Last year, I wrote an article for Eye on Design that asked what decolonization means in the context of design. The piece explores ideas of decolonizing design labor, differentiating the term from diversity, and dismantling the Eurocentric historical design canon. The work designers make is inspired by their taste, and taste is often derived from what we’re exposed to during our upbringing. Therefore, one way to think about “decolonizing design” is as the process of eliminating false distinctions between craft and design, in order to recognize all culturally important forms of making.
The difficulty with a concept like decolonization, though, is that it means different things to different people in different places. Colonialism has manifested in so many different ways around the world. For some, decolonizing is a project of de-centering the perspectives of settlers to emphasize those of the indigenous; others focus on decolonization as a process of recovery and the restoration of identity; still others use the term to critique Eurocentrism and modernism. All the concept’s varied, interconnected meanings have different implications when considered in the context of design. And because one crucial part of the process of decolonization is recognizing diversity of thought, we decided to bring together a range of practitioners from communities with differing colonial histories for a roundtable discussion on the topic.
Speaking across multiple time zones—and over Skype rather than at an actual table—I connected with graphic designer Neebinnaukzhik Southall in Sante Fe, New Mexico; designer and educator Ramon Tejada in Providence, Rhode Island; designer and educator Miguel Navarro Sanint in Bogota, Colombia; and designer and educator Amy Suo Wu in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Our discussion spanned topics such as the power of collectivity, the designer “god complex,” Black Panther as design model, and the idea of “making for mom.” I asked my interviewees to begin by introducing themselves.
Meet the practitioners:
I’m Ramon Tejada. Most of my practice is as a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, but I’m also a designer. These days, I’m writing and talking a lot.
I’m Miguel Navarro Sanint. Right now I’m in Bogota, Colombia, working as a professor at Universidad De Los Andes. I’m a designer focusing on several projects in rural areas in Colombia.
My name’s Neebinnaukzhik Southall. I’m a member of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation, which is an indigenous group, part of the Anishinaabe, one of the largest tribes in North America. I’m a graphic designer, writer, artist, and photographer.
I’m Amy Wu. I’m based in Holland. I was born in China and grew up in Sydney, so I feel a little bit fragmented. As my cultural background is very hybrid, my working practice is something between art, design, teaching, and cultural production.
Design With a Capital D
What does decolonization mean to you in the context of design?
Southall: For me as an indigenous person, it’s about centering Native voices. When we talk about design as part of this bigger picture, what does that mean for Native people? What does it mean for reclaiming our cultures? The “design” part is just one part of an overall effort that we’re doing as Native peoples.
Tejada: Decolonizing means many things to many people. I was born in the Dominican Republic, which is the place where, supposedly, the “New World” was “discovered.” It’s a place where the Native peoples (primarily the Taino) and their culture are essentially extinct, as they were slaughtered and colonized, forced to submit to Spanish rule or die. The culture that exists in the Dominican Republic now (of which I consider myself a descendant) is a hybrid of Spanish, African, and the tiny bit of Taino that survived. It’s been an education thinking about decolonization in this layered, complicated context.
Sometimes, decolonizing is about making space. Sometimes it’s about taking space. Decolonizing is about acknowledging the ideas and land which were stolen and repressed. It’s about giving up space and thinking responsibility. In an education context, this means not just teaching Northern American and European references, but thinking about diversity of lineages. Decolonizing is about unearthing, shifting the glance, de-centering, giving agency, being vulnerable, making mistakes, ideation, thinking about our communities, and not so much design.
Decolonizing is about unearthing, shifting the glance, de-centering, giving agency, being vulnerable, making mistakes, ideation, thinking about our communities, and not so much design.
Wu: In Holland, design education is still propagating modernist ideas and is very invested in Western enlightenment thinking. Categories have been established, like male versus female, abstraction versus lived experience, Western versus Non Western, rational versus emotional. These binaries affect how students make work, [as one tends to be deemed more valuable than the other]. As a teacher trying to disrupt this, I’m literally trying to mend the ruptures between binaries. I’m also interested in the word “mend” and reclaiming that word, which has been traditionally deemed inferior. It belongs to the realm of craft, and is associated with female labor. I use the word “mend” to describe literally and figuratively how to move forward with divides.
Sanint: In this context [of Colombia], it’s almost impossible to put a line between what is colonized and what isn’t. When I work with people in the countryside, sometimes it’s difficult to recognize the difference between their original [agricultural] practices, and those that were imposed by someone else.
[In the context of design,] it’s Chinese, European, and American designs that are available here, and so we only get the products they’ve designed. Colonization comes in the forms of products, in this case, rather than design work practices being colonized.
In these definitions, sometimes design is an instrument of colonization, or sometimes it’s design that has been colonized.
Tejada: This is where language gets tricky. If we say “design,” I tend to think of Design with a capital “D” as being a European thing. I heard somebody say once that you can’t teach any other Design history because Europeans created, or “discovered,” design. It’s like okay—just like you discovered America? Great… What a lot of us are interested in doing is thinking about lowercase design.
Most of us come from cultures that have thousands of years of tradition. But certain people decided that Design with a capital D is going to focus on the last one hundred years. If something from a culture fits in with that framework and definition, it’s Design and goes in a museum. If not, too bad.
Southall: In many Native cultures in North America, things are made to have a purpose, which makes these things design. For instance, a basket is beautiful and it’s made to hold things—and it is communicating a message. There can be symbology that is very deep and means a lot of different things across different cultures, and it’s a matter of re-contextualizing that, instead of thinking about something as an anthropological item. How many graphic design dissertations are looking at the iconography of a tribe and how it’s shaping the designers that are here?
Unlearning the God Complex
Wu: I wanted to speak about class difference, as it’s an important part of this conversation. When we go to art schools and get an elite education, we automatically say, “our design is better than yours.”
The person that taught me about this discrepancy in how we value aesthetics was my mother. She runs a mending shop, and she recently asked me to make her a [business] card. If she had asked me a few years ago, I would have made her something clean, modernist, and hipster; something that I felt was elevating her to a standard that would get her more customers. But I’ve learned to look at design through her perspective—her non-elitist, local, diaspora aesthetic—and it’s been an un-learning process for me.
My mother led me through [the process of] designing her card. The aesthetic of the card really mirrored the interior decoration of her shop. It’s infused with feng shui principle—this value system of seeing order in the universe—and it’s imbued with this potentiality of a self-fulfilling prophecy. This collaborative approach is very looked down upon here in Europe.
Do you think that designers have a god complex?
Tejada: Yeah! We’re super smart, many of us have spent a lot of money on our education, we like certain things, we have some big economically determined biases [around taste] even if we’re poor as crap, which a lot of us are. Design has taught us to concentrate everything into these sleek clean things, which usually is not what most of our cultures look like. The reality of everything is incredibly complicated, diverse, beautiful, messy.
Unlearning the idea of what we elevate, as designers and teachers, forms a lot of this conversation. bell hooks mentions that the older you get, the worse unlearning becomes, because you’re so embedded and fixed in your ways. To unlearn the body of knowledge that you have, with all the money you spent on it, is hard to swallow.
Southall: With mainstream designers, there’s definitely an ego problem, and there’s a lot of personal glory. I have an ego, too. I would like to have work that I can be proud of, but you do have to put your ego to the side if you’re working with diverse communities.
As an indigenous person, when I’m interacting with other indigenous people, I have to be humble because there are things I don’t know about their cultures. You have to be a good listener, a diplomat. Of course you’ll have a particular skill set, but to assume that you know exactly what to do is arrogance.
It has to be a collaborative process, to be a good designer in a decolonized sense.
Sanint: When I was a student, I was taught to create something that was “mine.” Now, I can’t remember the last time I created something as only mine. I was part of something, I feel proud of it, but I feel it collectively—as in, we did this.
There’s a project I worked on where we had to drive for six hours to get to a certain place. There’s a driver who always brings us there—and he’s part of the team. The project wouldn’t be possible without him. And he participates in all the sessions we have in the field, too. My practice is to create spaces in which everyone can participate. I design the tools, space, and strategy, so this group of people can co-design together. And I have to share those achievements with the participants.
My practice is to create spaces in which everyone can participate.
Wu: At art and design schools in Holland, there’s this culture of grooming individual genius. There’s a priority on ushering in an individualistic approach to design, which is also how the capitalist design framework has allowed it to flourish.
Sanint: One of the basics of capitalism is patents: the idea that you own an idea. I’ve had students who preferred to have their idea patented, and have this piece of paper, than be able to execute their project in real life, because to them it’s better to own something than to achieve something with what they’ve created. When you start discussing ownership, people prefer to keep ideas hidden and that’s problematic, because change happens when you share. Everything you create is a product of everything that everyone has created before. By giving credit accordingly, it’s a way of showing that everyone is bringing something valuable to the product.
Tejada: There’s a lot of design studios with names that are a single designer’s. Particularly Western cultures love looking at the individual. It’s not about the collective, the society at large, your neighbors, your family.
The Master’s Tools
Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House
Does anyone have a good example of a design project that’s a useful model, in terms of something we can work towards when we think about decolonizing design?
Tejada: What has been helpful for me has been the readings that I’ve been engaging with recently. I mention bell hooks, particularly Teaching to Transgress. There’s a book called How Art Can be Thought: A Handbook for Change, by Alan D’Souza. In this book, he begins to critique this binary that art education has put itself under, saying what’s good and what’s bad.
Sanint: There’s a project [I’ve been taking part in] in Montes de Maria, based in el Carmen de Bolivar, with special focus on El Salado. The area was really affected by violence and deforestation. For the project, we work collectively with local communities that live in the region, and [in partnership] with Fondo Patrimonio Natural and Crepes and Waffles. We involved [the communities] in the project, so that the people from the area felt like they owned what we made together—we called the project Wisdom From The Forest (Saber del Monte). If they decide to actually use the strategy we developed together, it will because they find value in it, rather than us colonizing the space.
Southall: There’s something to be said for two people coming together and having an exchange. Native people have agency like any other group of people interacting with other groups and adopting various aesthetics. Of course power structures, colonization, and forced assimilation have majorly impacted us and our abilities to make choices, but throughout history to the present we have also made informed choices in what we adopt. Especially when you look at individuals coming together in a situation where there’s more equal give and take happening. So a part of decolonization is recognizing our agency to make choices according to our values.
And often, it’s about how people approach relationships: Is there respect there, is there sharing?
Sanint: The idea of agency was one of our biggest discussions during a project in the Amazon Piedmont. [This took place] in Guacamayas, a town in the municipality of San Vicente del Caguán, a former DMZ (demilitarized zone) where the FARC had control over the territory. The town and the surrounding territory didn’t have any kind of digital connection when we started the project. The idea at the start was to bring digital platforms [to the community], because they live in a remote area, and to connect them to new markets. One person in our group said we shouldn’t bring any digital technologies, because that was imposing on them a reality that wasn’t theirs. But we didn’t agree on that. Our point was that we were giving them the chance to do it, not forcing them to do it, but bringing them the opportunity in the most respectful way, so they could decide how they were going to use the technology.
Southall: And it could be a very patronizing and racist thing to assume the best on someone’s behalf, instead of letting them make that decision themselves.
Sanint: My approach to design is about creating value for people, rather than solving problems. Agreeing with [the community you’re designing for] on which values we’re going to grow together [is part of that process].
My approach to design is about creating value for people, rather than solving problems.
Wu: My mother and I are going to start a fashion label. It’s a way for her to publish her story, through a medium that she taught me how to love, which is fashion. We’re going to call it Serenity Department. It’s a way to give her agency.
She lives in Australia, I live in Holland. She’s always talking about wanting to tell her story because she’s been quite oppressed for most of her life, and this way of telling her story is a way of making herself visible. I suggested she start drawing her story, if she didn’t feel comfortable with writing. She started practicing drawing, and now she’s gathered a bunch of amazing imagery. Entering into this process of publishing [her life story], working out what this project means, is a way of trying to give her a platform to care, and to have the profits going to her retirement fund as remittance.
Tejada: A lot of decolonizing is about visibility and recognition, and your mom feeling like she is a valuable person and has a story of importance. Toni Morrison said that education is the power of bringing someone else up with you, and using that power to elevate other people and make them visible as humans. I hear you talk about your mom and it’s so exciting. I think we need to make for mom.
Southall: I’m super for the “making for mom” model. We’re legitimate as audiences as well, and it’s legitimate for us to design for [our own] communities. There’s something special that’s gonna come out of that, that won’t be cookie cutter because it’s coming out of really personal things.
I also think a movie like Black Panther is a good model, where you have music, fashion, all those visual references together—it has such power. When I saw that movie, I cried, because this is a model of what could be. It was so unapologetically Black in the presentation. I thought, what if there was a Native version, and you had all these different tribes represented? I don’t have to be Black to see that it’s an awesome movie and a template for possibilities. They didn’t water it down for fear that their audiences might be white. The costume designer was referencing all these different traditions, and that was so powerful. I think we can work that way as designers, and other people can find value in it too.
Tejada: Ryan Coogler made the film a platform for a bunch of amazing designers. In the case of Ruth Carter, the costume designer, he gave her the space [to make the best body of work] she could ever create, which she’d been planning for thirty years. On the episode of Netflix’s Abstract which documents her career, she explains that she’d been working up to that [project] for so long, and to have that platform and not have to dumb it down was exceptional.
Black Panther is a brilliant example of how we can work towards decolonizing design because it’s about Black people taking control of their own narratives, about collectivity in building something together as costume designer, director, color grader. It also is an example of respectful design. That episode of Abstract references how Carter went to specific African tribes to ask for their permission to use their designs.
My last question takes note of an Audre Lorde quote, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In this respect, what tools can we use to decolonize design, particularly if the tools that we’ve been given are the ones of our oppressors?
Southall: Looking back at the values of people’s respective communities is valuable, and using that to inform your practice. The Ojibwe language is about things being alive around you, whereas the English language presents objects as not alive. There’s different ways of looking at the world, and you can bring that to your design. We should examine this more deeply, speak about individualism versus collectivism like we’ve discussed, and also how cultures impact that. As designers, being aware of bigger issues, being aware of conversations around representation, race and power, are also what we should keep in mind as we practice.
Sanint: The main tool that a designer should have is empathy. There are cases where the designer studies people and says, “yeah I understand how they think,” but that’s not empathy. Really, being able to recognize the value of the other person, and understanding that the other point of view is also correct, is something we should work towards.
Tejada: What’s exciting to me is the tools that I don’t know how to use, because they give me a way of breaking down my preconceived notions of what I should do or make. Sometimes teaching students to use the tools wrong, to hack them, and use them to create something else, is valuable.
Wu: I recently learned about the term, “non-violent communication.” It was coined in the sixties, by a white male called Marshall Rosenberg, but there’s this new book called Decolonizing: Non-Violent Communication that’s by an American Asian author called Meenadchi. It explores how one exercises violence when judging, and how judging can be the ultimate violence. How do you communicate with each other without that judgement? In graphic design, which is in the realm of communicating, how can we non violently communicate?
Tejada: I was thinking about the Beloved Community conversation guidelines, which Martin Luther King established (above). The first thing they say is to listen actively. In particular, how do you create spaces that are respectful, that are open to different opinions and people that are coming from different places, so we can engage in beautiful conversations?