Designing for Social Justice

In response to our CFR on the digital divide, a group from USC proposed a cluster on how to design for social justice. We have been happy to include this special project into our survey as a response to the meta issues raised by our initial survey. 


The Leimert Phone Company is a community design project in South Los Angeles.  By repurposing payphones, the project seeks to reclaim public space and create cultural portals to local arts, music, and business.  South LA is set to change over the next 10 years as planners focus on development around a new subway line through the area. In the face of possible gentrification, how can a community art project deepen neighborhood identity and broaden access to local business? Our collaborative team chose payphones as sites for public intervention and transmedia storytelling tied to justice.


The Leimert Phone team is composed of students from USC and local artists from Leimert Park. Through a 5-week workshop participants formed 3 project groups to develop unique designs. The workshop used rapid-prototyping and playtesting to facilitate lo-fi transmedia designs to share stories and access local music, history, artwork, and business. Each group presented their work on April 6, 2013 to local residents, students, and a panel of expert community organizers.  The groups’ presentations included concept videos, detailed design handouts, visual mockups, and a hardware demo. Examples include a phone to play, download, and purchase tickets to local hip-hop acts. Another sent you on a scavenger hunt to local businesses to collect stories and receive discounts. (Check out group videos


I worked with three others to help organize and run the project. The other organizers are Ben Caldwell (Kaos Network multimedia project in Leimert), François Bar (Professor at USC Annenberg Innovation Lab), and Ben Stokes (PhD student at USC AIL). After months of discussion we created a hybrid methodology based on our previous work and drawing from communications, cinema, game design, and community activism. Since we only had 5 weeks, we wanted a balanced system that allowed room for individual expression while rapidly producing group prototypes.  The process of dialogue was important to develop relationships between community artists and students. Skill sets and knowledge were shared, as groups worked toward concrete goals and deliverables. The final result was a well tested and collaborative project that empowered participants to create innovative designs to resist gentrification and strengthen the community.



Thanks Kristopher!

1.) People from the community that came during our presentations Saturday were really interested and excited to see what the next step is.  A lot of people, especially younger community members, really loved the phone demo that allowed people to play music and were enthralled by the idea you could turn the dial pad into a beat box or drum machine.

In general people are really intrigued by the idea of hacking such a potent cultural icon that is underutilized yet calls out to people in a playful and tangible manner.

2.) We've been talking with the local Business Improvement District.  They have a healthy sense of skepticism. The members we've talked with like the idea but want to see how it turns out and if we can find funding. So far it seems they want a very utilitarian design for the phones. We had one member come and talk with our group.  She really loved one design that gave people discounts to local businesses and the idea of bringing new customers from outside the community (including USC students). Her ideal phone though would also allow homeless or transient populations to use the phones to find social and mental health services.

Our next step now is to finding larger funding opportunities.  On Saturday, we received feedback about specific organizations and others suggested the Metro subway line itself, as they're suppose to invest at least %1 of development budget on art.

This is a really brilliant concept. I like how the phones are designed to reimagine elements of consumerism for the digital age (Ticketmaster & Groupon) and repurpose them for local populations.

Although only a few people may care about this, I was curious if you could tell me where the phones will be located? I lived in L.A. from 2010-2012 and will be returning this July. It would be enjoyable to run into one of them during an afternoon outing. Will they be located around Leimert Park, closer to USC, or somewhere else?


I love your interest Matthew and hopefully we can have one fully up and running in Leimert Park by July, most likely around the Kaos Network, where the idea was born. We'll also have one as an example on the USC campus in the Annenberg Innovation Lab.

That being said, the dream is to have a number of them through the Crenshaw corridor, KoreatownLarchmont, etc.  But that is a much, much longer term plan.  

So we're definitely thinking about our methodology as a potential model for other neighborhoods but it's determined by interested groups in each area. As a community art project, we're very focused on the cultural specificities of the neighborhood. So the content, goals, and the logic of interactions all depends on the conversations within collaborative groups.  We set the framework, provide activities, examples, and determine deliverables, but leave the final designs open to participants.

We'll keep the site updated and post more as the summer design schedule is determined. I can keep you posted and feel free to visit Kaos or USC in your summer visit!   


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