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Decolonising Design: Acknowledging the Embedded Colonisation in Design Industry

There is a persistent fundamental question in philosophy: is the material world a product of our consciousness or vice versa? Through this question philosophers of generations have tried to understand the relationship between the material or natural world and our consciousness or spirituality. Although philosophers are still conflicted with the nature of this relation, there is no doubt among them that there is indeed a relation between our consciousness and the material world. Therefore, it will not be an exaggeration to say that anything we see on earth is either a reflection or a source of our consciousness. This also applies to the designs we see and create. An analogy can be found in both philosophy and design; both are euro-centric. Just like philosophy, the standard way of thinking in design is also westernised. Anything other than that is labelled as ‘exotic’, ‘loud’, ‘vibrant’, or in other ways, not the ‘standard’ way to go. However, to understand how embedded colonialism is in the design world, it is crucial to have a rigid definition of the term.

Colonisation was justified as a philanthropic enterprise, an evangelization, a project undertaken for the greater glory of God, a way to eradicate barbarism and induce civilization. However, as we see now in retrospect, we realise the lie behind all of it. As the French poet Aimé Césaire wrote in his famous essay “Discourse on Colonialism,”- “To admit once and for all, without flinching at the consequences, that the decisive actors here are the adventurer and the pirate, the wholesale grocer and the ship owner, the gold digger and the merchant, appetite and force, and behind them, the baleful projected shadow of a form of civilization which, at a certain point in its history, finds itself obliged, for internal reasons, to extend to a world scale the competition of its antagonistic economies.” Now, colonialism in design is not as overtly portrayed as in the political or bureaucratic sphere but the dichotomy of superior-inferior is prevalent there as well. For artists or creative personals, there is often a muse, an inspiration that they derive from their surroundings. But due to the predominance of European and American male designers, all the up-and-coming artists are exposed to their works. It is their works that are labelled as ‘classics’ and as a consequence, they are the ones who set the tone of wrong and right in the industry. It is quite natural to discredit the works of non-Western artists or the ones produced from poorer backgrounds as ‘crafts’ instead of design. For instance, regarding Ghanaian textiles as a craft rather than a design shows the embedded snobbishness that classifies traditional craft as different from modern design. Differentiating Bengali nakshi kantha art as a craft instead of design can be pointed out as one of the reasons why there is yet to be a distinct Bengali niche in the world of design. Simba Ncube, a graphic design student and researcher at London’s Central Saint Martins, further explains the colonial structure in design, “When Western conventions are centred in design, this means that anything else is seen as ‘different.’” According to him, there is a homogenous group in the industry that decides what is good and what is not. In such circumstances, anything that comes outside of this set boundary is regarded as ‘different.’ To fit in these ‘standardised’ forms of design, we often see the disappearance of individuality. The cultural identity of the former colonies gets side-lined to present themselves as ‘modern.’ As we can see, we are surrounded by modernity. Our home interiors, the skyscrapers, and the clothes we wear all scream modernity. However, ‘modern’ can be described as common, devoid of anything unique or specific that embraces diversity within a culture. And this is the main obstacle with the embedded colonisation in design, it establishes and re-establishes the status quo. As Ncube proposes, “Realising that the standards we have been taught are not universal is key to decoloniality.”


“Design Can Never Be Neutral”
The first step to decolonizing design is to acknowledge that there is no such thing as neutral or universal design. It is important to raise questions over the origin of the “classics.” What makes some fonts and patterns ‘classic’ and who gets to decide what is a ‘classic’ and what is not? The truth is things we perceive as normal are also a product of our cultural biases because as designers everything we make is subjective. One example of persisting colonialism in design standards is how designers perceive something as correct. For example, in the West, the linear perspective is taught to be the best way to approximate space but it is not the only effective way to do so. The Japanese perspective does not use the x,y, and z-axis as in the linear perspective. It only uses one plane and yet it is a highly popular way of creating images. Moreover, there are also a few cultures that do not use perspectives at all. Zulus live in a ‘circular culture,’ meaning all their huts are round, they do not even plough their lands in straight furrows. Their villages are designed in circular formations and that is the standard for them.

Decolonization Does Not Mean Diversity
To decolonize design, it is crucial to understand the difference between decolonization and diversity. Words like decolonization, diversity, and inclusion are often interchangeably used but even though these words are related to each other, they are not the same. The Dean of Design at the Ontario College of Art and Design University, Dori Tunstall breaks down the difference between diversity, inclusion, and decolonization in the simplest way possible. She explains that diversity is getting an invitation to a party; inclusion is when someone asks if you want to dance and decolonizing is allowing the most vulnerable to choose the music, and plan the food for the party.

Just inviting people from diverse cultures is not enough for decolonizing, as the diversity will amount to nothing until the boundaries of design standards are shattered to explore new horizons.

Author-Nayeema Nusrat Arora

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