Critical Design Lab

Part of our ongoing interview series with leaders and members of feminist-oriented labs and lab-like spaces, the following is our interview with Aimi Hamraie (they/them), Director of the Critical Design Lab. The lab was founded in 2014.

Where is the lab located?

I am based at Vanderbilt University. But the lab is diasporic. The Critical Design Lab’s work and meetings are all digital and currently we work out of three countries-the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.

With which research area, or cluster of research areas, does the lab engage with? (be as specific or broad as you wish)

Critical Design Lab is a collaborative of disabled artists, designers, and design researchers. We are a crip technoscience lab that builds on a few traditions: critical disability studies, critical design studies, and feminist technoscience. We bring a disability culture approach to design processes and interrogate the ableism of technoscientific cultures. Rather than abandoning technoscience, we co-opt it for the purposes of creating greater accessibility. Our critical design methods draw attention to the exclusions built into media, platforms, and practices, and then imagine these practices through a disability culture framework. Throughout our projects, we prioritize design methods that are cross-disability, cross-social movement, interdisciplinary, and also rooted in the material agencies of both currently-dehumanized humans and non-human allies. We have a wide range of specific disciplinary concentrations and areas of design expertise amongst us, including architecture, urban design, graphic design, sound design, multimedia video, wearable technologies, and landscape/permaculture.

What is a project, publication, community collaboration, or other output from the lab that you feel proud of? 

Lab member Kevin Gotkin founded a brilliant dance party series called Remote Access, based on his research on the history of disability nightlife and his current interests in social justice nightlife spaces in New York City, where he is also a DJ. Kevin has taught me that parties are a form of scholarship and sites of design practice. Remote Access parties include various forms of participatory access-making—ASL, live image and audio description, captioning—and disability art showcases. We have a party protocol on the website if you want to host one of your own. And these parties have sustained us through the COVID-19 pandemic, showing the ways that disabled people use technology to center joy and pleasure in times of crisis.

A project that has yielded unexpected and satisfying forms of institutional change is Mapping Access, which started at Vanderbilt University in 2014. This is a critical design project that uses participatory mapping to interrogate our relationships to place and space, training participants to read accessibility in built environments. In addition to its conceptual and pedagogical value, the project has had a big impact on the university itself, and basically helped initiate the first ever 40-year accessibility master planning process, which also resulted in re-writing the campus building code. This project is also replicated in other universities and has helped campus advocates push for greater accessibility. We have created a toolkit to help guide this process, whether in the classroom or on the scale of a campus.

I’m also very proud of the Contra* podcast, which has been a collaboration of media and sound design, interview-style podcasting, and web accessibility. We try to draw attention to how inaccessible podcasts tend to be and how they can be re-imagined to foreground the practices of disability culture.

What is one way (or a few ways) in which the lab centers equity, inclusion, or justice in its methods, protocols, or approaches?
—Alternatively, what is one way (or a few ways) in which the lab decenters dominant methods, protocols, or approaches through its work?

Our protocols for critical design make reference to “unfinished technoscience” because a key tenet of what we call “critical access” is that the work is never finished. (We use the term “protocol” in reference to the practice of design protocols, but also in terms of the political protocols of feminist technoscience, which Murphy describes in their book, Seizing the Means of Reproduction). We are constantly reiterating it. This is part of what design processes do, but also informed by our ethical commitments to never treat access as sufficiently achieved. We can always do better, and we do that through trial and error. This is also what we learn from histories of crip technoscience: disabled people have long tinkered with built environments and this is how we have gotten many of our understandings of accessibility. This design work contributes to the growing field of thinkers surrounding critical access. Tanya Titchkosky has shown us that access is a process of critical questioning, not a stable result. Louise Hickman helps us think about how access labor works, and how we can politicize it. Kelsie Action shows us how language itself is a place of access activism. Josh Halstead and Jen White-Johnson teach us how to translate ideas of critical access into design.

Every lab project uses a critical design method to work within and challenge a dominant method of media and cultural production. As theorized outside of disability studies and design, critical design describes methods of producing disorientation in users, to draw their attention to infrastructures or how things work. But as disabled designers, we know that we are already-disoriented, and that this gives us unique perspectives and approaches. So we are able to take a piece of technology or a form of media and ask why it is designed without us in mind, but also design something new that calls attention to that dominant method. This is a process of marking the unmarked. Here are some examples of this:

The website platform we use is called Squarespace. It produces beautiful websites. It also makes it easy for us to host and distribute our podcast. But Squarespace is also not developed with maximum accessibility in mind. Unlike WordPress, where you can use an accessible theme that will create space for you to incorporate alt-text and other accessibility features, Squarespace does not. We could just leave Squarespace and use something else, but instead, we have designed our website to show the limitations of Squarespace as a platform. In other words, we make our workarounds legible. When you visit the website, image descriptions appear in large text just under the image, rather than being embedded in the image data that would be readable to a screen reader. There is a full menu of all of the subpages in the body of the home page because the drop-down menus in the theme are inaccessible. So when someone looks at this, they may start to wonder why we have shown the guts of the website instead of trying to streamline everything.

Another example is the podcast. Podcasts are a sound-based media format, and so are often only accessible to hearing people. On a basic level, we offer transcripts of every episode at the time of release so that Deaf and Hard of Hearing people can access them. But we also have very developed show notes with key terms, links, and simple image descriptions of the content. This means that the show notes page is a stand-alone version of the podcast that you could use to get even more content without even listening to it. By doing this, we have challenged the typical podcast form but also shown what else the technology of access can do to help us ask the question of what a podcast is and how it functions.

 What is one internal (within the lab) challenge that you have encountered while devising, following, maintaining, or revising these methods/protocols/approaches? Is there a specific occasion that comes to mind in which an internal challenge presented itself? How did the lab work through it, or if it’s ongoing, what has been useful to think with?

One challenge and opportunity of this lab is that while I am based at Vanderbilt University, the lab itself is diasporic in many ways. It includes current and former Vanderbilt students, as well as others who have never even been here. Early on, I opened up the membership quite early to designers, artists, and scholars outside of this university. So we participate from many time zones and countries. We all have very different access needs. We were Zooming and Google Meeting before the pandemic. This is just always how we have done our work. Some of us have been working together for years and have never shared space in person. This can create some challenges because a lab is a set of relationships and commitments. When we are so far away from each other, interacting only through a screen, things take longer, technology breaks down, internet goes out. We don’t get to go to an office and see each other every day. Or we get Zoom fatigue and not a lot of social time together. But working together in person everyday would fundamentally change our work. Our remote and diasporic forms of work have yielded several projects on “remote access,” through which we extend our practices of remote participation to create critical cultural forms: a crip nightlife party rooted in party pedagogy and crip technoscience and an online digital archive. We know how to do this work because we have been experimenting with it for years, just by having online meetings and collaborations. In the process, we have also had to negotiate things like what platforms we use, how we raise funds for digital accessibility and projects, and how we pivot when new members join us or when our access needs change.

What is one external challenge that you have encountered while devising, following, maintaining, or revising these methods/protocols/approaches? (e.g. in terms of the lab interfacing with its broader institution or community). Is there a specific occasion that comes to mind when an external challenge presented itself? How did the lab work through it, or if it’s ongoing, what has been useful to think with?

Another challenge and opportunity of this particular lab structure has to do with its relationship to the university. The lab operates autonomously. I did not ask anyone for permission to create this lab. I did not try to convince a dean to give me a center or dedicated office space. I created the lab because I wanted to, using the limited resources that were available from grants or short-term sources of funding. It is not a lab in the sense of there being a physical space where people can go work at any time. It is a lab in the sense that there is a group of people doing particular, experimental work with consistent commitment over time, resulting in major projects. There is sometimes funding but sometimes there is not. Sometimes I pay for things we need out of pocket, from the royalties I earn on my book or honoraria that folks pay me to give talks. The skillsets that inform these approaches to legibility and illegibility derive from my experiences growing up in a refugee family. As a disabled person in the Iranian diaspora, I am very accustomed to working closely across long distances. I watched my community create or design with whatever existed around us. This also makes me comfortable working alongside but also below the surface of existing institutions to do the kind of work I want to do. And I find that a lot of other disabled people are adept at these ways of working, as well.

It is challenging to work with few financial resources in the sense that we don’t have a budget to just buy equipment or pay for people to go to conferences. But it also provides enormous freedom. If there isn’t a budget to cut, there isn’t a program to take away. We look around at the resources we have and think about how to put them to good use. We practice mutual aid and redistribution. We create non-monetary forms of value through structures of co-mentorship and skill sharing. We all participate voluntarily because we value our relationships. For many of us, the lab is the only place to do the work of critical design that incorporates disability perspectives. But our need to do that sometimes comes into conflict with our other obligations to jobs that pay our rent. So this changes the nature of our work in many ways. We embrace crip time. We work slower, not harder. We collaborate and build interdependence around the skills we have. We share skills with one another. We learn new things and take risks.

Where have you found lab inspiration and resources? Which labs, authors, and makers would you love to signal boost?

You can read the “who taught me” page on my website to learn more about the folks who have informed how I think about disability and design. I was raised in an Iranian refugee family that included many disabled people and also many designers (people who either professionally or in a more casual way were constantly hacking and tinkering with the materials of everyday life). They did this while constantly contesting the imperatives of racial, linguistic, and cultural assimilation. The methods of adaptation, collaboration, and redistribution you learn from this kind of environment will inevitably shape everything else you do. I credit this milieu for all of my protocols for working alongside but also intervening in existing institutional arrangements.

In terms of labs specifically, the idea and terminology for a lab has several genealogies for me. The first is that I was a competitive debater in high school and college, and in that community the term “lab” refers to a structure that is adopted in summer camps where students go to train and do research for the coming year. Labs have lab leaders (coaches), but they are also centered around the students who come together from different teams to build a shared evidence base and trade skills. People think that debaters just fight each other all the time, but it is actually quite convivial. Being in a debate lab means that you work first with people who will be your competitors during the season before going back to your own team. You spend time together and collaborate. You form lasting friendships. You engage in skills-based mutual aid. You work through conflict. You want everyone to succeed because there is more satisfaction when everyone has what they need and can do their best. There are many challenges inherent in this structure (including who can even afford to go to camps or access them in other ways) but that learning environment fundamentally shaped how I teach in the classroom and run this lab.

The other part of the lab genealogy for me is the world of science and technology studies (or technoscience studies), especially based in the humanities and social sciences. As a graduate student, I was also specifically informed by the work of my mentor Deboleena Roy, a feminist neuroendocrinologist and technoscience scholar who taught classes integrating science and art. In one course on synthetic biology, we read theory, participated in performance art, and also spent time in the lab doing bench science and talking to scientists. Deboleena taught me that feminist science was a matter of “asking different questions.” This approach showed me what is possible with interdisciplinary research, with specific attention to the relationships that are formed and sustained through this kind of work.

Early on, I followed the example of public humanities labs and digital collaborations that incorporate design and media work. Here I am thinking of the Humanities Action Lab, Jentery Sayers’ MLab at the University of Victoria, Sara Hendren’s adaptation and ability group at Olin College of Engineering, the MIT Data + Feminism Lab, Murphy’s Technoscience Research Unit at the University of Toronto, EDGI (the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative), Max Liboiron’s CLEAR lab, and many others. The field of technoscience studies is always expanding. What began with the interests of historians and sociologists of science in the epistemologies of physicists, for example, has widened to crip, feminist, Indigenous, decolonial, and queer technosciences. Critical Design Lab is trying to show what disability culture frameworks bring to the conversation. Berkeley’s Mad Lab (directed by Karen Nakamura) is a rad disability maker space. But there are limitations, especially with the concentration of many of these labs in North American universities. I’m also watching with interest the wider world of decolonial, non-North American and non-European technoscience that is now becoming legible in the predominantly English-speaking world (and challenging imperial and colonial knowledge systems tied to resource global resource extraction). As one remote/digital example tied to my own practices and experiences, I’m grateful to the work of SWANA Ancestral Hub for the “plantcestral” relationships and knowledges that they archive in the context of challenging European imperial classification schemes.

The third and most important influential genealogy is the legacy of crip and disabled design spaces, which have been present throughout the history of disability movements, whether in our homes or in activist coalitions. The Centers for Independent Living, which were at first affiliated with radical disability movements, were maker spaces of sorts, not too different from today’s feminist maker spaces in the sense that they were disrupting cultural and material production and challenging the hegemonies of normate male and nondisabled bodies. The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University is another disability design space that I studied in my book, Building Access, and affiliated centers in Boston and Atlanta also incubated a lot of ideas of access that circulate today. More recently, justice-centered projects like the Radical Access Mapping Project in Vancouver, the Disability Justice Culture Club in the Bay area, the Sins Invalid Collective, the Disability Visibility Project, the Harriet Tubman Collective, Mimi Khuc’s Open in Emergency project, and the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network have served as generators of disability culture. These are similar to the many types of labs I have been describing because they are places where knowledge is made and shared, often through artistic, designerly, and cultural production. They are also leading the discourse on disability justice through conceptual and material interventions.