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Decolonization is not a new idea, but it’s currently having a moment, especially in design. Indigenous designers and designers of color in academia are laying the foundations for new design methods that decenter white European–based visual culture. Practitioners are pushing beyond notions of diversity and inclusion and examining the structural underpinnings through which design is performed and visualized. American design—so deeply rooted in visualizing white European hegemony—is being reinvented to translate Indigenous ways of being into tangible experiences.

Recent decolonizing design efforts in education can be credited to some of the groundwork laid by Dr. Elizabeth “Dori” Tunstall, dean of the faculty of design at OCAD University (OCAD U) and the first Black and Black female dean of design anywhere. She developed the idea of respectful design while collaboratively building curriculum around Indigenous knowledge, feminism, social justice and sustainability at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. Within weeks of arriving at OCAD U, she offered the term respectful design to the faculty to self-define. Four years later, her faculty reports a dramatic shift in students’ thesis projects. “Students are bringing themselves and their histories into their final works, which is driving innovation and originality,” Dr. Tunstall says. “I thought the change would take longer.”

California College of the Arts faculty members welcome keynote presenter Dr. Dori Tunstall to the Decolonial Unconference held at the school’s San Francisco campus in February 2020. From left: associate professor Shalini Agrawal, assistant professor Juan Carlos Rodríguez Rivera, assistant professor Shylah Hamilton, assistant professor Katherine Lam, keynote presenter Dr. Dori Tunstall. © David Hisaya Asari

By sharing respectful design practices, Dr. Tunstall has witnessed and inspired decolonizing design action, most recently at the California College of the Arts (CCA). Shylah Pacheco Hamilton, assistant professor and chair of the Diversity Studies program, details the process of creating the Decolonial School, a three-year project that launched in 2019 to meet the school’s need for curricula reflective of its diverse educational community. “We started by gathering and distilling as much expertise from our current faculty and as many resources as possible from the many scholars, artists and designers who are already doing this work,” Hamilton says. Dr. Tunstall recalls CCA’s progress: “Their Decolonial School project came from assistant professor Juan Carlos [Rodríguez Rivera] hearing my talk and meeting me in 2018 at Cranbrook. He came back to CCA and shared my work with his colleagues, where they started the Decolonial School project. Over the past eighteen months, they had been holding meetings with faculty across the college and wrote new decolonial curriculum that they piloted with students this year.”

“I hope to pull the Indigenous demographic out of the ‘primitive’ stereotype and create a foundation that allows Native Americans to contribute to contemporary trends in graphic design and design research.” —Sadie Red Wing

The Decolonial School challenges the traditional pedagogies, or methods of teaching, accepted by CCA faculty and students alike. Katherine Lam, assistant professor in CCA’s Furniture program, says, “The challenges for me have been undoing the hierarchy in my own mind, and also allowing myself to be vulnerable in an academic setting. As professionals and educators, our value is defined by what we know—or think we know—and hold the role of an expert, but what happens when we are the students or don’t have an answer?” Shalini Agrawal, architectural designer and associate professor in CCA’s Diversity Studies, adds, “It has been challenging to introduce this way of learning to students because it asks them to consider different ways of problem-solving, one that moves away from ‘universal’ design and towards the inclusion of different perspectives.” But reception seems positive overall. CCA is looking for ways to increase funding in order to expand their reach and be able to share knowledge with other institutions interested in doing similar work. “In my opinion, this is an excellent problem to have,” Hamilton says.

Sadie Red Wing, whose tribal affiliation is Lakota, is a public speaker, design educator and advocate for visual sovereignty actively exploring what decolonizing design looks like for sovereign nations in the United States. She incorporates and centers Indigenous methods in design pedagogy, practice and history. Her design classes start as American history courses that include Indigenous technologies reframed as part of contemporary design history. “History is important,” she says, “and graphic design visually documents history. The Native American history is just as important as the European history in graphic design.”

Sadie Red Wing, design educator and advocate for
visual sovereignty.

Red Wing also highlights the lack of academic resources available to Indigenous students, rooted in deliberate exclusion and erasure of Native Americans, and how this stymies her and her students’ educational experiences. “Many schools on the Native American reservation do not have the funding to provide computers, software, applications or devices for students interested in design research. The majority of the students do not own their own materials, nor can afford textbooks needed for specific courses. Also, because many tribal sovereign nations are in rural areas, I cannot take my students on a tour of a design firm, a technology-driven company or a corporation with a popular brand because we do not have them on the reservations,” she says.

In her own design practice, Red Wing emphasizes the connection between locality, utility and representation, which combine to form a tribe’s visual sovereignty. For example, when employing the visual language of the Lakota tribe of the Great Plains, she references the distinct flora and fauna of that region. “The land-based visual language defines the specific tribe’s culture, which is needed when designing resources such as language learning applications, printed dictionaries or event flyers held on the tribe’s reservation,” she explains. The work also frames traditional Indigenous knowledge within a contemporary design context. “I hope to pull the Indigenous demographic out of the ‘primitive’ stereotype and create a foundation that allows Native Americans to contribute to contemporary trends in graphic design and design research,” she says. Her work simultaneously acts as resource citations for her students and future researchers.

Urgency underscores her work. She’s combating the erosion of Indigenous knowledge, recognizing its increasing relevance in today’s volatile world. “The use of traditional ecological knowledge is beneficial for design researchers visually communicating for climate change and environmental justice. Who has the traditional ecological knowledge of specific land regions in the United States? The 573 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations do,” she says. “The same goes for the artificial intelligence prototypes that are advancing ways to preserve land or develop agricultural practices.”

The image of being a designer is that you are white, Swiss, cis male, Christian, middle class and heterosexual. Every designer should be doing that work to diversify design possibilities for future designers all over the world.”
—Dr. Dori Tunstall

Designers are expanding access to resources and reshaping design processes outside of academia as well. Neebinnaukzhik “Neebin” Southall, whose tribal affiliation is Anishinaabe, started the Native Graphic Design Project (NGDP) to represent the designers she saw missing from her own design education at Oregon State University. It functions as an online directory and a network for contemporary Native designers whose isolation Southall noticed as her community engagement expanded. “Many individuals forged their own path, though they encountered similar issues in their educational and work experiences. How much better would it have been if they had access to more resources and a wider network? I would have bene ted from such things as a student myself, and I hope that the NGDP helps upcoming designers see what is possible,” says Southall.

Neebinnaukzhik “Neebin” Southall, director,
the Native Graphic Design Project. 

Now running Neebin Studios, Southall seeks projects intersecting with Native cultures, and practices a respectful approach. “When I’m working with a Native client that is not from my background, I take the time to learn about their culture and work to be a good listener. If you’re using visuals from a culture that is not your own, you need to understand them to use them respectfully. When I’ve been doing work for an Anishinaabe client, I like to do visual research and incorporate particular cultural forms and symbology in the work because doing so is an act of Anishinaabe sovereignty and cultural reclamation. The idea of behaving responsibly with regard to one’s tribe is common, and I think it’s important to keep that in mind during the design process. As Indigenous designers, we are building and preserving culture.”

It is important to note, though, that decolonizing design is not critical design, which leverages existing design practices for social change and challenges traditional production and consumer culture. Bianca Nozaki-Nasser, a design and product strategist, furthers work developed as a grad student at ArtCenter College of Design and cofounder of student organization the Antiracist Classroom by formally building on it at the online advocacy organization 18 Million Rising, which brings together Asian American and Pacific Islander American communities. “I’ve been able to advocate for designers, and critical design to become an integrated part of our work process instead of an aesthetic afterthought,” says Nozaki-Nasser. But she is clear about the definitions of her practice: “I don’t claim to do decolonizing design work or be an expert on decolonizing design, but my work is art, design and strategy that includes engaging with and working towards goals rooted in antiracism, abolition and liberation.”

Design may currently exist as “the oil in the wheels of capitalism,” as Sean Adams, designer and chair of the Graphic Design programs at ArtCenter, has described it, but for designers to believe that will always be the case is ironically unimaginative. If the zeitgeist tells us anything, it is that change is constant. Decolonization offers an alternative to our unsustainable, capitalist society by revising our relationship to the environment from one of exploitation and extraction for short-term gain to long-term renewable practices centering Indigenous knowledge. Thinking that designers need to become “decolonized designers” misses the point. “I think the designer’s role is to become a real ally to Indigenous communities and to understand design as a colonial agent. The designer’s role is to work towards decolonization by honoring Indigenous knowledge and practices, decentering Eurocentric perspectives and thinking about new possible futures that are nonoppressive and nonhierarchical,” says the Decolonial School’s Juan Carlos Rodríguez Rivera. Dr. Tunstall says, “We each play a different role in advancing Indigenous sovereignty. For me right now, my role is making it so that my Indigenous and racialized students don’t have to choose between their beautiful identities and becoming a professional designer, because the image of being a designer is that you are white, Swiss, cis male, Christian, middle class and heterosexual. Every designer should be doing that work to diversify design possibilities for future designers all over the world.” ca

Jen Wang (@earth_terminal) designs book covers and interiors at Clarkson Potter/Penguin Random House and has worked in print, visual and user experience design. In 2017, she co-created the networking mentorship program Connect4, which pairs young designers of color with industry counterparts, and was awarded grant funding by AIGA NY. Her design work has been recognized by the Book Industry Guild of New York, AIGA, Print and the James Beard Foundation. Wang holds a master’s from University of California, Berkeley, and a BA from University of California, Los Angeles.


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