Cheat Sheet for a Non- (or Less-) Colonialist Speculative Design
Note: this text was co-written with Luiza Prado.
Earlier this year Luiza and I published a text here on Medium where we, apparently, said a few things that resonated quite well among design practitioners and researchers alike. In that text, we pointed out a general disregard for issues of race, class and gender privilege within Speculative and Critical Design projects and publications. For us, it was a serious problem we felt the need to call out.
Naturally, a good number of other design practitioners and researchers claimed we were exaggerating, being unfair or “augmenting” the facts so as to fit our own purposes, whatever they were. However, questions very similar to ours were raised by others during this year’s Design Research Society Conference in Umeå, Sweden, and we were also invited to speak about our positions in July at the Open Design Conference in Barcelona, Spain. In the meantime, other essays that echoed our concerns showed up, mostly from other designers that were actually catalysts of the discussion that originated our text in the first place. All in all, there is an elephant in the room that demands some attention, and these texts elaborate and expand considerably what our own writing left off.
Still, those texts and the subsequent reactions to them only showed us what we expected: (1) these are issues that are still in need to be acknowledged and dealt with as serious concerns and (2) what we initially set off to challenge lies well beyond “representation” or the danger of tropes and tokenism – unlike most of the criticism we received seem to think. Notwithstanding, SCD projects and publications are still letting plenty of “narrow assumptions” sneak in, and they will only continue to reinforce the status quo of colonialism and imperialism rather than effectively challenging it.
To try to make things a bit easier, we developed this very simple and straightforward “Cheat Sheet” you, Speculative and/or Critical Designer, should consult when developing new projects. This is (very) loosely based on Sandrine Micossé-Aikins’ “7 Things You Can do To Make Your Art Less Racist” – which is a strongly recommended read for before and after you get through this cheat sheet of ours – as well as María del Carmen Lamadrid’s “Social Design Toolkit”, also a mandatory read. Ready?
Cheat-Sheet for a Non (or Less) Colonialist Speculative Design
- Acknowledge the Truth. This one we’ll borrow straight from Sandrine. If you were born in Europe, there is a good chance your country had (or has) colonies and gave (or gives) them a very, very bad time. It is not your fault, and no, #NotAllEuropeans are like that. We also know that the USA, though a former British colony on its own, has given itself the task to treat other parts of the world as if its own backyard, something we call imperialism. Indeed we all know this, but so should you – it is a fact you cannot and will not change. So acknowledge that part of your privilege comes from the very fact that your society has built – and still builds – its wealth upon the disaster of others.
- Check Your Facts: ask yourself “does my dystopia happen already in other ‘invisible’ (sic) places of the World?” It is good to know if what would be terrible for you and your audience isn’t already reality for others. Before asking “what if…?” ask “is there…?” Particularly if you consider how colonialism helped shape the power inequalities and uneven economic relations we currently live in.
(Tip: Wikipedia is a good starting point, but be creative and don’t stop there.)
- “Am I developing more ‘civilised’, ‘highbrow’ or ‘educated’ solutions for ‘endangered’ places in the world?” It might be that you already know the answer to this, but double-check it. Constantly challenge your design decisions and see if they do not reflect narrow-minded views of how aesthetics could or should be. Minimalism and clinical asepsis are not the only aesthetically pleasant values of design.
- “Is my scenario/story/object somewhere else’s local aspect/culture, appropriated as to fit my own?” If yes, please refer to point 2 and check if your culture/country did not already do that a few years ago by the use of violence and other less friendly means.
(Tip: start from the basics of Cultural Appropriation. Yes, it is a very controversial topic and there is no consensus about it. Yes, you have to read it anyway.)
- “Does my dystopian scenario contain the following:”
a) Slaves or any depiction of middle-class (white) people suddenly turned into slaves;
b) People of Color in the role of Robots, Subaltern or others in general;
c) Objects coming from places that are or were colonies, whose aesthetics look invariably “recycled” or “kitsch”.
- Is my research biased by my own privileged views of how society could or should be? Or in other terms, “am I b(i)asing my research exclusively on authors and references that come exclusively from colonialist countries?” This is very important, because as Raewyn Connell explains in her Southern Theory (2007), much of the so-called “canons” of social sciences come from northern, metropolitan authors whose work inquiries the “primitiveness” of the colonies.
- “Does my textual production contain any of the following words:”
a) “global” for economic models;
b) “neutral” for cultural models;
c) “universal” for theoretical models;
- In case you succeed on all of the above and will most definitely go on portraying your dystopia, the final question is: “have I consulted myself with other people, designers or not, from other places of the world to check if this is not a #firstworldproblem?”
We strongly believe that following these simple steps may positively contribute to not only Speculative and Critical Design projects becoming more powerful in their line of questioning, but also avoiding the mishaps it sets itself up so boldly to criticise.
To be once again very clear, we are also not advocating that every single SCD Project should talk about, tackle or depict issues of colonialism and imperialism. Rather, we say “know where you come from and know where your privileges are.” If “all design is ideological”, as Dunne says, do take that statement seriously.
Giving yourself the task to stop navel-gazing and to always second-guess your own decisions is not a shame. It is for the better, trust us.
Title image: “Landing of Columbus”, by John Vanderlyn (1847) – Wikicommons