Thoughts On De-Colonising Design

“Decolonisation” is a word we’re increasingly hearing in Design Literature, often being used interchangeably with “diversity.” It’s important to emphasise that while the terms are linked, they shouldn’t be confused. Diversity is about bringing more people to the table. Decolonisation is about changing the way we think. So what does that mean for design and designers? I may not be the ideal candidate to write this – I scream White Male Cis privilege; but, here is my point of view…

To understand the place of decolonisation within design, it’s vital to first get our terms straight. “Colonisation” is rooted in indigenous peoples’ experiences of oppression—specifically, the seizure of native resources, as well as the embedding of Western ideology into society. The word “decolonisation” was originally used to describe the withdrawal of a state from a former colony. Now, decolonisation has come to represent a whole host of ideas: It’s an acknowledgement that in the West, society has been built upon the colonisation of other nations, that we exist within a system of privilege and oppression, and that a lot of the culture we’ve come to see as ours has actually been appropriated or stolen.

Save for the editorial platform and research group Decolonising Design and a number of scholarly articles, there’s little readily accessible information online about what decolonizing means for design. So with this article I wanted to give an overview of the concept, addressing the questions: How have colonial histories affected the way in which we design? And what can we do to adjust our mindset and practices?

Decolonising Design History

The work designers make is inspired by taste, and taste is often derived from what we’re exposed to during our upbringing. But design values and history is taught through a canon; that accepted pantheon of work by predominantly European and American male designers that sets the basis for what is deemed “good” or “bad.” The authority of the canon has undermined the work produced by non-Western cultures and those from poorer backgrounds so that Ghanaian textiles, for example, get cast as craft rather than design. Classifying traditional craft as different from modern design deems the histories and practices of design from many cultures inferior. We should aim to eliminate the false distinctions between craft and design, in order to recogniSe all culturally important forms of making. Design thinking rhetoric is similarly exclusive: To frame design thinking as a progressive narrative of global salvation ignores alternative ways of knowing.

Distinctions and divisions can “other” both designers and designs. I read in a blog article about Simba Ncube, a graphic design student and researcher at London’s Central Saint Martins, describes his experience of being labelled as a “Black designer:” “While identity and solace can be found in the words, they still ‘other’ the practitioner and therefore their work,” he says. “When Western conventions are centred in design, this means that anything else is seen as ‘different.’” When a homogenous group of people decide what’s “good,” it’s detrimental to the profession, and results in the majority of people striving towards a similar style.

Ncube’s research explores one example of colonialism’s effect on design standards; specifically, he explores its influence on ideas of perception. In the West, linear perspective is taught to be the best way to approximate space, but it’s not the only effective way that people have drawn in 3D historically.

“Japanese perspective is only based on one plane, not x, y and z as with linear perspective, yet it’s hugely valuable way of creating an image. Our reliance on western culture inhibits our ability to incorporate other standards.”

Ncube also cites an example of a culture that doesn’t design using perspective at all. Zulus live in what has been described as a “circular culture.” Their huts are round, they don’t plough land in straight furrows but in curves instead, and their villages are designed in circular formations. In finding such successful solutions for the organisation of private and communal space, Zulu architecture should be understood as design innovation. Realising that the standards we’ve been taught are not universal is key to decoloniality. And it’s not easy: Ncube likens the process of unseeing Western culture as getting a “fish to understand that it’s in water.”

Decolonising Design Values

For educator and designer Danah Abdulla, one member of the research group Decolonising Design, “decoloniality is about shattering the familiar.” She says that design today

“… does not disrupt the status quo, it does not disorder the established order.”

Recognising that capitalism “is an instrument of colonization,” and therefore that it’s almost impossible to truly decolonize in Western society at present, she says that decoloniality is about reimagining something beyond the current system we exist in. Abdulla and her group’s co-founders have written extensively on the colonial systems within which contemporary design operates.

In everyday design work, to “shatter the familiar” might start by rethinking the needs of the audience you’re designing for. For example, have you considered how people of different ethnicities may identify with what you’re creating? An aspect of decoloniality is questioning how solutions might be experienced in someone else’s shoes.

The process can extend to something small like selecting typefaces. Many designers will spring for a certain font because it’s “timeless.” But will a diverse audience see it the same way? Clara Balaguer of the Filipino publishing imprint Hardworking Goodlooking proposes the following exercise for “the Comic Sans, design-educated haters” in an interview with Walker Art’s The Gradient: “Use Comic Sans, Curlz, Brush Script, Papyrus. Understand why people respond to it. Accept that social constituencies (not clients but constituencies) have made a choice that should be respected instead of ridiculed […] Challenge yourself to dismantle what the (Ivy League?) man has told you is ugly, uncouth, primitive, savage.”

While reconsidering the formal elements with which you design, it’s also important to recognise when to use certain imagery and how to engage with images respectfully. The tea packaging design for the UK’s East India Company, which uses patterns found on traditional Indian fabric, is one example of careless design appropriation. The East India Trading Company has historically played a huge role in exploiting India’s resources, so for a company to continue to appropriate the culture of a nation that it historically stole from is irresponsible.

Decolonising Design Work

Designers are trained to be chameleons: We shape ourselves to whatever brief comes our way. But there are certain situations where we cannot begin to identify with the lived experiences of the audience we need to communicate with. It’s in these moments that we need to take ourselves out of the equation as the creative. For example, if an organisation exists in the United States that is for and run by Black immigrants, surely the designer communicating its messaging should reflect the organisation’s identity?

To avoid taking charge of another’s narrative, or appropriating what isn’t yours, recognise when a project is not yours to take. When it’s not, promote someone more appropriate to take your place. If the project is for a nonprofit venture, after taking yourself out of the creative arena, help fund the effort. In an industry like design, there’s a great disparity between those who learn design and those that get paid for work. Therefore taking yourself out of the equation can be an opportunity to ensure people from marginalised backgrounds get a place in the creative community.

And it’s not just who you work with, but also how you collaborate. For studios, agencies, and any others hiring for a project, make sure to not only pay your freelancers’ worth but also that the culture of your company is welcoming to them. If you hire a person of colour, make sure that they won’t be faced with daily microaggressions. This aspect of decolonisation overlaps with diversity and inclusion; it’s important not just to bring people to the table, but also to ask yourself, what sort of seat are you offering?

Ultimately, there is no finite end that we’re trying to reach: Decolonisation is a process. The fact that it’s a journey means that in order to keep evolving, we must be continually curious, and educate ourselves about what we haven’t experienced directly.

For far too long, designers have remained married to the concept that what we do is neutral, universal, that politics has no place in design.

Yet the choices we make as designers are intrinsically political: With every design choice we make, there’s the potential to not just exclude but to oppress; every design subtly persuades its audience one way or another and every design vocabulary has history and context. Learning about the history of colonialism will open our eyes to how power structures have formed society today, and how they dominate our understanding of design.

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