health, since we believe the same notion applies to the design field and to society more broadly.

[iv] Merriam-Webster online at: retrieved on 2/15/15

[v] From: “Racial Equity Resource Guide,” produced by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s “America’s Healing” initiative, retrieved from on 2/15/15 The site identifies the following source: Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women Studies.” The quote here has been modified to remove references to white privilege, and to more broadly address a range of privileges.

[vi] Merriam-Webster online at: retrieved on 2/15/15

[vii] Shaw, Dr. Susan, “Difference, Power, and Privilege” presentation retrieved from on 2/15/15

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