Making Visible
By Vera Sacchetti

07 June 2024

07.06.2024

Women in design, past, present, and future

Issue 2.3

Decolonisation
Design history
Feminism
Intersectionality

Beyond Eurocentric Stereotypes: Expanding Horizons, and the Canon

It didn’t start then, but it’s a helpful turning point: by the start of the 21st century, design could no longer ignore the complexities that are part and parcel of the discipline. When it comes to women in design, perhaps the initial challenge would be to create frameworks for their visibility, without the same Eurocentric stereotypes, and without overlooking different perspectives and geographies. This question also marked the beginning of the final reflection organized as part of the 2019 A Woman’s Work symposium, organized by Foreign Legion. The discussion addressed strategies to shift and make our own bias visible and to change perspectives.

One of the speakers, scholar and professor Sarah Owens, pointed out how “This idea of making invisibility visible – perhaps that’s at the basis of this whole thing. It really does start a conversation – at whatever scale that is.” She continued, discussing the importance of creating spaces where that discussion can happen. “If you create a space that you feel is safe,” Owens said, “we can talk freely.” 1. For more on the symposium, see Krzykowski, Lucek, Sacchetti, A Woman’s Work Report, 2019, https://www.foreign-legion.global/uploads/A-Womans-Work-Report-by-Foreign-Legion-EN.pdf 

A Woman's Work symposium Dresden, 2019- women in design
A Woman’s Work symposium, Dresden, 2019. Photo David Pinzer.

For scholar and professor Danah Abdulla, who also spoke during the session, the element of doubt is always present in a woman’s practice. “Being a woman, you always doubt yourself,” she remarked, “and being a woman of color – not that I’m particularly representative for the global south as I grew up in Canada – it constantly makes you question – Am I good enough to be here or am I adding spice to the conference?” Furthermore, Sarah Owens noted how “sometimes, if I am the quota – the quota woman or the quota Black woman – I embrace it and say, ok, at least I’m here. I’m going to name the names of the amazing Black women that I know.”2. A Woman’s Work Report, 2019  The feeling of being a minority is not an illusion, but a very real consequence of what another scholar, Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall, has referred to as design’s exclusion and oppression of “the very people whose lands and lives it[design] reshaped.”3. See Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall, Decolonizing Design: A Cultural Justice Guidebook, MIT Press, 2023 Her recent book Decolonizing Design: A Cultural Justice Guidebook offers a framework for an institutional transformation of design theory and practice precisely by restoring those communities that the discipline has excluded forever – Indigenous, Black, and People of Color communities. For Tunstall, modernist design has served to advance the project of colonization, and recentering the discipline in global indigenous cultures and histories offers a way to transform it to the benefit of all.

Posters at the Beyond Change Conference are re-worked with handwritten notes such as "how do you recognise your privilege?"
Swiss Design Network, Beyond Change conference, Basel, 2018. Photo Samuel Hanselmann.

The way to do this is not just through individual practice but also through larger-scale institutional transformation. The call to decolonize design is an intersectional one, where class, gender, race are intertwined and intrinsically connected. As researcher and designer Sasha Costanza-Chock reminds us, “universalist design principles and practices, as well as single-axis evaluations of fairness in design, erase certain groups of people: specifically, those who are intersectionally disadvantaged (or multiply burdened) under white supremacist heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and settler colonialism. When designers do consider inequality in design (and most professional design processes do not consider inequality at all), they nearly always employ a single-axis framework. Most design processes today are therefore structured in ways that make it impossible to see, engage with, account for, or attempt to remedy the unequal distribution of benefits and burdens that they reproduce.“4. Sasha Costanza-Chock, “Design Justice: Towards an Intersectional Feminist Framework for DesignTheory and Practice”, in Claudia Mareis, Nina Paim (eds.), Design Struggles: Intersecting Histories, Pedagogies, and Perspectives, Valiz, 2021, p. 337 

The Decolonising Design Group, a group composed of scholars and academics Ahmed Ansari, Danah Abdulla, Ece Canli, Mahmoud Keshavarz, Matthew Kiem, Pedro Oliveira, Luiza Prado and Tristan Schultz, also called for a new understanding of design as early as 2017. In their original statement, they propose a “sharper lens” with which to focus “on non-western ways of thinking and being, and on the way that class, gender, race, etc,. issues are designed today.” Simultaneously, they also called for institutional transformation: “We understand the highlighting of these issues through practices and acts of design, and the (re)design of institutions, design practices and design studies (efforts that always occur under conditions of contested political interests) to be a pivotal challenge in the process of decolonisation.” 5. Decolonising Design Group, Editorial Statement, 15 November 2017 https://www.decolonisingdesign.com/editorial-statement/

The crux of this kind of transformation brings us back to the beginning – back to learning spaces and education. And if single courses can change students’ minds about diversity and bring an understanding of intersectionality and decolonization, a larger, deeper transformation needs to occur for the change to be permanent and palpable. Some contemporary initiatives come from activist and self-organized stances, organizing parallel programs and study courses that are not integrated in any official syllabus. This is the case with Office Hours, a project founded in New York City in 2020 that facilitates knowledge sharing amongst artists, designers, storytellers and cultural workers who identify as Black, Indigenous and People of Color. Since the founding of the initiative, thousands of people from all over the world have participated in more than forty events, which have aimed to reconfigure shared cultural practices into systems and methods for collective liberation.

women in design
Swiss Design Network, Beyond Change conference, Basel, 2018. Photo Samuel Hanselmann.

Similarly, the independent study program BIPOC Design History is an educational platform that offers design history classes adding to the design canon. Since its foundation in 2021, the program has already offered lecture series on Black Design in America: African Americans and the African Diaspora in Graphic Design 19th Century – 21st Century; Incomplete Latinx Stories of Diseño Gráfico Borderlands/ La Frontera*; and Design Histories in Southwest Asia & North Africa: Voices from the SWANA Diaspora. The lectures are given by renowned design historians and practitioners, and can be licensed to anyone who is interested in watching and learning. In a parallel effort, all the resources that are mentioned during the lectures are available online for consultation. See the “Collective Knowledge” repository at https://bipocdesignhistory.com/resources/  The whole effort is the brainchild of Polymode Studio, a queer, and minority-owned graphic design studio that is based in New York and Los Angeles

Interestingly enough, many of these efforts to transform design education feature graphic designers at their core. Another name to add to the various already listed in this essay is Ramon Tejada, a Dominican-American designer and teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design. Within the school, his hybrid design-teaching practice leads students to respond, think about and make for equitable futures, using collaborative design practices. In a similar effort, but lecturing widely across Europe, the Brazilian designer and curator Nina Paim lectures widely across Europe on feminist approaches to design history,  opening up new ways of thinking and envisioning the whole discipline, past, present and future. 

Writing alongside scholar Claudia Mareis, Paim herself wonders: “How can design truly contribute to a more just society and more sustainable forms of living without compromising bottom-up initiatives and marginalizing the voices of those who are most directly affected? How can we reimagine design as an unbounded, queer, and unfinished practice that approaches the world from within instead of claiming an elevated position? How, for once, can we see design as a situated practice instead of turning it into the Global North’s escapist, problem-solving strategy? Our conviction: Design cannot change anything before it changes itself.” Claudia Mareis and  Nina Paim, “Design Struggles: An Attempt to Imagine Design Otherwise”, in Claudia Mareis, Nina Paim (eds.), Design Struggles: Intersecting Histories, Pedagogies, and Perspectives, Valiz, 2021, p. 19. 

The greatest challenge is, therefore, to do the work everyday to change design from within. This means changing the way we practice, in independent studios and large corporations; transforming design curricula and educational institutions; reframing the idea of a design museum and its goals; inviting more and more voices to take a seat at the table. As Brazilian indigenous leader, environmentalist, and writer Ailton Krenak writes, “we are definitely not the same, and it is wonderful to know that each one of us here is different from the other, like constellations. The fact that we can share this space, that we are traveling together does not mean that we are the same; it means exactly that we are able to attract each other through our differences, which should guide our life paths.” Ailton Krenak, quoted in Claudia Mareis and  Nina Paim, “Design Struggles: An Attempt to Imagine Design Otherwise”, in Claudia Mareis, Nina Paim (eds.), Design Struggles: Intersecting Histories, Pedagogies, and Perspectives, Valiz, 2021, p. 21 There’s no other way: the future – design’s future, but also the future of every single one of us –  is polyphonic, diverse, and inclusive. And it’s already here, all around us, we just need to open our eyes. 

Tunstall 2023
Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall, Decolonizing Design: A Cultural Justice Guidebook, MIT Press, 2023

Mareis, Paim 2021
Claudia Mareis, Nina Paim (eds.), Design Struggles: Intersecting Histories, Pedagogies, and Perspectives,Valiz, 2021

Schalk, Kristiansson, Mazé 2017
Meike Schalk, Thérèse Kristiansson, Ramia Mazé (eds.), Feminist Futures of Spatial Practice: Materialisms, activisms, dialogues, pedagogies, projections. Art Architecture Design Research AADR . Spurbuchverlag, Baunach, 2017

Krenak 2020
Ailton Krenak,Ideas to Postpone the End of the World, Anansi International, 2020