Decolonizing Design

Thaisa Fernandes
Latinx In Power
Published in
19 min readMay 26, 2021


Based on an episode with Guidione Machava 🇿🇦🇲🇿 and Jane Vita 🇧🇷

Welcome to Latinx in Power, a podcast aiming to help to demystify tech, the way we do that is by interviewing Latinx and Caribbean leaders all over the world to hear their perspective and insights.

This time we talked with Guidione Machava, Entrepreneur, Designer and Author and Jane Vita, Designer Lead at VTT. We explored colonialism’s effect on design standards in regards to the influence of ideas perception and also representation in different industries, especially tech.

What does it mean decolonizing design? Decolonization is a word we have been hearing a lot in events these days. A lot of people are talking about it, which is great. It’s also quite often being used with the term ‘diversity.’ Why are those terms linked, they shouldn’t be confused. Diversity is about bringing more people to the table, and decolonizing is about changing the way we think, and also removing oppressions. To help to illustrate and exemplify that, we like a quote by the Zapatista that says, “A world where many worlds fit.”

“A world where many worlds fit” — Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN.

In this episode you will learn how solutions might be experienced in someone else’s shoes in a different way, and also how we all should be an active agent of change and help to foster a more inclusive environment.

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Without further ado, Guidione and Jane, do you want to present yourselves?

[Jane] I think it’s very relevant for us to speak about decolonization and why we’re speaking about that. I have 20 years of experience in design. I must say that it’s a really good ride, I’m always learning. My background is in visual design, and then I did my Master’s in Service Innovation and Design here in Helsinki. I’ve worked in a few agencies here, several places in Brazil. I have been all over the world.

[Guidione] My name is Guidione Machava. I’m originally from Mozambique. In Mozambique, I lived in Maputo which is a province, the capital. For the past four years, I lived in South Africa. Mozambique, like Brazil, was colonized by the Portugueses, so my first language is Portuguese. I’m a Product Designer, and a Product Manager now. I have a background in Economics. Besides my regular work, I also try to create a design community in Africa. In that line, I managed to organize a conference a few weeks ago with Designers from all over the world to try to create and to give African designers a bit of more voice in the design world, and Jane was one of the speakers as well.

What does decolonizing design mean for design and designers?

[Guidione] For me, decolonizing design starts from defining what is colonization per se. I think coming from Africa, I still feel parts of colonization in the way we live today. So, decolonizing design will be more related to giving people a chance to be themselves. My culture, being African, being from Africa, I know how it feels not having representation in the world. It’s easier for me to talk about decolonizing design. If someone asks what that would mean, I would just say, “Give me a chance to be myself, without bringing any buzzwords on the table”.

We’ve seen the movie, Black Panther, was one of the first movies that actually gave perspective of what is the African culture to the big screens. Good part of the world was impressed by that, because this perspective wasn’t shown on the big stage. For us, decolonizing design is about that. Giving us a space to show the way we are. It’s not about removing anyone, fitting in, it’s a world where other worlds can fit. Because when we watch Thor, I learn about this Scandinavian history, all the Gods, the movie itself, the Marvel Universe expresses the world that you’re trying to bring where you have the Wakanda people, you have Thor, Captain America, everyone living in the same world.

In the Design’s field, it’s more about giving us a space to be ourselves. For example, every time an African is represented in a movie, it feels something special, it feels they’re bringing a guest. We want to be able to feel normal. For us, or for me in particular, decolonizing is about me being in a room and not being seen as, “Oh, see, he’s from Africa, a black guy is here.” I want to be in a room and not be noticed because it’s normal.

[Jane] I have tried to put myself as an immigrant of immigrants and immigration is in my roots. If you think about this mix we have in Brazil, my grandparents are from Italy, from my mother’s side we have a native Indians, the First Nations. We have Spanish, we have Polish. If you start looking at this mix, and what I know about the past, it’s hard, because they came right after war. The first war, and there was a big immigration in Brazil. We’re thinking it’s not only how people feel proud of being a fugitive from a war or trying to hide their pasts, and then we have a lot of immigration in Europe nowadays, I see this immigration that happens similar to what happened in the past like in Brazil.

In some aspects, you can see this diversity happening there. I would say black people, Latins, have this kind of stigma where people will look at you, and then of course, have some kind of prejudice or put some assumptions on your education or your origins. I don’t have any problem with the origins itself, I’m very curious to know my past, but I don’t think it’s even possible.

For Designers, it’s important for us to talk about decolonization, because we are in this culture of oppression, we also need to understand our privileges, how we can contribute. It’s not being the white-savior, but giving the voice, empowering and making sure that people are accounted for, that you amplify your context. When you’re designing, you’re thinking about the systems, we think that diversity deserves a space, not oppression.

What is the importance of Designers starting to review the way we think about Design on a day-to-day basis, and also in our work?

[Guidione] It’s really important to understand, there is a symbol, which is famous from the Ghanaian culture, Ghana in Africa. Like the Adinkra is the name of the culture perceived. The symbol is called Sankofa. You have a similar presentation in the Greco-Roman history, if I’m not wrong his name is Janus, he has two faces, one in the front and one in the back. Sankofa is a kind of Janus from the Greco-Roman history that says, “Go to the future, but don’t forget who you are,” or, “Move forward to the future, but don’t forget your past.” For Designers, it’s really important, if you want to have a most self-conscious future, where we are all included, it’s important to understand our history as Janus is saying here.

We feel that most of Africa’s representation, culturally wise, was lost during the colonization process, because most Africans who live overseas nowadays don’t know where in Africa they actually belong. I remember I was talking with a friend, she lives in Brazil now. She was saying, “I wanted to see my ancestor lines to see where in Africa I came from” I told her, “That’s going to be really complicated because in Africa we have 32 countries who speak French, 14 will speak English, 4 will speak Portuguese. If you go to those four, they might not represent you the way you expect to.” Our history is completely lost, if they do the test to see the light of time and try to go back or come back to Africa, they will feel completely lost because they might be connected to people from Ghana, but they speak English, and this person I mentioned lives in Brazil. There is a broken link here, for us, being able to start understanding that part is really important, for what we’re slowly trying to do, because what we do now influences the outcome of what we do, or we are going to be producing. Being conscious of who you are literally can dictate what you do.

With AI nowadays, we can see how bias is coming on AI. I can tell you another example, Google voice recognition system. I remember talking to friends who live in South Africa, and they ask, “Why is your accent so American?” I was like, “It’s the only way I can speak so Google can understand me. Otherwise, this isn’t going to work for me, because my accent is too Portuguese, or too South African, so I have to become someone else so the system can understand me.” I have to lose myself in the process, but I believe if we start studying ourselves, studying our story, understanding ourselves, we might design better products that actually understand people from Africa, they speak English, but it’s not your English, so the AI can read on those lines.

[Jane] If you think about the different competencies of Design, the applications, if you look at fashion, product, it has this historical colonization happening. What was considered good, what was considered bad. I think that’s something different in digital Design education, because it’s so new. There are a lot of these kinds of communities of practice that people get involved in. Then, of course, English in that sense, it’s what unites people, they speak English, so they’re able to talk with each other. It has been this way for many years, everything written in English, even though people live in different places of the world. I think when we started education in Brazil, it was 20 years ago, we were discussing this Bauhaus in Germany, but this wasn’t really applied to digital. It’s hard work, there are much more restrictions on what we have in AI today that are so limited. You can’t do much, so we’re very pixelated.

What are the main factors that contribute to the perpetuation of colonization of Design?

[Jane] I think it comes from this simplification. Let’s say responsive Design, the development pushes a lot of this kind of simplification, or even with Design systems, we tried to create these components, they repeat. We try to simplify and make a lot of operations easier. I think this happened with industrial design as well. We try to make things so easy to access and we’re not really looking for diversity in that sense. This is a point now that we do have space for diversity. We’re not so limited by this technology nowadays, we do have more megabytes to use. People can be more patient in loading and we have been very restricted by the technology itself. If we say that, okay, this is coming from Silicon Valley, or let’s say, Scandinavia, or whatever, we have Spotify and Netflix and those kinds of giants, and I do believe that it’s a little bit more on amplifying the possibilities.

[Guidione] I think not giving people space, I can tell you again, by my experience. Last year, the Interaction 20 conference in Milan from IxDA was a really good experience for me. I’ve managed to meet a lot of people that I only was able to see on YouTube. It was also sad, I think there were more than 500 people there, but I could count on my hands the number of African people, and also could count the number of black people. I can tell you that the design field is very white. I know that is not the organization’s intention, but at the same time, we, as the minority, can’t wait for someone else to give us space. I think the problem is on both sides, we don’t have representation because we don’t have space, and we’re also waiting for someone to give us space. We can meet in the middle, so we start to do something to also have more open doors.

I can tell you on my side, what I’m trying to do with the conference that I’m organizing. Our tagline is “The Future of Design is African, You Can Build It”. We’re trying to build the bridge between the Western world and Africa, but still putting Africa in the center. We have a lineup of world-class people from all over the world, Singapore, China, Europe, America, Latin America, and also African people. Those people that never had a chance to attend this type of conference, they’ve managed to be there, be in the first person and be able to contribute.

It’s going to take us time to be able to give ourselves a proper voice. I can see that there is more openness, more diversity, we’re trying to bring more people who actually represent different backgrounds to the tech scenario. Not trying to advertise, but we have two big companies in our conference, which was an African conference, I think, was the first time that those types of companies did support initiatives like those. I think we have to find the solution in the middle. We, the people who are skilled enough to do our part, but also, we need more open doors, because we know the only way this thing can happen is from the inside, not from the outside.

You’re starting to talk a little bit more about bringing more people to the table. What do you think we should be doing?

[Jane] I think giving access. A lot of people don’t have access to digital products and technology in general. There is so much investment that you can give to startups that are more diverse. Like what Guidione was saying about having our eyes open for those opportunities, and then really getting a better network. Be really close to people, and of course, as we are now discussing this theme, they are very scared about the word decolonization. I have seen that when I generated some conversations about it in my network, it’s a very hard word to say. I think people are detached from this past, they don’t see themselves as the people that colonized, so it’s a very tricky thing to put yourself in, maybe it’s more justice that we need to do in the way we live today. We are looking at the past, learning from what we have done wrong, and then of course, doing the justice we need to do and making sure we don’t repeat this oppression anymore. It needs to be very clear. We’re not trying to tell anyone that they are the colonizers or anything like that, we have oppression all over the place, it’s a power. Power is a form of oppression. You have this in companies, you have this in place, where sometimes you want to do co-creation, and some people have a hard voice, they raise their voices and oppress others. We, as a humanity need to learn, coexist and learn these differences and be better than that.

[Guidione] Definitely. Highlighting what Jane just said, I can tell you that people are afraid of that term decolonization. I attended Design school, I have two backgrounds, I’m an Economist, but also I’m a Designer. When I was doing my Design degree in South Africa, two years ago, I remember one of the topics or the class was decolonizing design. The funny thing, probably most of you don’t expect, is that I was the only black student in my class. Actually not the black, we were 2 in a class of around 20 people, and two black guys in Africa. Can you believe that? Design is super white, even in Africa, because it’s a very expensive field.

That is one part that I want to talk about here. What happened to me in that class was, when everyone knew that subject was decolonizing design, everyone started looking at us, like, “Oh, decolonization. What a sensible topic. We have two black people here.” It was a really weird feeling. My lecturers, they’re very, very open people, they don’t have this racism thing. They have to explain to people that decolonization, as Jane said, is not about devaluing someone else. It’s about bringing someone else in the light, or to the spotlight. It’s trying to see how they leave and trying to value that. The way that people see their own culture, because of someone else’s. This doesn’t mean you have to be, or you can’t be. I think it’s related to this Black Lives Matter, and then people come and say, “All Lives Matter.” We’re not saying that your life doesn’t matter, we’re trying to say Black Lives Matter, because we’ve been oppressed for so long so we feel that we don’t exist. We try to come to life, that’s why we’re saying Black Lives Matter.

[Thaisa] People might feel uncomfortable with this subject decolonizing design, because it’s not easy to think about changing the processes, and eliminating oppression. A lot of the time, we don’t have answers because it’s a complex problem and a structural problem. We need to figure out the answers, and it’s something that will take a lot of time. We need to do things differently, because our references came from the same place, from the same people, they look white, and they are from the same places. We just want more examples, different examples that are not the same. I understand their frustration, because it’s not an easy conversation. It’s not something that you’re solving with a simple redesign. You’re changing processes, you’re changing systems.

[Jane] We got used to many things. I think the convenience we created, it’s a barrier as well to this kind of route. If you’re detached from the past, and you’re writing this kind of convenience in a way, it’s even harder to understand. When you’re talking about the human, it’s a body and soul. Then when you talk about the indigenous, it’s so different connections they have, what they learn. I don’t think we even understand this amplitude of human beings. I think that self-loss, and then we have so much to learn. Even when we talk about business, we talk about the economical phase, why don’t we talk about health? Why don’t we measure health? Why don’t we measure connections to make social life better? Why don’t we do this? I think we have lost many of these kinds of meanings in our cultures.

Do you think Design can be universal?

[Guidione] I remember being challenged on the same things about Design being universal in college. The person who says Design is universal has the same way or think on the same line as the person who says that the Earth is the center of the universe. Just because I can’t prove the other way of thinking, doesn’t mean you’re right, because someone very brave has to come and say, “You know, what I actually am studying, I can tell you that Earth is not the center of the universe, and I can prove.” The first man who said that, they killed him, because he was challenging almost everything. It’s the same when you say design is universal.

The thing is, we can’t prove that it’s not yet or there is no one qualified who can literally challenge the status quo, and can say, “You know what? Human principles, human-centered Design might be universal, but there is a phrase that can’t work everywhere.” I believe that the only way that we can literally challenge that is to start getting voices from people who are not coming from their poles where Design is the center now.

Example, I do believe The Future of Design is African for multiple reasons. First of all, for the number of young people that Africa is going to have in the next few years. Secondly, because we are moving from the Industrial Age to the Intellectual Age, it means that being rich in capital terms, it’s going to start losing out because we move into softwares. We’re moving to intellectual capacity, we might start having more people and the top knowledge coming from multiple poles. I believe that the Digital Age is going to literally challenge that code that Design is universal, because you’re going to have more people who are really smart start talking about Africa.

I’m really advocating my continent. Talking about Africa doesn’t mean I’m not considering Asia or Latin America, but I’m talking about the reality that I know and things that I want to change. I do believe that by giving attention and the right resources, we literally can be in the forefront of the Design of the future. You know that Uber, the ride-sharing company, copied Lyft, one of the most famous practices. I’ve learned that the founder of Lyft actually learned about the ride-sharing practice in Zimbabwe. When he was traveling to Africa, he went back to America, Zimride was the name of the company at that time, and then managed to change the name to Lyft. Lyft was copied by Uber, and now has a multi-billion-dollar company. People think the original idea came from America, but actually is a practice that started in Africa. I know Indians also do this ride-sharing practice, actually a lot of countries, but this case, in particular, came from Africa.

Imagine if more people came to Africa, how the world would look like today. When I say more people with capital and the power to actually do something tangible, because we know having ideas is not enough, you have to be able to have the resources to actually implement what we think. This is an example where not decentralizing Design per se, but putting the Western world outside of the center of the universe and trying to explore other corners of the Earth might change our perception of design.

[Jane] We’re talking about universal structure, or let’s say not this aesthetic, the things that we try to standardize to make lives easier, or have some kind of a logic or build it. I understand that if we say, okay, universal is a bad word. Just an easy way for you to look for how to start buttons, I don’t think that the conversation should be there. I think the conversation should be in the content that we’re creating, the kind of message we’re putting, the kind of aesthetics, how we display it, who is reading, so we make it accessible. I’m not against anyone trying to make lives easier, but I’m sad that we went down this path, because we want to speed up stuff. We have Sprints, we have a lot of things that as Designers we perform on day to day, so it’s easier for you to have components readymade, based on some visual identity and just put it up. There’s so much more to focus on, that’s why maybe this kind of universal phase, maybe it was just an unfortunate name that people gave to it, but I think the intent wasn’t so bad. Maybe it’s out of date.

[Thaisa] This reminds me of something that someone said to me, not a long time ago (thanks Nathalie ♡), saying that diversity is bringing people to the party, and inclusion is that person being invited to dance, and belonging is further ahead in the process, which is that person who was invited to the party, who was invited to dance, feel free to dance like nobody’s watching. It’s really hard, it’s not easy, but this is what we need.

[Guidione] I can tell you, being afraid to dance is what most of us Africans have right now. You’ll see there are a lot of talented people who don’t feel capable of dancing, and you’re never going to hear about them because of that.

Actions to take

[Thaisa] I read in a blogpost called Politics of Design, that I highly encourage you to take a look, the steps to take in order to help to Decolonize Design:

  • Acknowledge your privilege.
  • Never speak in the name of others.
  • Use common sense and speak up.
  • Educate your client and let the client educate you.
  • Don’t do everything yourself. Bring more people to the table.
  • You will always make mistakes.

[Guidione] To add something, I will say, if you can identify a problem in a way that makes sense, it’s your responsibility to solve it.

[Jane] Yeah, responsibility is a big thing, taking responsibilities and taking care of them. We want to do something by taking care of ourselves. I think designers, they’re constantly shaping knowledge. Our knowledge, and this is the chain because of technology or because of social change, I say that we are culture navigators. People ask me if we should get educated as Designers. We should get informed, that’s for sure, we are constantly learning. It’s not about graduation, or college, but you for sure to get informed all the time. Now I’m learning so enormously, and I can’t even say that I learned enough about this topic we’re talking about today.

Resources to keep in mind

[Guidione] What I’m trying to do with my podcast is called World-Class Designer, is to try to solve the problem that I’ve mentioned, trying to invite more African people to dance, trying to demystify what is actually needed to become a world-class designer. I think this is part of my life, as somebody was saying, “If I see a problem, I see it as a responsibility to solve.” This is what I’m trying to do with my podcast and the book that I wrote, Design Sutra, with the conference, and the school that I’m going to be launching soon with my colleagues and friends. What I want to be able to do is bring in more Guidiones to the spotlight. I want to be able to awake generations of designers that don’t do pixels alone. I’m trying to do something else that can drive the change that you want to see in the world, not Designers that just follow the rules. I believe that we will be able to do that if we manage to find the best Designers in Africa, and show them the way. What I’m doing with the podcast and what I’m planning to do with the school is trying to find the smarter Designers in the continent and actually show them that they can dance.

[Jane] The Service Sandbox is a great way of thinking systematically with the complexity that Design deserves. You have layers and cards where you think about different things you have to consider while designing. There’s a lot of wildcards with things that go beyond but enough. There are a lot of things to take in consideration, an entire layer of ethics which this is something that I’m amplifying now. In terms of technology that uses those types of interactions, there’s so much there if you want to have a look and talk with me later. You can download it and it’s free!If you want to give me some feedback, I’ll be glad to hear.

I hope you enjoyed the podcast. We will have more interviews with amazing Latinx leaders the first Tuesday of every month. Check out our website Latinx In Power to hear more. Don’t forget to share comments and feedback, always with kindness. See you soon.

Additional Reading Mentioned in the Interview

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Thaisa Fernandes
Latinx In Power

Program Management & Product Management | Podcast Host | Co-Author | PSPO, PMP, PSM Certified 🌈🌱