What a Decolonisation of Design Involves: Two Programmes for Emancipation

Published in the Beyond Change: Questioning the role of design in times of global transformations conference programme (March 2018).

Following the emerging discussions around design and decoloniality, we currently identify two issues at play, each of which embodies slightly different stakes and agendas, and lead to slightly different projects. Both projects, or programmes as we can call them, are concerned with the question of what we are fighting for in different senses, addressing different facets of the larger enterprise of decolonisation.

The first programme is the project of challenging and critiquing the current status quo in mainstream contemporary academic and professional discourse and bringing greater depth to the conversations happening around issues of gender, race, culture, and class. This is the project that the Decolonising Design platform has been mostly engaged with since its inception. We can reckon three goals to which this programme orients itself:

First, there is the necessity of creating a space for designers and design researchers working outside the confines of the Anglo-European sphere, at what we would call the margins of mainstream discourse. Within the current landscape of design academia, non-Western epistemologies and practices have not been taken seriously, and this has a history going all the way back to the need to develop design methods as a reaction to what was seen as craft-based design – incidentally associated with pre-industrial, non-European cultures. Dichotomies like this one persist to this day, where the legitimacy of relying on texts that do not fall within the Western canon is constantly questioned (in fact, even within this canon, some design scholars would argue that some traditions and their texts are undeniably more legitimate than others – this particularly applies to empirically driven, positivist approaches to design). There is also the question of why the discourses, documented histories, designerly practices, approaches, and thoughts of the vast majority of the world’s population is are simply absent. Thus, both the unquestioned assumptions about the nature of design praxis and the absence or underrepresentation of non-Western scholars from the design academy need to be critiqued and questioned. Creating this space is necessary – without it, no generative, plural practices and discourses can emerge within the larger design community.

Second, the articulation of the way that asymmetrical (colonial) power relations and logics of coloniality assert themselves through technologies and techniques, or, as we can call it, through artifice. This entails understanding the formation and origins of the modern Anglo-Eurocentric world-system – i.e. how it is that Western artifice came to dominate and constrain other artificial trajectories through the history of colonisation down to the present day, creating accounts of what the essence and the ontology of modern artifice is, separated as it is from sacred and natural law, and showing how specific modes and forms of colonial power manifest in specific modern technologies. By doing this, designers and researchers with decolonial agendas attempt to reveal both the dynamics of how colonial power unfolds in the modern world- system, and how it subsumes extra-colonial ways of knowing and acting by tracing its limits and boundaries.

Third, the pedagogical aim of bringing the works of different discourses on issues in culture, modernity, and globalisation, from critical thinkers with anti/post/decolonial agendas, into design discourse, as well as disseminating this politics and the knowledge it draws from into design education and practice. Decoloniality is not something new: it has existed for as long as the colonised have resisted colonialism. Apart from educating Western designers who would be allies to decolonial initiatives, it is important to highlight the fact that there are plural approaches to tackling the problem of modernity, given that different parts of the world and different subjects and communities have experienced colonialism differently. Bringing out these diverse points of view is crucial to maintaining a rich and vibrant culture of exchange and collaboration in scholarly thought and practice.

The second programme is the task of defining and developing alternatives to, on the one hand, the modern neoliberal, colonial world-system that we currently live in, particularly with regards to the nature of the artificial that is both symptom, consequence, and perpetrator of it, and on the other hand, to the nature of design practice that helped bring this artificial into being. That is to say, to practice decolonial design means thinking beyond design as it exists today: what can design be other than what it is now, given that its very disciplinary inception in the twentieth century went hand in hand with the development of our modern hyper-industrial complexes and their corresponding societies of discipline and control? Here there are also three aims that can be identified, which may be more or less congruent with the three aims outlined above, and none of which can really be separated from one another.:

First, delinking from the present world-system. This means that decolonial designers should stop acting with and through the institutions that embody, uphold, and perpetuate the tenets of modernity. This includes humanitarian enterprises, most notably NGOs and think tanks, cultural institutions like the contemporary art market, the Western academic complex and its systems of knowledge control and dissemination, and political movements including failed versions of various identity politics that frame emancipation and equality in terms of assimilation into the world-system. It also means epistemic delinking, i.e. decoupling oneself from a pure reliance on the Western canon and from Western design frameworks, methods, techniques, and practices.

Second, confronting and overcoming the colonial rupture, which means the reconstitution of a truly post-modern subject. It is unlikely that the colonized subject today can go back to a prior, pre-modern state of being – for most kinds of subjects, those have been forever lost. However, one can reach back to both historical understandings of past being and their changed nature in the present to recover essential ontological features that would point to a new futural state. For example, given that the roots of modern technology lie in the Greek conception of techne, we can ask what other possible artificials or corresponding ethics could be derived from other philosophies of technology.

Third, the creation of plural design practices that are futurally prescriptive and aim to propose alternatives to the neocolonial world-system. We need alternatives to free-market capitalism, to Western-style democracies – whether parliamentary or presidential – to Western value systems that define abstract concepts like freedom, equality, justice, and choice on their terms, to models of the human as rational, selfish, pragmatic, etc., and specifically for designers, towards new ways of designing; new hybrid, derivative, and syncretic practices and discourses. We should aim to have many diverse forms of design practice in the world – each specific to its region and its biosphere, each rooted in the cosmologies and mythos of its culture, each concerned with defining its own aims and identifying and addressing its own problems and opportunities. We should aim to cultivate many different ways of thinking, being, and designing, derived from different artifices and worldviews, aimed at addressing many different needs and desires.

Both of these programmes must, of necessity, work together to achieve liberation for the modern subject: to understand and articulate is to challenge and resist is to create and emancipate. This eventual emancipation also cannot come from the coloniser lest it follows the colonial logic of liberation, and in any case, the coloniser is unable to imagine alternatives, having never experienced anything beyond the world-system. It can only come from the colonised; from the ones whose bodies, subjectivities, and epistemes have so long been ignored, underestimated, inferiorised, ostracised, or appropriated. Because all of these agendas are co-relational and co-dependent, the task for the decolonial designer is not easy. There are no shortcuts, no quick byways through the modern world-system and its logics for this task, for what it demands of us is that we begin to think what design can be other than what it is. Whether designers can take up this immense and difficult task remains to be seen.

For further reading, see Decolonising Design’s updated Editorial Statement

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