Framing decolonisation through the lens of design - RSA

Framing decolonisation through the lens of design


  • Picture of Jillian Linton
    Jillian Linton
    Delivery Manager
  • Design

What does it mean to decolonise – and how does that look for the design community at large?

In June 2020, Google search results spiked with individuals searching for the term decolonise. Activists were calling for the system to be dismantled. Businesses, companies, universities and more began adopting the language and people began to take notice. However as the term hit the mainstream, some argued that the increasing use of the term led to it being watered down.

Tuck and Yang warned of this trend with their joint piece from 2004, Decolonization is not a metaphor, making a clear argument that the word was being co-opted by other groups and used to describe other, perhaps worthwhile, initiatives that were not in fact related to decolonisation at all. How can designers grapple with these concepts and know how to respond or as Noel writes, “how to move beyond criticism to a substantial transformation in our practices?” What can we do in our daily lives and design careers to shift the system? This is what a group of designers and fellows set out to explore.

In October 2020, Vanessa Dewey hosted a virtual salon with RSA US board chair Ric Grefé and Dori Tunstall, Joanna Choukeir and Agustín G. Garza. The topic of discussion? Decolonising design after Covid-19. Watch the video of the full event on this page.

There was huge interest off the back of the event from Fellows, design practitioners and educators around the globe who wanted more space to discuss this activity and learn from each other.

Jadalia Britto and Vanessa, collaborated to create the Decolonising Design Coalition, a group of designers across the globe committed to sourcing, synthesising, and amplifying a global set of principles that can be used to decolonise the design ethos of different cultural, institutional, professional contexts. They are not experts but willing practitioners and are open to learning.

Place-based design decolonisation

The group began meeting in 2021, facilitated by the RSA US. As global members from different contexts, they were struck by how different the work of decolonising could be dependent on where people were situated. Defining what decolonising design meant, how to do it and how you begin is not a straightforward exercise. The group have agreed there is not one way to do this work as this will shift across locations, sectors, and geographies. However, the group felt that creating space for individuals to share the actions they were beginning to take, the resources they found valuable and spreading learnings would be the best way to create seeds of change in multiple places.

In June 2022, two members of the coalition, Vanessa Dewey chaired a second public event, this time held at RSA House in London, UK. Here, Ve shared some of the group’s thinking as well as invited other members* of the design community to share how their work was aimed at shifting the system, even if they were not specifically working to decolonise.

Here are some of the captured perspectives from their work to date:

George Aye headshot

Ethics in social design

George Aye of Greater Good Studio spoke of the importance of developing ethics in the world of social design.

  • For George, the journey to developing his ethical framework and moral compass was a difficult one that required continually reconsidering his position in relation to power. Proximity to power can corrupt and make it difficult to continue to make a positive difference in communities. Designers can instead find themselves reinforcing the harmful systems and dynamics that they are there to supposedly dismantle.
  • Learning to identify these potential red flags is a continued practice – each week his studio holds difficult team discussions on what work to accept. The team openly discusses whether it chimes with their values and if it is sure not to cause additional harm.
Rodrigo Bautista headshot

Understanding the world

Rodrigo Bautista is a member of the Decolonising Design Coalition and a Systemic Designer based across the United States of America and Mexico.

  • Rodrigo has been reading widely to learn more. He took inspiration from the Zapatistas and their rebellion and rejection of the capitalist system. He argues that the Zapatistas’ milpa is a model and a framework that we can learn from.
  • The milpa system is sometimes described simply as an agricultural system originating from the Yucatan peninsula, characterised by Las Tres Hermanas (three sisters) growing system or the practice of burning land and leaving it fallow. However, the broader interpretation understands milpa as a philosophy and way of living in relationship with one another and in deep connection with the land. Several practitioners located in this region argue that a return to the milpa as a way of living and understanding the world would undo the extractive colonial practices that define current systems, distribute resources more fairly and rekindle our relationship with the natural world.
Sarah Campbell headshot

Decolonising design in higher education

Sarah Campbell is the Associate Director for Arts and Culture at the University of Exeter and works with a wider group of educators on decolonising work in the higher education space.

  • Sarah has worked alongside Professor Sarah Dyer, Director of the Education Incubator to form Just Co-Create: a new project that aims to create a design skills programme for colleagues in the university that has social justice and creativity at its core. They have invited a group of people working on building an anti-racist university and those with interest and experience of design to inform and pilot elements of a future programme. This work has been collaborative involving internal stakeholders, staff and post-graduate students and has been supported by two external facilitators, Dr Makayla Lewis (Kingston University) and Ahsan Khan (Director, Climate Labs).
  • For Sarah, she advocates for working with what is already there, figuring out who is already doing the work and prioritising relationship building and moving slowly to get things done correctly.

Sarah was the third panellist expected to speak but she was unfortunately unable to attend due to Covid-19. These reflections were sent over as part of her speaking notes.

The speakers took time to answer the questions of those who had gathered and discuss the difficulty of knowing how to do this well. An overarching theme of the event and the questions was the huge amount of work yet to be done.

With so much work to be done to tackle racism, gender inequality, transphobia and more, can we really be ready to decolonise? However, multiple scholars, activists and authors have argued that in fact – one cannot happen without the other. To achieve justice in society in these arenas, decolonisation must be part of the work and understood as a root cause in these challenges. As we work on chipping away at different elements of this, we are enabling the new world to emerge.

The coalition is actively looking for examples of this decolonising work happening globally, if you are interested in sharing some or finding out more about the coalition you can fill out their contact form that gives your consent to be contacted by the Decolonisation Design Coalition team and hear more about upcoming events.

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