The emergence of design as a discipline is closely linked to industrial commodity production in the 19th century, capitalism and the value system of modernity. All of these developments have arisen within patriarchal structures. Colonialism and related racism are important components of these developments.
Design is involved in the creation of our world. At the same time, our environment has a huge impact on the way we design. Standards of mass production and industrial design are largely based on a young, healthy, heteronormative, male body. The more our body deviates from this standard, the more difficult it is to navigate through the designed environment. The definition of good design (summarised in principles such as: form follows function, less is more), which was created in a western, white, male-dominated context, is still often regarded as objective. The belief that it is a universally applicable design formula persists - not only in trendy lifestyle magazines, but also among designers, in serious specialist publications and in colleges and universities.
As long as we follow these assumptions without question, we will become complicit in the reproduction of structures that discriminate or privilege people based on certain characteristics such as skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, class, disability or age. We can no longer close our eyes to the fact that design is integrated into a power structure. The American literary scholar and advocate of feminist and anti-racist approaches bell hooks calls this dynamic “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”.
The realisation that there is neither a neutral formation of knowledge nor a value-free design practice is by no means a novelty and can be traced back to, among other things, feminist scientists from the 1970s. They have repeatedly emphasised that the question is not how we can design without values, but what values we follow. The authors of this text define feminism with bell hooks as a socio-political movement that aims to “end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression”. Feminism exists “not only in response to, but also in the form of real people’s lived experiences”, explains Mimi Marinucci. Women are not a homogeneous group and do not experience the same forms of oppression. Feminism must therefore be intersectional, must recognise the complex links between sexism, racism and classism and the associated differences in the realities of life. Feminism is committed to democratic values such as freedom, human dignity and justice. Putting this into practice inevitably also means taking a critical look at the design discipline and changing it. Feminism is therefore not a topic that can be dealt with in a single project, but a perspective and approach that runs through all aspects of life and work. There are different feminisms, different approaches and focuses. Even if the representation of marginalised groups is essential, we still have to think further than just approximating the white, male standard.
“Feminism is a movement in many senses. We are moved to become feminists. Perhaps we are moved by something: a sense of injustice, that something is wrong [...] A feminist movement is a collective political movement. Many feminisms means many movements. A collective is what does not stand still but creates and is created by movement.” – Sara Ahmed
Let’s take design education as an example: how and by whom knowledge about design is formed has a decisive influence on the construction and the recognition of our reality. And how this knowledge is then taught not only affects the here and now, but also future generations. A radical, structural approach, as formulated by an intersectional feminist perspective, means both big changes from the outside and small ones from the inside - and the chance to create a more just design discipline and thereby a more just society.
In concrete terms, this means recognising that theory and practice are inextricably linked, just like form, function and content. This results in the need for teaching at eye level with the involvement of the students and their realities in the classroom. This can be implemented through open communication of your own agenda, the goals of the course and the expectations of all involved. Speaking about hierarchies and how to deal with them, as well as designing physical space together, helps to create places where people can learn with and from each other. In order to enable a respectful discussion culture and to recognize the presence of everyone, the pronouns of all those involved can be inquired about while getting to know each other - and at the same time the motivation behind this practice can be discussed. Needs and skills are very different. Going into this and offering alternating formats with subsequent feedback rounds gives the students the opportunity to better understand themselves and others and also to make better decisions for their professional future. It is important for teachers to reflect on their own position in the hierarchies of our society and, if necessary, to work with experts: What skin colour, what gender, what sexual orientation, what financial background do I have? With my professional and personal experience, am I able to treat certain topics appropriately and respectfully? Are there other people who are more qualified?
It is equally important to critically question content: how do we define design and which processes and people are included or excluded by this definition? What can we learn from the stories behind things? How did the design canon come about? Why do we need star designers at all, regardless of their identity? Why do we continue to propagate lone fighters and ignore that design processes are always collaborative? Who develops design tools and based on which assumptions?
A discussion of your own responsibility must be part of the design education. Reflected decision-making and action require a conscious use of norms, the canon and tools – only in this way can possible negative effects be identified and prevented.
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Ece Canli, Luiza Prado, Design and Intersectionality. Material Production of Gender, Race, Class – and Beyond, Symposium Intersectional Perspectives on Design, Politics and Power at the School of Arts and Communication, Malmö University, 14 and 15 November 2016.
Sasha Costanza-Chock, Design Justice: Towards an Intersectional Feminist Framework for Design Theory and Practice, in Proceedings of the Design Research Society, 2018. Available online at https://ssrn.com/abstract=3189696 (last checked on 18 March 2020).
Ramon Tejada (ed.), Decolonising Design Reader. Available online at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Hbymt6a3zz044xF_LCqGfTmXJip3cetj5sHlxZEjtJ4/edit (last checked on 18 March 2020).
Dori Tunstall, Decolonising Design, Berkeley Talks (12), 2019. Available online at https://news.berkeley.edu/2019/01/25/berkeley-talks-doritunstall/ (last checked on 18 March 2020).
Danah Abdulla, Ahmed Ansari, Ece Canli, Mahmoud Keshavarz, Matthew Kiem, Pedro Oliveira, Luiza Prado, Pedro Schultz, The Decolonising Design Manifesto, in Journal of Futures Studies, volume 23, issue 3, 2016. Available online at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329375428_The_Decolonising_Design_Manifesto (last checked on 18 March 2020).
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LISA BAUMGARTEN and ANJA NEIDHARDT founded the platform Teaching Design in 2019, which deals with design teaching from an intersectional-feminist and decolonial perspective. Lisa Baumgarten works as a freelance designer and researches on design history and pedagogy. She teaches design and design science at German design and art schools. Anja Neidhardt is doing her PhD on feminist tactics as a tool to redesign the discipline at the Umeå Institute of Design. She writes for various international magazines. Together with Maya Ober, she heads the Depatriarchise Design platform.