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DRSelects: Juan Montalvan Lume on Decolonial, systemic, and critical studies in design and design research

DRSelects: Juan Montalvan Lume on  Decolonial, systemic, and critical studies in design and design research

To share research interests, put faces to names within the DRS governance and highlight contents of the Digital Library, the Design Research Society has launched a series called ‘DRSelects’. As part of this series, a DRS International Advisory Council or Executive Board member will share a selection of pieces from the Digital Library that relate to any subject of their choosing. Through their exploration, they will share a few words about the works they’ve chosen and how it relates to their research and broader DRS initiatives. In this edition, we have reflections from International Advisory Council Member Juan Montalvan Lume.


Decolonial, systemic, and critical studies in design and design research in times of socio-natural and pluriversal thought

I wanted to approach this edition of the DRSelects by relating it with my current questionings and thinking towards the future, in a way/attempt of sharing with the community how the Digital Library functions for me as a means of engaging with the contemporary discussions in our field, from which to enrich my own work.

I think most of us are pretty aware that the years to come are going to be generously challenging ones, a big part of it due to intertwining geopolitical and socio-natural tensions, in what some call the era of the ‘Anthropocene’, or, as Donna Haraway frames it, the ‘Chthulucene’ (2016). Amidst this scenario, it feels fitting, even fair, to ask oneself: ‘Are we going to make it?’, ‘Is change actually possible?’.

I believe one –of multiple– ways forward in design research in relation to the above implies a transformative process expanding our understanding of what our community within the DRS is, involving a critical revisitation of what ‘global’ and ‘the globe’ means and implies in contemporary times –a collaborative endeavour required to open up to a diversity of practices, knowledges and visions of what design(s) is/are in different territories, enriching us all and the quality of our work in the process. We are not there yet, but I am positive this is possible considering that the inherent complexity embedded in the challenges of the future we are already facing today requires us to embrace –or at least come to terms with– complexity in our own thought and practice.

It is due to these questions that I embarked on a dialogue of sorts with the DL, looking for spaces-in-between diverse critical work, in an act of relating or weaving reflections over design theory, decolonialization, systemic design, nature-societies and ancestral thought. My first piece is a recent article by Philip Cash (2020), available on the DL through the link to the journal Design Studies. It brings up the question of the state of theory development in design research through a review of articles in the same journal, from 2004 to 2018, evidencing a consistently low level of engagement in theory building and testing, among other 5 revealing insights. Now, it is helpful to think about these findings in the landscape of not just Design Studies, but the scope of the Digital Library –and a revisited global context– from which the reflection over theory in design, could become the reflection over theories of designs. An article by Kambunga, Smith, Winschiers-Theophilus & Otto (2023) helps on this matter by opening up the landscape, addressing pluriversal and decolonial theories in design, and the valuable task of exploring the means through which to bring them into practice. Hence the concept of ‘safe spaces’ is proposed as a way to enact dialogical engagements and collective creations of knowledge, in Namibia.  

Continuing with this critical reflection, one could argue that expansion and complexity do not necessarily imply positive outcomes if the question of how to approach them is not asked. This next article by Edeholt & Joseph (2022) reflects upon the fate of the design disciplines in a context of constant expansion of design as a response to pressing systemic challenges in the age of climate change. Through a dynamic and critical engagement with perspectives expressed in the book ‘Design in Crisis: New Worlds, Philosophies and Practices’ by Tony Fry and Adam Nocek (2021), the article reflects upon the coexistence of an ‘ecology of disciplines’, ultimately urging all disciplines –whether in design or not– to rethink 'how' they contribute to 'what' in order to collectively succeed as a species amidst this global challenge. In relation to which, research done by Serpa et al. (2022), and their critical pedagogy drawing from the Latin American tradition of critical thinking in Education, Arts, and Sociology, offers concrete examples of how the emerging discipline of systems design can take the form of network and community creation, reframing the ‘how’ of co-design, and enabling a possible new ‘what’ in the form of a transdisciplinary community in which designers become members/enablers/weavers, fostering agency and freedom, and at the same time contributing to the theories of designs towards new possible ontologies or ‘beings’.

Finally, my last pick is dedicated to acknowledging the fact that the DL not only showcases articles in English, but also it is possible to search for articles in Spanish and Portuguese thanks to the remarkable work of members of the Pluriversal Design SIG who organize the PIVOT Conference, which promote inter-cultural and pluralistic conversations over design. Within the last edition of the conference, this article by Lucía Garcés (2021), which title could be translated as ‘Ancestral Laboratory: Participatory design and Kichwa knowledge in Ecuador’s Amazon’ does a remarkable work in intertwining pluricultural knowledge production in design, guided by Andean philosophy and the work of Ecuadorian anthropologist Patricio Guerrero Arias, enriching its theory and practice.

If anyone curious about similar work but challenged by language, the journal Diseña offers a bridge over this matter by publishing in both Spanish and English, opening the discussion and contributing to the accessibility of knowledge being produced in Latin America to researchers in other geographies, while at the same time remaining accessible locally to many people in the region.

Hopefully in the near future, articles in this journal could be accessed through the Digital Library as well. Certainly, the DL is one of those much-needed spaces where design researchers and practitioners can engage with the current discussion on not just these, but several of the most relevant matters in contemporary debate, traversing and engaging multiple geographies and traditions performing research in designs –understood in a broader pluricultural sense. Hence its potential to be a space where nuances in approaches, voices and narratives can be sensed and reflected upon.

Juan Montalvan Lume is professor of Critical Latin American Design Studies and Design Theory and Methodology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, and the former director of the Industrial Design Program at this university. His work cuts across transdisciplinary research and practice linking socio-natural systems and systemic design, science and technology studies, philosophy of knowledge, decolonization, design studies, space design and bioastronautics. Within the DRS International Advisory Council Juan is currently working at the Diversity and Inclusion Working Group on a project called ‘Global Forums’ consisting on a series of events to be held in multiple geographies and languages aimed towards engaging with the DRS community to tackle a profound question linked to the very constitution of the DRS’ evolving identity: “What it means –and what it implies– to actually become a ‘global’ design research community?” Juan trusts this initiative could potentially expand and enrich our practices, knowledge and narratives over what design –and design research– is, collectively nurturing us all and the quality of our work in the process.



Haraway, D. (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.

Cash, P. (2020) Where next for design research? Understanding research impact and theory building. Design Studies, 68(2020), 113-141.

Kambunga, A., Smith, R., Winschiers-Theophilus, H., & Otto, t. (2023) Decolonial design practices: Creating safe spaces for plural voices on contested pasts, presents, and futures. Design Studies, 86(2023), 1-28.

Edeholt, H., and Joseph, J. (2022) Design disciplines in the age of climate change: Systemic views on current and potential roles, in Lockton, D., Lenzi, S., Hekkert, P., Oak, A., Sádaba, J., Lloyd, P. (eds.), DRS2022: Bilbao, 25 June - 3 July, Bilbao, Spain.

Fry, T., and Nocek, A. (2021) Design in Crisis: New Worlds, Philosophies and Practices. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge.

Serpa, B.O., van Amstel, F.M., Mazzarotto, M., Carvalho, R.A., Gonzatto, R.F., Batista e Silva, S., and da Silva Menezes, Y. (2022) Weaving design as a practice of freedom: Critical pedagogy in an insurgent network, in Lockton, D., Lenzi, S., Hekkert, P., Oak, A., Sádaba, J., Lloyd, P. (eds.), DRS2022: Bilbao, 25 June - 3 July, Bilbao, Spain.

Garcés, L.(2021) Laboratorio Ancestral: Diseño participativo y sabidurías Kichwas en la Amazonia de Ecuador, in Leitão, R.M., Men, I., Noel, L-A., Lima, J., Meninato, T. (eds.), Pivot 2021: Dismantling/Reassembling, 22-23 July, Toronto, Canada.