Decolonizing Design

Design is a chimerical tool that empowers humanity to reshape its own existence. It can elevate us through our intrinsic sense of altruism or destroy us through our rapacity. It is an instrument of great triumph and consequence limited only by our imaginations, but in an increasingly globalized world, the effects of this reshaping may not be beneficial for all people. The ethics of design practice are often a question of empathy versus egoism, and it is only when the designer understands his or her own motivations, biases, and limitations that the merits of design can be fully realized. Successful design, thus, is not only about problem solving but about creating locally sustainable solutions that empower people to become problem solvers themselves.

At its most elemental level, design is adaptation—the human ability to reshape the ways we experience the world. It is the bridge between people and their environment. Clive Dilnot, professor of Design Studies at Parsons the New School, states that “at the core of design is an ontological and anthropological act… which is also a meditation on and a realization of being” (Dilnot 187). This ontology thrives in situations where a reciprocal relationship is formed between the designer and any stakeholders, with both sides bringing complementary knowledge and perspective to reach collaborative solutions.

Yet, as design theorist Victor Papanek would argue, the commercialization of design practice has often skewed the motivations of the designer away from this reciprocal relationship toward one where the designer’s ultimate goal is to satisfy his or her own needs (Papanek, Design for the Real World 21, 40). We must understand that even the best intentions can be derailed by biases both visible and invisible. Design can be destructive if not carefully driven and, thus, there is an increasing need to design from this basic, ethical foundation. The true aim of design is not to advance the career of the designer (or the client) but to design with an informed empathy toward human beings and their needs. Successful design is the altruistic realization that the benefit of the user and the benefit of the designer are one in the same.

Cultural Hegemony

The history of design discourse is often myopic, lacking a broader perspective of the political contexts underpinning its Eurocentric ideologies and largely ignoring the cultural products of non-Western civilizations (Ansari). There is a deeply ingrained hierarchical mindset in the Western world (and in design practice) that Western knowledge and ideals are more advanced than those of other cultures. After many generations of colonization, demonization, and slavery, this mindset has seeped into the Western psyche as an implied justification for the “manifest destiny” of our imperial tendencies (Tunstall 235, Smith 58, Jepchumba).

But let’s back up for a moment and take a look the source of these tendencies. Culturally and economically, the hierarchy of our modern world system began nearly five centuries ago when European colonizers began to establish worldwide trade connections on other continents (Lechner 2). As a justification for these expansions, the native peoples of non-Western cultures were labeled as sub-humans, heathens, children, and even cannibals in order to justify the exploitation of their resources. The native peoples of Africa, India, Australia, the Americas, and so on were then enslaved, shipped halfway across the world, slaughtered, or otherwise had their indigenous cultures overwritten by Christian missionaries who sought to “save” them from their own supposed ignorance. The harshness of these acts can be evidenced in the irreparable damage they have caused to world culture, and much of the world today looks at Western history (quite understandably) as one of imperialism and ethnic cleansing (Smith 1).

Decolonizing Design
Pears’ Soap ad (1890)

In the famous 1899 poem by Rudyard Kipling, entitled The White Man’s Burden, Kipling urges his readers to “Take up the White Man’s burden” of re-educating the Filipino people who had been recently conquered in the Spanish-American War. This influential poem asked Westerners to enlist their best and brightest to serve the needs of their “new-caught, sullen peoples / Half-devil and half-child” (Kipling). This idea—that Western culture is not only more advanced than other cultures but that, as such, Westerners possess a responsibility to impose their way of life on these people—is a direct consequence of systemic colonial dehumanization.

In 1837, Vice President John C. Calhoun gave a speech before the US Congress opposing the abolition of slavery, saying:

“I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin [are brought together]… the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good” (Wilson).

In other words, the dehumanization of these victims of Western colonization was so complete that the Western populace began to believe it as a matter of scientific fact; it was then seen as the duty of Western people to help these “savages” become civilized—a process which only furthered their cultural persecution.

Some may argue that this is all in the distant past, that we have since shed this colonial skin—but a snake with new skin is still a snake. Though the idea that slavery might actually be good for the enslaved may seem horrific to our modern sensibilities, this “us” versus “the other” mentality still underpins many cross-cultural interactions today and cannot be dismissed as antiquated rhetoric. Even Design’s use of the term “user” to categorize the recipients of design is a subtle form of infantilization, implying that users are somehow less capable than designers. This opposition serves to ignore the broad range of stakeholders affected by the design process as well as their inherent knowledge of how to best interact with their environments (Pagán).

Humanitarian Design or Westernization?

The endurance of this mindset can be found in the so-called “white savior complex” that so often re-emerges (if unwittingly) in the products of humanitarian design projects. As Nigerian-American journalist, Teju Cole, explains: “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege” (Cole). Major Western powers still fund missionary ventures to developing regions and, in 2010 alone, the United States sent 127,000 missionaries to Africa, South America, and Asia.

Not entirely dissimilar, humanitarian design projects which propose to solve the problems of non-Western peoples by imposing Western ideologies (such as Design Thinking, Gestalt Psychology, and concepts of color theory derived from the Bauhaus) can appear eerily similar to the colonial histories of dehumanization and acculturation imposed by European colonizers. If these cultural biases go unchecked by Western designers, even the sincerest efforts to “do good” in other parts of the world can lead to a myriad of unintended consequences.

Design Anthropologist Dori Tunstall questions how Western design firms prioritize Western approaches to design thinking above the local ways of thinking and knowing of third-world peoples, positioning themselves as hierarchically more capable of solving the problems of other cultures. She states that design thinking, as a methodology, positions itself as “a progressive narrative of global salvation that ignores the alternative ways of thinking and knowing of third world peoples” (Tunstall 235).

I found that Western design companies are represented as active agents who guide, serve, embed, build, pay, and staff (the design processes). On the other hand, Indian and African institutions are represented as those to be passively guided and directed or to serve as sabbatical hosts, sites for capacity building, philanthropic tourist destinations, and support staff for projects (Tunstall 236).

Tunstall points out how even IDEO, a celebrated design thinking firm that has released several how-to guides for working across cultural lines, ignores non-Western ways of thinking rooted in traditional practices, showing a disregard for local knowledge and the intent to supplant it with Western thinking as the dominant methodology.

By framing non-Western design companies outside of the discourse of Design for Social Impact, the IDEO document positions Western design companies in a unique hierarchical position enabling them to guide non-Western institutions on how to solve problems (Tunstall 236).

Bringing these nonnative principles to regions where the wounds of colonialism are still tender “risks becoming another form of cultural imperialism that destabilizes and undermines indigenous approaches coming out of other creative traditions” (Tunstall 237).

Decolonizing Design
Design for Social Impact, IDEO
Decolonizing Design
One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)

As an example, the nonprofit initiative One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), was created with the plan of dropping millions of inexpensive computers into remote villages in Africa, China, and India so that children in these developing regions could have access to the Internet and other educational resources. This initiative was met with intense criticism in India where their efforts were perceived as a form of technological colonialism. OLPC had unwittingly attempted to circumvent the Indian education system—cutting out all the policymakers, curriculum builders, teachers, and parents—forgetting the long history of Western colonialism in that country and ignoring local efforts to address the situation (Nussbaum). The hidden colonial mindset driving this project was that a Western organization should be justified in its attempts to educate foreign children directly about the importance of Western knowledge.

While there are sincere attempts by Western designers, volunteers, and philanthropists to do good for the people of non-Western cultures, it is critical for designers to raise questions about the motivations behind these projects. Is the motivating factor sincere, altruistic, human empathy or the misplaced obligation of the “Western savior” to bring civilization to the child-like heathens of the third world? When this motivation goes unquestioned, we run the risk of cultural clashes which can result in erasure.

What we can learn from Anthropology

To mitigate the possible damage caused by these cross-cultural interactions, designers can learn from the transformational history of Anthropology, a discipline which has been on the front lines of cultural politics for nearly two centuries. Through a reflexive process of intense internal criticism, anthropologists have made tremendous efforts to decolonize their practices and address the ethical nature of their relationships with interlocutors.

Decolonizing Design
Phrenology chart illustrating
the “natural language of the faculties”

Anthropology, we must be careful to remember, emerged as a discipline during the height of British colonialism in the 19th century, and its methods of extracting knowledge from indigenous peoples have frequently been regarded as tools of the British Colonial Office (by studying colonized people, British colonizers were better able to rule over them) (Uddin 981).

Early anthropologists like Henry Morgan and Adolf Bastian pioneered what would become known as the “evolutionary theory,” the assumption that all human cultures develop along a unilinear path (Morgan’s evolutionary stages moved from “savagery” to “barbarism” and finally to “civilization,” claiming that the more complex social structures of the West were more evolved than the tribal structures of places like Africa and the Americas). This type of xenophobic pseudoscience played no small part in perpetuating the hegemonic system of cultural racism that exists to this day.

It was not until the 1920s that anthropologists like Bronislaw Malinowski in England or Franz Boas in the US began to dispel this evolutionary theory in favor of structuralism, functionalism, and cultural relativism. Boas believed that differences between cultures were ‘historically particular’—the result of historical, social, and geographic conditions—and that we cannot assume universal laws govern the ways these cultures operate.

Similarly, Malinowski’s methods of ‘participant observation’ brought about real changes in the way anthropologists conducted ethnographic studies. Malinowski showed the benefits of living among the subjects of study to generate empathy and empirical understanding of the reasons behind their seemingly peculiar activities. However, the publication of Malinowski’s personal field diary in 1967 brought about a period of growing criticism against anthropologists as mere exploiters of cultural knowledge. The diary showed the ethnocentrism of previously-established ethnographic methods and, by the 1970s, critics like Talal Asad began to dispute the colonial power relations between the ethnographer and the other, sometimes proclaiming Anthropology as the “child of Western imperialism” (Uddin 980).

Decolonizing Design
Malinowski with the Trobriand Islanders

In the time since this ‘critical turn,’ anthropologists have striven to reinvent their practices and to establish the relevance of anthropology in our contemporary world. The book, The Future of Anthropology, edited by Cris Shore and Akber Ahmed, is one example of anthropologists coming together to reinvent the usefulness of ethnography in the study of contemporary issues like AIDS, tourism, technology, or cultural imperialism.

The point here is that the crises and criticisms leveled against anthropology at these various stages are what has allowed the discipline to recognize its own biases and to adapt its methods in ways that mitigate this ethnocentrism, allowing the discipline to remain relevant in the face of globalization. It should be noted that the discipline of Design went through a similarly critical phase during the same period through the writings of critics like Victor Papanek and John Chris Jones. Unfortunately—perhaps due to the monetary drivers of design business—these criticisms failed to have the same impact on design practice.

As the world becomes more interconnected, and as our overall sense of empathy toward the people of other cultures continues to grow, the discipline of design must continue with this line of criticism. Designers who may not be quite so informed about the history of Western imperialism and subjugation must be made to see that these things apply to design in a way that has an even greater direct impact on people’s lives; for where anthropologists have historically been very careful to study their subjects in a way that does not interfere with that culture, design has the exact opposite agenda.

The Global Culture

Decolonizing Design
“300 Million Americans”,
Patrick Chappatte

Globalization is dramatically changing the ways cultures interact. Since the dawn of the Information Age, communication technology has provided the disparate cultures of the world with new opportunities to share ideas in ways that were never previously possible. It has given a voice to the voiceless—to the subjugators and the subjugated alike—in a way that is changing world politics and world culture on a daily basis.

And yet, sociologist Frank Lechner writes that “If certain activities or institutions become global, they must displace existing activities and institutions.” The potential peril of globalization is that, as it works to supplant local traditions, generations of accumulated knowledge are potentially lost to the sands of time. Design plays no small part in this transculturation.

Every year, Coca-Cola spends around 3 times as much on advertising in foreign markets as they do in the United States. This is an active attempt to globalize (or Coca-Colonize) the world by influencing disparate people to purchase a foreign product. At the center of this campaign are designers whose jobs are to make this pitch convincing, which calls into question the motivations driving this type of design innovation: Is it the designer’s responsibility to improves lives, or is it the designer’s responsibility to exploit people for financial gain? And, if it is the responsibility of the designer to serve the needs of the people, how can we know what those needs are when the effects of globalization are blurring the lines between cultures?

With all the potential issues that may arise from the interaction of one culture with another, these issues are only exacerbated on the global scale. To add further complications, these interactions are not limited to media technologies but also include the increased physical movements of people from one part of the world to another. The reasons for these movements and their effects vary greatly; as Lechner states:

there is no one experience of globalization. That, in itself, is an important aspect of the process. The formation of a new world society does not involve all people in the same way, and it does not create the same texture in everyone’s everyday life (Lechner 107).

While the effects of globalization can be difficult to pinpoint, let us attempt to distill a few overarching concepts that may elucidate the changing role of the designer in this ephemeral landscape.

Just as the experience of globalization can vary greatly from person to person, so can the drivers of globalization be just as diverse. Though the term “globalization” may elicit visions of multinational corporations like McDonald’s, Exxon, or Samsung—companies whose purpose is to homogenize the planet in order to better sell a product—this is by no means the only driver.

American anthropologist Gordon Mathews has spent decades studying the effects of globalization in the uniquely multicultural city of Hong Kong. In his ethnography, Ghetto at the Center of the World, he emphasizes what he terms “low-end globalization” through the study of a major international marketplace:

Low-end globalization is very different from what most readers may associate with the term globalization—it is not the activities of Coca-Cola, Nokia, Sony, McDonald’s, and other huge corporations, with their high-rise offices, batteries of lawyers, and vast advertising budgets. Instead, it is traders carrying their goods by suitcase, container, or truck across continents and borders with minimal interference from legalities and copyrights, a world run by cash. It is also individuals seeking a better life by fleeing their home countries for opportunities elsewhere, whether as temporary workers, asylum seekers, or sex workers. This is the dominant form of globalization experienced in much of the developing world today (Mathews 10).

This is an important consideration. Yet, instead of considering globalization in terms of “high-end” and “low-end,” I find it semantically more compelling to consider globalization as either an “active” or “passive” process, respectively. While there are actors that seek to actively homogenize the world to spread their products and ideologies more easily, we are also passively homogenizing ourselves through cross-cultural communication, migration, and commerce.

Due to this seemingly inevitable process of globalization and acculturation, designers must be very mindful of the possibility that their designs (and the underlying cultural influences which drive those designs) may serve to supplant the locally existing cultural ideals of other peoples. The historic mindset that Western ways of thinking and knowing are more advanced than indigenous ways of thinking and knowing is antiquated and colonial. In this way, the implementation of exogenous Western design is not only aggressive but also serves as a tool of colonization. To design in a way that is sustainable and respectful of other cultures means being mindful of this hierarchical bias and being open to the accumulated knowledge of the user (whatever his or her culture may be). It is through this that we may learn from each other’s wisdom rather than erase it. It is through this that we may allow for the creation of a more diverse world culture.

Designer Jane Fulton Suri, in her article Poetic Observation, writes about the experience of designing a new type of handbag for the Brazilian brand Havaianas, whose iconic flip-flops are revered around the world as representations of Brazilian culture:

The design team wanted first to understand the brand’s tight connection to Brazil. Obviously, a good way to explore this was to go and spend time in Brazil. Less obvious was what Miguel Cabra, the exuberant and reflective Barcelona-educated design leader on the project, told me about the team’s process: “We had to go to India to understand Brazil… Europe and Brazil are different in so many ways, from culture to social structure to weather; so much so that it was hard to learn deeply about Brazil because we didn’t have anything to compare it to, and that’s how the idea of India came. We thought it might be useful to visit another (but different) third world country just so we could figure out what really belonged to the identity of Brazil… you can’t just research around the people and the product, you need to really immerse yourself. You have to be there because, before you go, you don’t know what you need to know or even what you can know” (Suri 23).

Decolonizing Design

Successful designers in the age of globalization cannot base their assumptions on antiquated stereotypes of cultural experiences. Designers cannot address the people of Brazil or Hong Kong or even Omaha based on superficial notions about those people and their needs. Instead, designers must interact with those people, empathize with them directly, and attempt to address their needs by including them in the process of designing at every stage possible. “What’s important,” says Suri, “is to make sure we leave room in project plans, daily schedules, and in designers’ heads for this kind of intuitive curiosity to play its magic” (Suri 23).

Whether globalization is a positive or negative force in the end is irrelevant. It is an unstoppable force that will occur passively regardless of the intentions of designers, but designers must adapt their practices (as have anthropologists) to keep their ethical motivations from being corrupted by those who would actively erase local culture for personal gain.

Social Motivation

It is critical that designers, much like anthropologists, be increasingly mindful of the moral implications of intentional intervention in the lives of people of other cultures. Design theorist Keith Murphy states that:

design represents perhaps the most common channel through which humans intervene, directly and indirectly, in the lives of other humans… when design is considered comprehensively as form, action, and effect all at once, questions regarding the morality of social engagement tend to emerge (Murphy 435, 440).

Decolonizing Design
A Western tourist taking part in traditional Himba rituals, Namibia

As the world becomes more interconnected and as designers increasingly intervene in the lives of people around the world, the ways by which they interact with these various peoples must shift toward the Boasian ideologies of cultural relativism and historical particularism. When designers trained in Western schools of thought are called upon to design for the people of other cultures, they bring with them the wrong set of precedents. According to Saki Mafundikwa, founder of the Zimbabwe Institute for Vigital Arts:

force-feeding Afrikans design principles born in Europe, principles that were the product of the European experience, just doesn’t work… Afrikans have their own palettes that have no kinship with the principles of color devised by such schools of thought as the Bauhaus (Jepchumba 2009).

In order to design successful, sustainable solutions across cultural lines, designers must understand that the design process and its underlying principles must remain malleable enough to adapt to people’s cultural histories and traditions. The only way to do this is to include users, local leaders, and other various stakeholders in the design process in ways that create a collaborative, cooperative, reciprocal relationship that generates solutions from the people who have to live with them.

Decolonizing Design
Homeless man in Boston, MA –
part of the Signs for the Homeless
graphic design project.

But, just as the design process must vary based on the culture of the user, so it must also vary based on the biases and motivations of the designer. To understand why some humanitarian design ventures succeed and some fail, I believe we must look at the innate motivations of the designers themselves. What is the contemporary driver of the “Western savior” complex? Why do some designers feel obliged, compelled, or even qualified to design for the people of other cultures?

In the book Social Motivation, a group of psychologists and sociologists take a look at this very question: What motivates people to want to help others—be it through design, philanthropy, or volunteerism? They separate this motivation into two basic categories: egoism and altruism. Egoistic motivations are those driven by one’s concern for him or herself (the true motivation for their desire to help others stems from guilt or perhaps the expectation of a reward). Conversely, altruistic motivations are driven by the legitimate desire to help (the true motivation stems from the earnest desire to alleviate someone’s suffering with no expectation of personal gain).

The empathy–altruism hypothesis claims that empathic concern produces motivation with an ultimate goal of relieving the valued other’s need—that is, altruistic motivation… Considerable evidence supports the idea that feeling empathic concern for a person in need leads to increased helping of that person (Batson, et al. 111).

This distinction is important from a design perspective because the initial motivations of the designer will determine the depth to which their process must include the stakeholders. If the designer’s motivations are altruistic, he or she is more likely to want to empathize with people and to create a solution that works for them; if their motivations are egoistic, he or she is less likely to want to empathize and more likely to create a solution that satisfies his or her own needs.

The important thing to recognize here is that this moral quandary is not black and white—most people (even designers) fall somewhere on this spectrum of egoism versus altruism—but to question one’s motivations is an important step. Depending on the designer’s motivations, their design process must adapt in a way that (as closely as possible) aligns those motivations with the needs of the user.

Participatory Design

The best method to achieve this collaborative relationship is through a process of “participatory design” (sometimes referred to as “co-design”) which endeavors to bring all stakeholders into the design process. Jesper Simonsen and Toni Robertson, in the Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design, define this as:

a process of investigating, understanding, reflecting upon, establishing, developing, and supporting mutual learning between multiple participants in collective ‘reflection-in-action’. The participants typically undertake the two principal roles of users and designers where the designers strive to learn the realities of the users’ situation while the users strive to articulate their desired aims and learn appropriate technological means to obtain them. (Simonsen, et al. 2)

Participatory design was originally borne out of Scandinavian trade unions in the 1970s. As information systems and computer technology were introduced into the workplace, designers found that—without actively involving the workers who would be using these new systems—they “were unable to create visions of future working conditions and practices that would improve or even match their current ones” (Simonsen, et al. 3). Participatory design was, in this first instance, about designing information technologies in a way that included workers as experts in their domain, allowing them to develop their work practices in a way that would include these technologies to improve working conditions.

“Participatory Design has always given primacy to human action and people’s rights to participate in the shaping of the worlds in which they act” (Simonsen, et al. 4). This process is not limited to simply asking users to fill out questionnaires, but rather it is asking stakeholders to

step up, take the pen in hand, stand in front of the large whiteboard together with fellow colleagues and designers, and participate in drawing and sketching how the work process unfolds as seen from their perspectives (Simonsen, et al. 5).

This is a process of creating a reciprocal working relationship that empowers humanity, designing in such a way that enables people to come up with solutions that work for them. Rather than designing for passive users, it is a process of elevating all stakeholders to active participants in the design process.

At the current time, participatory design is a tactic most found in the design of information systems like software development. But, with the right tact, this process could be made to work on a humanitarian scale that generates a respectful, reciprocal relationship between the designer and all stakeholders, whether across country or county lines.

Social Design

The ideology of social design centers around the concept that the designer has a social responsibility to prioritize the needs of humanity and to use the design process to bring about positive change in society. There is an ethical obligation underlying the act of designing that “recognises an accountability of design to the worlds it creates and the lives of those who inhabit them” (Simonsen, et al. 5). Especially in our contemporary era of globalization, designers must be incredibly mindful of the fact that their designs hold real consequences for real people once pushed out into the world. Above all, we must strive to break free of the antiquated, imperial mindset of Western hierarchy and design in a way that respects people while preserving their cultures.

Decolonizing Design
Community involvement in the
Incremental Housing Strategy,
Bombay, India

Designers are in the unique position of being the instigators of cultural flow, and it is becoming exceedingly important that designers work from an awareness of this fact. Design choices have real consequences once birthed into the world, and designers have a responsibility to give stakeholders’ best interests top priority. Through participatory design, designers become not the direct agents of change but, rather, the conduits through which people can improve their own lives.

By embracing altruism, designers can focus on higher values of truth and humanity, rather than that of the self, inoculating their ideas against the persuasion of ego. “Concern for the environment and for the disadvantaged of our society are the most profound and powerful forces with which to shape design” (Papanek, The Green Imperative 57). The purpose is to improve life, not just for humans but for all living creatures and the planet as a whole. Ideally, design should not have to forego any of these stakeholders. But, if it does, the consequences are ultimately the designer’s burden to carry.

The purpose of Art and Design is to elucidate whole truths of life and emotion and the human experience. What matters are “the human implications of the situation: its capacity to hold promise for how we can better—which today means more sustainably—live our lives” (Dilnot 184). This endeavor must be sown from an understanding of our own biases, limitations, and desires; without that understanding, the designer remains susceptible to his or her own failings, taken in by the power of design rather than humbled by its responsibilities.

Put simply, we decolonize design not by telling the people of other cultures what we are going to do to solve their problems, but by asking them what they are doing to solve these problems and what we can do to help.

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