Reflection on Keynote Debate 3: Whose Design?
As a follow-up to DRS2018, we invited select conference participants to reflect on the Keynote Debates and related conversations that took place during the conference. The article that follows responds to debate 3 - "Whose Design?: Sharing Counter Perspectives on Dominant Design Gazes." It was prepared by Renata M. Leitão (OCAD University) and Lesley-Ann Noel (Stanford University), track chairs of "Not Just from the Centre - Multiple Voices in Design" at DRS2018.
Whose Design? Is 'Design so White' in Emerging Critical Design Studies?
Renata M. Leitão (OCAD University) & Lesley-Ann Noel (Stanford University)
Throughout the DRS2018 keynote debates, a huge screen behind the speakers and the moderator showed questions asked by the audience, allowing for a certain participation in the debate. And still, the most asked question was not addressed for two days: “why is design so white?” As co-chairs of the track "Not Just from the Centre — Multiple Voices in Design," this question is central to our work. Not that we believe that design is itself white – as the practice of world-making, it is ubiquitous and widespread –, but mainstream narratives of what constitute “good and valid” design excludes non-Eurocentric perspectives.
Even if that hot question was not addressed for two days, we could see a clear change in the demographics and interests of DRS delegates, compared to previous conferences. The rooms of critical tracks – such as "Designing for Transitions" and "Design, Research and Feminism(s)" – were completely crowded, contrasting with the empty rooms of a few more mainstream tracks. Critical conversations ranged from "A Feminine Approach to Design" to "Indigeneity and Mestizaje in Latin America." Around us, many discussions between delegates involved encouraging the participation of designers from the global South in DRS conferences. Indeed, we both played a part in the process of encouraging more designers of color to participate when we proposed our track.
The question “why is design so white?” was addressed in the third Keynote Debate “Whose Design?: Sharing Counter Perspectives on Dominant Design Gazes” by Andrea Botero (moderator), Sadie Red Wing and Arturo Escobar. Dr Botero asked an important question: "for who is design so white?" Because from her perspective as a Latin American scholar who collaborates with other critical design scholars, design does not seem that white. Inspiring presentations from Indigenous designer Sadie Red Wing and from Prof. Arturo Escobar unveiled counter perspectives. Escobar argued that a field of transnational critical design studies is currently emerging. After three days of encouraging conversations about countering Anglo/Eurocentrism and oppressive perspectives in design among DRS delegates, we have to agree with Escobar.
But still, developing transnational critical studies in design has some challenges. It is noticeable that the question “why is design so white?” was only addressed in the keynote debate between two Colombian academics and an Indigenous academic. The participants of the first two Keynote Debates where not able to address the most asked question. Are only non-Anglo/Eurocentric designers capable or expected to address this kind of question? We hope not, as this question is relevant for the role of design in building and transforming our world and its social structures. Could white design scholars unlearn design Eurocentrism? Could North American and European designers learn from different perspectives and be able to constructively participate in the transformation of design research and practice? We have to believe the answer is a “yes.” And the promising conversations among DRS delegates need to be transformed into actions and new structures that allow for the unlearning of Eurocentrism in design.
Escobar has asked how we can develop non-Eurocentric design work (Escobar, 2018). Design conferences are not known for being diverse spaces. It is not unusual to go to a design conference and count the people of color on one hand. Therefore, one of the first steps to answering this question would be to ensure that these spaces are more diverse. This DRS conference was inspiring because it was evidently more diverse and conversations about diversity were loud. The organisers even managed to facilitate distance participation of several presenters including Adolphe Yemtim from Burkina Faso and Octaviyanti Wahyurini from Indonesia. If we want to talk about diversity, multiple voices in design and constructing a non-European design imagination, we have to address the systemic challenges and barriers that make participation of designers from outside ‘The Centre’ so difficult. Both Yemtim and Wahyurini, among other presenters, faced visa challenges. Another participant withdrew his paper when he considered the cost of participation compared to his cost of living. The hegemony of the English language in design research also creates another barrier to participation. The conversations and participation at the DRS2018 were inspiring, but the challenges faced also remind us that so much more needs to be done.
Escobar, A. (2018). Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical interdependence, autonomy, and the making of worlds. Durham: Duke University Press.