Dan Zollman

Information architecture, design, and strategy

Reforming vs. dismantling systems in the design field(s)

I had a brief exchange with Vivianne Castillo about reforming versus dismantling systems in design and technology. Vivianne wrote a brief post on what it looks like when organizations focus on reforming versus “dismantling systems that advance inequity”, which has been a recent theme in HmntyCntrd community conversations. I had suggested that when it comes to the status quo in design, however, our critiques often do not go far enough to dismantle, still only reforming what exists.

Below are a few thoughts on what reforming versus dismantling systems in design means to me. While I don’t want to trivialize or dilute those words by using them this context, I think it’s a useful distinction to help us frame aspects of design that also advance inequity.

Reforming vs. Dismantling…the framing of design:

  • Saying “We believe we can do good while still making a profit” vs. Acknowledging the ways in which making profit may be fundamentally tied to doing harm
  • Extolling the power of design to make the world better vs. Critiquing the limitations of design as a practice


  • Talking about how to make product design more ethical vs. Doing product design for more ethical businesses instead
  • Treating responsibility and ethics as long-term goals, then settling for “good enough” à la iterative methodologies vs. Redefining “good enough” based on what is responsible and ethical at the current moment
  • Trying to build products that solve social and environmental problems vs. Addressing problems through existing resources, knowledge, and people and not building products unless necessary
  • Talking about biases (etc.) in product design vs. Talking about the capitalistic systems that design enables, whether it does so through inclusion or exclusion

……professional associations, conferences, education:

  • Inviting people of underrepresented identities to professional conferences & associations so that they are “represented” vs. Giving up authority so that new people will lead our conferences & organizations
  • Removing bias from CFPs / peer review / conference curation vs. Being intentionally biased towards curating a conference that addresses issues people aren’t talking about enough, with speakers who know enough to talk about them
  • Incorporating ethics into existing conferences and programs vs. Starting new associations, courses, and pedagogies (hello, HmntyCntrd)
  • Improving the way design/UX communities educate practitioners about design/UX vs. Allowing the field to be transformed* by practitioners outside design/UX

Following Vivianne’s lead, I’ll ask: What does dismantling systems in design and tech look like for you?

I’m also posting about this on LinkedIn for discussion.

* This wording came indirectly from a conversation I had a few months ago with Andrew Maier, who suggested that instead of trying to get the organization to practice design the way I think it should be done, what is needed is a shift in mindset to: “I am willing to be transformed by this job.”


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