The brief statement that follows is a direct response to the results of two submissions for the Design Research Society Conference (DRS2016) to be held in Brighton (UK) in June 2016. We address the politically-charged reviews we received rejecting our first submission, which led us to withdraw our second, accepted proposal. Instead of doing this in the closed system proposed by the DRS (in which submitters could review their reviewers, thereby informing the chairs), we decided to make a public statement. With that we hope to clarify the reasons why we chose not to take part in the DRS2016, and highlight the need of a profound debate and redirection of the colonial ethos of design and design research in spaces which, we maintain, the DRS is not able to foster.
We are a group of young design researchers, most of us are currently in the process of writing or completing our PhDs. In one way or another, we all have ties to countries considered as belonging to the Global South, while many of us live and study in North Atlantic nations. We live and work on the border, shuttling back and forth between the knowledge of our lands, deemed peripheral, and the logic of Western, Anglophonic and neoliberal academia, regarded as central. The struggle against the colonisation of knowledge, i.e. the colonial conditions that inform knowledge production and validation, is not only part of our work, but part of our lives. Coloniality is not an abstract concept nor is it a subject to be examined from a comfortable distance. It is something that affects our communities, our countries and our peoples every single day. It is a continuous process of domination and violence to which we are submitted. It demeans our knowledge, subjugates our bodies, and renders our lives arduous.
For us, decolonisation is imperative for survival.
When the Design Research Society opened its call for papers for the upcoming DRS Conference, we decided to submit a joint paper. Though we all work with different subjects, coloniality is the thread that connects our research; thus, we decided to submit a piece where each one of us would write about their own subject, with the intention of highlighting the various ways in which design acts within the framework of coloniality, experimenting with the traditional form of the paper as encouraged by the DRS2016 call for “new forms of engagement.” The final paper was composed of six short essays where each author briefly laid out their principal subject.
We strongly believe that design, as a field of study, has systematically failed to address the questions of power that have shaped its own practice. Decolonising the ontological forces of designing must not be understood as an attempt for additive change; rather, we call for a radical structural shift in the field. In other words, we do not want this endeavor – of which we are nothing but catalysts – to be seen as a token for “diversity,” accommodated within a supposedly plural worldview fostered by the Design Research Society (DRS). Rather, we want to invite a profound reflection on the devices that constitute our field as it is now, and the types of futures contained in design research and practice.
Given the difficult themes of our paper and the historically hostile stance that academia in the North has shown towards anti-colonial rhetoric, we were hardly surprised to have had our submission rejected. The terms of that rejection were, however, rather interesting. As clearly shown by the reviews we received, the attempt of proposing a truly plural contribution to the field – in which different voices are able to share and coexist in the same format – yielded responses which were, at best, condescending. It was clear to us that the paper was assessed based on the reviewers’ political beliefs, albeit written as if the critiques implied “universal academic truths”. Through this, they fabricated a distinction which “authorised” certain papers, thereby deciding which ones deserve to be counted as “academically qualified”, and which ones should be eliminated. Although we are aware of the fact that this is the conventional procedure of the peer-reviewed academic events and publications, we cannot condone that the criteria for the assessment is biased. It seems that in order for us to be welcomed in the matrixes of power created in and around design discourse (the DRS Conference clearly being one of them), we have no other option but to assimilate to the normative discourses of those in charge. More than that, the reviews clearly demonstrate the sort of gatekeeping that is at play within conferences such as the DRS: while reviews supposedly “acknowledge the importance” of a proposal such as ours, it seems that there will always be a major “however” preventing any attempt of change from effectively taking place . Our reviewers seemed to be too attached to technicalities in the paper to actually analyse the discursive challenge in it on one hand, and they were sporadically recriminating some of our arguments according to their own personal and moral stances on the other.
For example, in response to our criticism of Victor Margolin’s “World History of Design”, the second reviewer writes “one small but notable matter is that [the book] is mentioned as a recent attempt to provide a global design history […] but also criticized as another example of design history that attempts to include new voices but simply adds them as a footnote. Given the scope of Margolin’s project this would be a large footnote indeed […it] makes one wonder if the author has actually read it.” (emphasis added). Later on, the same reviewer states “the paper […] ends rather bizarrely with a call for designers to recognize forgery of documents for purposes of crossing borders as a decolonial practice of critical making.” (ibid., emphasis added). In both stances the personal opinion of the reviewer is explicit in a manner that is not only dismissive but also condescending. Regardless of size, a footnote is still a footnote; likewise, the use of word “bizarrely” clearly shows a political stance rather than critical engagement with the proposed call for acknowledgment.
That being said, we would not go as far as to claim that our proposed paper should have been immediately accepted without any constructive comment or request of review. Yet any possibility of that happening was blocked by the first reviewer, who deliberately chose to grade the paper with a zero out of ten. This is a clear statement: it means that not a single word written in the paper was worthy of any consideration whatsoever by both reviewers, and consequently by DRS2016 (which they represent). Even if the material was not “too radical to be countenanced”, as stated by said reviewer, we believe that their argument falls on its head with the immediate prevention from the proposal to ever enter DRS. It seems to us that the proposal was, in fact, radical enough, or perhaps too uncomfortable of a topic for the intended audience of the DRS Conference. The dismissal (or ignorance) of the relevance of the topic is also clear in the choice of words. For instance, the second reviewer maintains that “we need voices that do not come from erstwhile Western colonizers” (emphasis added), ignoring the fact that colonisation has, in fact, never ended . In short, even though they feel “sympathetic to the aims of the paper” (ibid.), it seems that the 2016 DRS Conference is not yet the place where non-Western voices who dare to challenge imposed structures of power will be heard.
These accommodation strategies become clearer with what followed after the rejection of our paper. We submitted a proposal for a “Conversation,” which utilised the same vocabulary and plurality we tried to foster in our paper; this proposal was accepted with only a minor comment. This shows fissures in the DRS as an institution: while there are parties that are willing to nurture these kinds of discussions, other players do their best to silence them, while doing their best to maintain a conveniently and condescendingly progressive façade. This type of attitude cannot be tolerated and needs to be confronted if we truly want to decolonise design practices and theories. Moreover, given the nature of the Conversation format as opposed to the Paper, that is, the academic validity that is attributed to both types of contributions within the conference, confines what we see as a major problem in design to a two-hour discussion, with documentation and further dissemination delegated to the catalysts themselves. Furthermore, the recently released list of conference delegates highlights another issue that needs to be discussed: a near-complete absence of participants hailing from anywhere other than the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, and the North Atlantic countries in general. While the Design Research Society touts itself as the “the longest established, multi-disciplinary worldwide society for the design research community,”  the disproportionate participation of European delegates in this conference can be understood as a reproduction of the borders and the power structures that secure and validate certain knowledges above others. We do not believe a two-hour long session is enough to ignite a meaningful discussion on such a complex subject, particularly within Eurocentric spaces. There is an urgent need for other, non-hegemonic spaces where this discussion can be properly fostered.
We believe that researching and proposing new formats for presenting academic knowledge are also part of an ontological shift in design, as a discipline and practice that bases itself on future-thinking and change. Yet we concur that there is still a clear hierarchy of validation of knowledges within the DRS Conference, in which the traditional Paper format is still regarded as more important than debate. This fact contradicts the very call of DRS2016 that invited “experiential knowledge”, “new and challenging paper submissions” and “research looking at and using design in the widest possible sense.”  We refuse to accept this contradiction and disparity by believing that attending the DRS Conference would make us nothing but mere consensual numbers in the event, or seen as just other promoters of its ideologies and strategies that we aim to challenge in the first place.
That is why we chose to withdraw our Conversation (format): to move this very important debate to a platform in which the terms can be redistributed, as well as to expand the debate beyond the confines of the DRS (as both institution and conference). Decolonising design research and practice is an urgent matter; we hope that, with the release of a collective statement such as this one, a much needed and timely discussion can be initiated, about what types of knowledge the wider community of design researchers and practitioners is willing to validate and foster in publications and conferences from now on.
- From the first reviewer: “In each and every case this reviewer agrees: this is an area that is worth investigating [… however,] in its present form it is difficult to see how this paper could be revised in such a way that it would constitute a workable submission.” The second reviewer also states “The topic is highly important and relevant to the conference [… however,] an identity-based criticism is rather weak in any case.”
- See e.g. French Polynesia, Bermuda, New Caledonia, Puerto Rico, etc. More examples on http://www.un.org/en/decolonization/index.shtml (accessed June 19th, 2016).
- http://www.designresearchsociety.org/index.php/about (accessed June 19th, 2016)
- http://www.drs2016.org/cfp/ (accessed June 19th, 2016)
Danah Abdulla, Lecturer, London College of Communication (University of the Arts London), and PhD Candidate at Goldsmiths, University of London
Ece Canlı, PhD Candidate at the University of Porto
Mahmoud Keshavarz, PhD Candidate at Malmö University
Luiza Prado de O. Martins, PhD Candidate at the Berlin University of the Arts
Pedro J S Vieira de Oliveira, PhD Candidate at the Berlin University of the Arts