How Can Design Embrace Truth and Dignity in a Search for Peace and Justice?

Cynthia E. Smith

Design can play a vital function in elevating the universal and aspirational values of truth and dignity, which are fundamental in attaining peace and justice.

Realizing justice can mean engaging all of society in a dialogue about the past and reckoning with legacies of abuse, elevating those voices left out—from the historically marginalized to transnational communities of risk— while ensuring that everyone’s essential needs are met.[1] The redressing of past wrongs can take different forms, including memorialization, institutional reform, prose- cution, commemoration, reparation, and truth and reconciliation commissions.[2] While more than forty truth commissions have been formed around the world since Argentina’s National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons was created in 1983, some argue for a complete reimagining of the prevailing international systems and institutions. South Africa–based political scientist Everisto Benyera makes a case for an international reparation model that will finally bring colonialism to an end, transforming nation-states into citizen-states characterized by the drive for life, not power; peace, not war; inclusivity, not difference; and survival for all, not just the fittest.

Design can give tangible form to concealed histories and prejudices and demand a reckoning with truth and justice. Landscape architect Walter Hood urges practitioners to “develop a ‘prophetic aesthetic’ to counter the colonial malaise so that we can remember and develop new futures from the power of the past.”[3] My Ancestors’ Garden, his landscape design for the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, brings to light historical realities that have been long obscured. A research team based primarily in London uses advanced architectural and spatial analysis to counter social, political, and environmental injustices. Its investigative project The Murder of Halit Yozgat exposed long-denied racism in Germany’s security services.

The creation of forums for silenced voices is critical in the pursuit of truth and dignity. Activist Binalakshmi Nepram advocates for elevating the voices of women living in forgotten conflict zones and of the millions of Indigenous people living in ecological hotspots, emphasizing the importance of bringing them to the fore in peace efforts and especially at the negotiating table. The quarterly broadsheet The Chronic, produced to counter harmful external perspectives and generate new knowledge by Africans for Africans, is an accessible venue for writing, mapping, illustrating, and exploring the complexities, innovations, and dreams of people across the continent. In New Orleans, as Jim Crow–era Confederate monuments came down, a collective of designers, artists, urbanists, and educators invited city residents to imagine new public markers. Their project Paper Monuments facilitated, collected, and shared residents’ designs, disseminating under-told stories of the city.

Design can also facilitate creative platforms for knowledge exchange. Aiming to stimulate discussions beyond divisive political rhetoric and media headlines, Conflict Kitchen, a temporary takeout restaurant in Pittsburgh, served food and information from nations the United States was in conflict with. The Argentinean design team Iconoclasistas uses maps—appropriating a principal tool used by those in power to seize territory and plunder resources—to visualize their critical interrogations, which they provide as free downloads to further creative activism. And in Turkey, local women established a collective kitchen in solidarity with newly arriving Syrian migrant women. Merve Bedir, an architect and member of the group, illustrates and enumerates the shared values of the kitchen, which include collective belonging, justice, learning together, and unconditional hospitality.

Cynthia E. Smith

Cynthia E. Smith is Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s Curator of Socially Responsible Design. She integrates her training as an industrial designer with her advocacy on human rights and social justice issues, organizing a humanitarian-focused design exhibition and publication series, serving on international design juries, and lecturing widely on socially responsible design.

A group of 17 people sit at one table before a go-to restaurant decorated in bold red, yellow, black, and white colors.

At Conflict Kitchen, food is taste tested with members of the local Palestinian community, Pittsburgh, 2014. Serving the cuisines of nations the United States was in conflict with helped people discover their shared humanity. Credit: © Conflict Kitchen


[1] For more on the role of memory and truth in building sustainable peace, see Fernando Travesí, “Repairing the Past: What the United States Can Learn from the Global Transitional Justice Movement,” International Center for Transitional Justice, July 15, 2021,

[2] For a discussion of the potential of these forms of justice in the United States, see Christina Lu, “Does America Need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission?,” Foreign Policy, April 29, 2021,

[3] Walter Hood, introduction to Hood and Grace Mitchell Tada, eds., Black Landscapes Matter (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2020), 8.