Decolonizing Design, Explained

Modern design conventions contain more bias than you might think.

Written by Ellen Glover
Published on May. 18, 2022
Decolonizing Design, Explained

For all the big promises and technological advancements human-centered design has given us, there is one solemn truth that the industry is coming to terms with: It is deeply rooted in discrimination and continues to turn out racially biased products.

We saw it in the 1970s when Kodak calibrated its film to favor white skin tones, and we’re continuing to see it in today’s technology. People of color are reportedly up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified by facial recognition tech than white people, resulting in instances of false arrests and wrongful deportations. And otherwise innocuous technology like Fitbits and Google Photos have faced backlash for being racially biased.

“Especially with the AI that’s being built, there are a lot of instances of prejudice and bias in design,” product design veteran Victoria de Aranzeta told Built In. “[Designers] can get wrapped up in the technology of it, and focus more on the problem space than the people. But we really need to make sure that we are centered in listening to perspectives, experiences, cultures and values so that we don’t keep building biased or racist products.”

This is the impetus of what de Aranzeta and other designers call the “decolonization of design” — a movement that’s been getting quite a bit of traction lately, especially in the last couple of years. 

What Does 'Decolonizing Design' Mean?

To decolonize design is to fundamentally change the way the industry is run in order to create better products and experiences for everyone. It departs from design’s white, Eurocentric roots, and instead focuses on amplifying diverse voices with unique values, beliefs and lived experiences. It is also a long-term dedication to acknowledging, reflecting on and challenging one’s own biases and values as a designer.


What Does It Mean to Decolonize Design?

The term “colonization” is rooted in Indigenous people’s experiences of oppression, including the seizure of native resources and an overall embedding of Western ideology and culture into society. The idea of “decolonization” was originally used to describe the physical withdrawal of that ruling power, and has since moved beyond that to mean the dismantling of systems of subjugation, privilege and appropriation that continue to permeate the status quo as a result of colonialism.

It means putting “spokes in the wheels of oppression” and systems that “create inherent inequity,” Indigenous media maker Nikki Sanchez said in a 2019 TED Talk

As the former director of design at telemedicine startup Spora Health, de Aranzeta was doing this in the design of healthcare, specifically healthcare for Black Americans — a demographic that has been systematically misunderstood, ignored and mistreated by the medical industry for centuries. The team prioritized learning more about their user base and then built what they learned into the product, bearing in mind that people have different cultures and ideas about health literacy and accessibility, de Aranzeta said.

Generally, this process can be replicated in virtually any industry. It all starts with understanding the context of the problem you are trying to solve, said Tania Anaissie, the founder and CEO of equity design studio Beytna Design. For example, if a company is trying to design a solution for food, it’s important to understand food deserts, segregation, years of racist housing policies and how that all feeds into the way food exists in society today.

“It’s like being in a dark room with a flashlight, and you’re only flashing it on one tiny corner.”

Understanding the system in which the problem arose will make the solution that much more valuable, Anaissie said. “It’s also just good design. So many designs fail from a systems lens because they go in and they overly focus on the problem without looking at all of the system,” she added. “It’s like being in a dark room with a flashlight, and you’re only flashing it on one tiny corner.”

To decolonize design is to turn on the lights. And it’s a departure from the way things have been done for decades. “When I think of colonized design I think of status quo design. A practice that is unquestioned,” Anaissie said. “It’s not anything I think a designer today would say they love or that they agree with, it’s just sort of done. That’s how it’s taught.”

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Decolonizing Design Thinking

The core values, history and standard for what “good” and “bad” design is has been canonized over the decades by predominantly European and American male designers. And that is built into design thinking — a simple, iterative framework that is often considered to be a silver bullet of sorts in creative problem solving. But those who are working to decolonize design say this is often where the problems begin.

The process got its start in the 1940s, when American industrial designers were called on by the government to help create weapons and other gadgets during World War II, positioning them as “problem solvers.” From there, the design industry splintered into various disciplines, and more general conferences started popping up as a way to navigate the idea of design as a unified practice.

Over the next few decades, American and British academics began defining what exactly design was, and by the 1980s, phrases like “design thinking” and “human-centered design” were ubiquitous in design education. 

Then in 1991, Stanford professor David Kelley (designer of the first Apple mouse), Bill Moggridge (designer of the first laptop computer), and visual designer Mike Nuttall banded together to form IDEO. The prominent design consulting firm created their own framework for what “design thinking” is, setting the stage for how the concept is packaged and taught today.

A Brief History of Design Thinking

Design thinking is a simple, iterative framework that is often regarded as a silver bullet of sorts in creative problem-solving. It got its start in the 1940s when American industrial designers were called on to help create weapons and other gadgets during World War II, and steadily gained popularity through the decades as American and British academics worked to define what exactly design was. By the 1980s, phrases like “design thinking” and “human-centered design” were ubiquitous in design education. And in 1991, a group of prominent product and visual designers banded together to create design firm IDEO, which created its own design thinking framework that set the stage for how the process is packaged and taught today.

There are several variations, but the most common version of the design thinking process came out of Stanford’s Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design, known as the, in the mid-2000s. It consists of five steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. Designers must listen to and empathize with a group of people, use what they’ve learned to define what exactly the problem is, come up with ideas to solve the problem, prototype those ideas, test the prototypes to see if they work, and then rinse and repeat until they get it right.

While this may sound great in theory, Lesley-Ann Noel, a professor at North Carolina State University’s College of Design, thinks design thinking brings out the “worst of design,” emphasizing speed and regimented thinking as opposed to creativity. It is too often seen as a sort of “playbook” or “recipe” to follow. 

“People say they’re using design thinking, but they’re not really doing the work that designers do,” Noel said. “They’re not bringing in the creativity, the experimentation. The ways that designers actually work.”

De Aranzeta also takes issue with the process’s perfunctory mention of “empathy” as a mere step in a procedure, leaving little room for it to bleed into anything else. “I think sometimes people get stuck on those stages and those steps, and it becomes very rigid. They can’t see past that perspective, that type of thinking,” she said. “When I approach design thinking and my design process from a decolonizing lens, empathy has to be in every step.”

This is especially important in the research stage, when designers are too often painted as “experts” who “parachute in,” talk to people, cherry-pick what they have to say to fit their own biases and goals, and then never talk to them again, said Anaissie, of Beytna Design.

“We live in a white supremecist country, right? And if we are not conscious of that as we do the design, we’re just going to replicate that.”

“The idea is, like, ‘We know better than the communities.’ There’s a little bit of that paternalism that’s inherent in a lot of colonized design. That’s a very colonized tradition,” she said. This even comes down to the language used. For instance, Anaissie said designers are often asked to go find “nuggets” of information. “Story mining” is a commonly used term in this industry, which is reminiscent of the natural resource extraction that is so central to colonialism.

Overall though, Noel thinks the issues attributed to design thinking are less to do with design thinking itself, and more so “replications of problems in society.”

“For us to design better, we definitely need to be a little more conscious of these problems, and then slow down what we are doing so that we embed decisions that minimize that,” Noel said. “We live in a white supremacist country, right? And if we are not conscious of that as we do the design, we’re just going to replicate that. But if we address it head-on,” she continued, “then it means that we can improve the process.”

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How to Decolonize Design

As a design professor, Noel is putting that into practice by diverging from the more Eurocentric norms of the field. While there is value in learning about the early thought leaders of design, she said that focusing on it exclusively runs the risk of making everything outside of that cannon appear either foreign or flat-out wrong. 

“I’ve been consciously trying to demonstrate that the design process happens everywhere, and not only in Europe or North America,” Noel said. “The work that I do around decolonizing design involves making sure that the way I teach design is very, very, very centered in people’s experiences. I’m really asking people to bring their culture, their identity, into the design work that they do.”

She also makes sure that all her community partners, expert panelists and visiting critics in her class are people of color, particularly women of color. And she has her students interview designers of color about their work, encouraging them to see people of color as experts to be learned from, rather than as communities to be studied.

For folks who aren’t university students, Noel created the Designer’s Critical Alphabet cards in response to the “tech-bro” culture. Each card introduces a concept (neo-colonialism, marginlization, privilege and so on), and then introduces a question or comment design teams can use to help connect that concept to their own design practice. For example, on a card for critical race theory, designers are confronted with the question: How does your design solution change if it were developed for a user of a different race?

When it comes to designing at a tech company like Spora Health, de Aranzeta said decolonization is an introspective practice first and foremost. 

“What are you doing to analyze your own biases and thoughts and values so they don’t get built into the product?” she said. “How am I colonized? How am I seeing the world through my own culture and my own values, and how has that really shaped how I think about this product, this design?”

This can be combated with research. Study other non-Western cultures and their approach to design, look to other areas that are going through their own decolonization process — like education or museums — and do research on how to confront your own biases as a designer. 

“It’s a lifelong practice and process,” de Aranzeta said. “That’s why it’s so important to start now. It’s just going to keep growing with you and evolving, and having more perspectives and different ideas in this space is just so necessary.”

“At the core, if you stripped away all the language that’s politicized, it’s basically about treating people better.”

This is true not just among design teams, but research participants, too. Getting a range of perspectives and opinions on a product, while taking into consideration their lived experiences, cultures and how that may influence their perception of the product, ensures the product stays “people centered,” de Aranzeta explained. It should be more of an interview about who they are instead of just design-centered questions. Ask participants about their hobbies, how they define certain terms and their past experiences with a given product.

Design teams should also discuss ethics — how the research is approached, how the data is retained, whether it is trauma-informed — to ensure that the team doesn’t inadvertently do harm to its participants.

“At the core, if you stripped away all the language that’s politicized, it’s basically just about treating people better,” Anaissie said.

Of course, to do this kind of work correctly takes time and money. It cannot be distilled into five easy steps, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. It’s really a matter of priorities, she added. And that’s what she tells potential clients when they come to Beytna looking to bring equity to their own design process.

“It is a choice to make. We can keep doing it the way we are within the time constraints and the budget constraints, and we’re going to keep getting these status quo outcomes,” she said. “I still so deeply believe in design. It’s just a matter of practicing it differently.”

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Not an ‘And’ But an ‘Elsewhere’

While it is indeed a tall order to decolonize a system that’s been in place for decades, Anaissie said the practice has gone from niche to trendy over the last couple of years — a phenomenon she attributes largely to the racial and economic inequities amplified by the pandemic and the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others.

For a long time, decolonization wasn’t something that many people felt needed to be addressed until these recent events, Anaissie said. “It’s always been here. But now, for people who don’t feel it or don’t know people impacted or don’t see it in their work, it suddenly became apparent. And once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”

This is especially true for designers — or, more specifically, design students. “There’s this new generation of designers who are pushing from the ground up,” she said. “They’re asking questions like ‘Why is this destructive? Why aren’t we co-designing with community members? What does it mean to design in the George Floyd era?’ There are all these huge questions these students have that are pushing departments, and a lot of them are starting to shift how they teach.”

“It’s not about getting people to fit in necessarily, it is really more about that awareness that there are other ways of being and knowing and doing. And it’s OK.”

That being said, it’s important to remember that “decolonization is not a metaphor,” wrote researchers Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Young in a 2012 research paper. Metaphorizing, or removing the literal meaning, of the practice minimizes an oppressor’s complicity, they argue. Instead, decolonization requires a “change in the order of the world,” a “break and not a compromise” on a given structure. 

In other words, they wrote, decolonization offers a “different perspective” to human and civil rights — “an unsettling one, rather than a complementary one. Decolonization is not an ‘and.’ It is an elsewhere.”

That is why Noel draws a distinct line between the work she does in the decolonization of design and broader diversity, equity and inclusion efforts that are all the rage right now in corporate America. Initiatives that lean into anti-racism tend to favor the “dominant group,” she explained, and are focused on teaching that dominant group how to “deal with” people who are different from them instead of simply embracing people’s differences.

Instead, she chooses to embrace “pluriversality” — a practice that recognizes that there are “many worlds, and people can exist in these many worlds at the same time,” she said. “It’s not about getting people to fit in necessarily, it is really more about that awareness that there are other ways of being and knowing and doing. And it’s OK.”

All of this is to say that there is no finite end to decolonization. It’s a process. But, “it’s not impossible,” Anaissie said. “We have a path forward, it’s just a question of helping people feel confident enough to explore that path.”

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