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What Digital Designers Could Learn From Robert Moses

New York City’s most prominent 20th-century urban planner is an important cautionary tale for any designer who wants to build an equitable internet.

What Digital Designers Could Learn From Robert Moses
[Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images]

Digital design is more influential than ever, as people increasingly live their lives online. The question becomes: Are we creating the virtual world we want to live in?

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Less than a quarter of sites are fully accessible or viewable to internet users with sensory disabilities. Should they be denied 75% of the internet? Even well-meaning ideas can become tools of inequality. Consider Facebook’s crackdown on nicknames and pseudonyms, in an attempt to limit fake accounts. Survivors of abuse, victims of stalkers, and those in gender/sex transition may need to go by something other than their legal name. Should they have the same right of access to this online community? The recent push to repeal net neutrality will only divide the internet even further between the haves and the have-nots.

This mirrors what we often see in cities, where design decisions like where to build a highway or wall can exacerbate systemic inequality. Perhaps the most famous cautionary tale is that of Robert Moses. A 20th-century urban planner, Moses was revered for pulling New York City out of the depression and emphasizing economic development. But he is also criticized for discriminatory practices that left poor and black communities disenfranchised. In revisiting Moses, we can learn a few things about designing ethical digital infrastructure and an internet everyone feels welcome in.

Think beyond the “target user”

Moses built low-clearance overpass bridges that prevented buses and large vehicles from taking roads that led to the beaches of Long Island. This meant that only wealthy families (mostly white) who could afford single-family cars could access those beaches. Moses made a judgment call to design for those he deemed to be his audience (white middle-to-upper class Americans) – but this was at the expense of others.

In digital design, our focus is to meet business goals and appeal to target audiences. Though these are important considerations, they aren’t the only ones. As part of the design process, we also need to take into account the edge cases and the non-users who may still feel the impact of the decisions we make. Think about Hoodmaps, the crowdsourced mapping site that has become a cesspool of discrimination and social redlining.

Our user personas are rarely blind, or dyslexic. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t accommodate those needs. An accessible site should be baseline. This isn’t just good for users, it can help designers, too. As Elise Roy, a design thinker and disability rights lawyer said in her TED talk, “When we design for disability first, you often stumble upon solutions that are better than those when we design for the norm.”

Design for tomorrow, not just today.

Although Moses is gone, his creations still stand. His decisions didn’t just impact his contemporaries, they affected subsequent generations too. These decisions can still be seen in the racial-spatial makeup of today’s New York.

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Similarly, digital design decisions can have a lasting impact. People become familiar with how things work and the routes we’ve mapped out for them. A feature may become ubiquitous even if it isn’t a good design. Take the hamburger menu. Design decisions, however subtle, proliferate and endure. It is therefore paramount to design not just by today’s conventions and expectations, but with what kind of digital future we want in mind as well.

Our responsibility, as digital architects, is to ask questions like: What walls are we putting up, and whom are we excluding? Does what I’m making reinforce inequalities in our physical world, or start to break them down?

There have been some promising developments in designing a more equitable Internet. The plugin Alexjs helps catch insensitive, gendered, religiously inconsiderate, or racially discriminatory writing and suggests alternatives. The software company AudioEye is attempting to broaden digital access by helping companies accommodate people with autism, visual impairment, epilepsy, dyslexia or colorblindness. Designers obviously can’t transform the web overnight, but we can start thinking more deeply about the impact of our work. It’s time we all channel our inner Jane Jacobs.

Ace Wang is a senior digital strategist at Deutsch.