Colonized by Design

Ana Mengote Baluca, IDSA
INNOVATION Spring 2021

Vol. 40 No. 1, p. 30-32

How do we decolonize design without honestly confronting our power to colonize? I do not know the answer to that question, but it is one that all designers should ponder. Regarding decolonization, most of our strategies equitable, and inclusive. We strategize on how to amplify voices that have historically been silenced. We think about how to open more opportunities to communities that have been historically oppressed. These are amazing strategies that offer  much-needed relief, especially for the process of healing. But we’re still missing something. With all the tasks that need to be done to decolonize design, it’s easy for us to overlook a crucial point: that our efforts must be sustainable. We forget to ask, How do we ensure that we permanently stop the practice of colonization in design? How do we prevent repeating history? 

What Does Colonization Look Like Now? 

Throughout history, colonization has mutated, evolved, and reproduced. Its reach extends deeper than what most in the West have been taught. In the book Why Nations Fail, authors Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson created a distinction between the two types of European colonialism: extractive and settler colonialism. Extractive colonialism is the kind of colonialism that happened to land areas rich in precious metals and usually with a tropical climate. Data shows that the settler mortality in these areas was very high, so the colonizers’ objective was to extract its resources rather than to settle there. They created governments that elevated their descendants as the elite. 

Settler colonialism happened on lands that were not as rich in resources. The colonizers claimed the land as their own with complete disregard for the Indigenous people. The United States, Canada, and Australia are all fruits of settler colonialism. In these lands, colonizers eventually created their own nations. When they did, they staged themselves as the fighter for freedom, the model that the rest of the colonized worlds should aspire to, while casting a shadow that hides all the ways they colonized Indigenous cultures. 

It would be naive of us to think that colonialism is a thing of the past. Extractive colonialism still happens in parts of the world. For example, China recently claimed a group of islands rich in natural resources that belong in the Philippines by exerting their military power and building a base there. Design’s role in contributing to extractive colonialism is evident in the history of warfare. Many centuries ago, one of the first mass-produced products, as mentioned in the documentary Objectified, were arrows designed to standardize the Chinese army’s weapons. 

Americans who are not Indigenous are actively participating in settler colonialism. We’ve never paid reparations or returned these lands to the Native Americans. Our taxes fund a government that continuously oppresses anyone who has a distinguishable heritage from the original settlers, and our government doesn’t have an actionable plan for how to truly create an equitable society. We’ve erased Indigenous knowledge and culture. We’ve stolen from and claimed certain Indigenous cultures as our own while devaluing others. We’ve destroyed Indigenous materials and rewritten history in such a way that we’re comfortable with what our ancestors have done. 

More prevalent now is neocolonialism. This type of colonialism is not about enriching a monarchy by extracting natural resources from a different land. Nor does it claim other peoples’ land as its own to settle on it. What neocolonialism does is actively homogenize and erase cultures to elevate one dominant culture.

As colonialism evolves, the strategies needed to stop it must evolve as well. We’re no longer just fighting for land to be returned and reparations to be paid; we’re fighting to ensure that diversity in culture can flourish in the future. Everything we create as designers will contribute to how tomorrow’s society is shaped. 

Design Has Colonized

Design as a tool of the colonizer did not stop after its inception as a standardizer of weapons for conquerors. The inherent value we put on objects, where they’re from, and the materials used to make them creates division between the consumers of the objects and the community being colonized. Today, neocolonialism in design operates in two ways: It celebrates Eurocentric aesthetics, and it steals other cultures’ identities for its own. 

As someone who spent her childhood in one of the most Americanized neighborhoods in the Philippines, I can attest to how locally made products were perceived to be of less value by the locals. The division colonialism created in my home country is still felt today in direct and indirect ways. Markers of which societal and economical class you belong to are all built by design. The walls of the gated community that exclude outsiders are physical symbols of the social divide that colonialism has created and design is perpetuating.

Whether it’s in the scale of urban planning, architecture, industrial design, or graphic design, in the developing world, we follow foreign standards. I am disheartened by how locals would work days to afford an American brand of clothing only to be disappointed when they realize it’s manufactured in the Philippines. Still, they would choose to spend their hard-earned money on these brands, rather than fair-priced products crafted by locals. 

Here in the United States those stories aren’t as common; instead, we steal everyone else’s cultural artifacts and minimize the gravity of this offense by saying we were just ‘inspired by them.’ There have been recent cases of textile patterns belonging to Indigenous groups making their way to fashion houses without proper credit, all while eliminating the stories and meaning of the symbolism in these patterns. We’re comfortable sending our designs overseas to be manufactured, paying sweatshop labor in some instances, and telling ourselves we haven’t harmed these communities—and that, in fact, we have given them jobs. The cost of colonialism does not come with a dollar value that we can easily calculate—because how do you calculate shame? Is it the cost difference between manufacturing locally and manufacturing internationally? Is it the cost of the labor to manufacture Nike shoes subtracted from how long it takes an actual worker to afford one at retail value? 

Design Can Stop Further Colonization

Industrial designers, as the ones who design artifacts, bear a much heavier responsibility for decolonization than we collectively acknowledge. In the conversation about decolonization, we must include strategies for how to stop colonizing as designers. We must be united in addressing this as an industry.

Industrial designers, as the ones who design artifacts, bear a much heavier responsibility for decolonization than we collectively acknowledge. In the conversation about decolonization, we must include strategies for how to stop colonizing as designers. We must be united in addressing this as an industry. 

We are culture creators. The objects, experiences, products, built environment, materials, and anything else we create become part of the fabric of our society, and just like a loose thread that could easily unravel if pulled, an irresponsibly designed product can do a lot of damage to societies and cultures when mass produced. Think of the easy access to guns that Americans have. Even a remarkable innovation like the smartphone has failure points when we think about the variety of digital cultures it has fostered. 

As such, it falls within our responsibility to think about the kind of culture our creations create. What kind of society and culture do we create when our products end up reaching millions? Conversely, what kind of culture do we create when only a select few are able to use the products we make?

A Top-Down Approach

Is it time for the ID community to do some policy work? Can we think of a top-down approach to eliminate colonization and ensure that the design industry moves forward responsibly? It is not uncommon for there to be oversight in professional industries; architects must be licensed, and so do engineers. There are authorities that ensure bridges, planes, and vehicles all meet minimum safety standards.

What could this kind of oversight look like in the realm of industrial design? 

Can we create a policy that protects cultural artifacts the way we protect landmark buildings or trademarks and patents? What if we create a policy that makes it so that certain patterns, symbolisms, and ideologies belonging to specific cultures are protected by a cultural protection policy. Imagine a world where communities are paid and credited for their invaluable knowledge and techniques and the richness of their culture. This could be a step toward learning how to respect other cultures and communities and will be a safeguard to lessen cultural appropriation. 

What about less standardization? Human-centered design has become unrecognizable to me. I’m not sure if I follow it anymore. How can we truly design with humans in mind if we prototype one standard man and standard woman and build around their needs? A standard man and woman in the United States is not the same in other countries. They don’t speak the same languages, their needs and worries are different, and even their body measurements are different. I know we’re trying, but our privileged Western view will never be able to create a standard for people in different cultures. I’m able to acknowledge this even though I spent part of my childhood in a developing country. 

Design Can Heal

Our industry needs to take responsibility. We need to slow down. We need to assess if the products we create contribute to a healthier future and if they are making amends for the sins of our past. It’s not all dark and gloom. 

I know that a revolution within the industry is coming. We’re already making progress toward the above suggestions, whether you see it or not. Intellectual property and landmark laws can easily provide a model for a cultural protection policy. We just need to be mindful of their roots in capitalism and colonialism when we draft policies. When we diversify design, a movement that’s starting to gain momentum, it will be much easier for all of us to see that having one-size-fits-all design standards is ineffective and insensitive. We’ll realize that there’s more than one language in the world, that not all people are right-handed, that not all people are able-bodied. 

We are the ones designing future artifacts and experiences. If there’s an industry that can build a decolonized, equitable future, it is us. 

- Ana Mengote Baluca, IDSA,

Ana Mengote Baluca is designing an equitable world as the creative director of lowercase innovation and one of the leaders of IDSA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council.


Decolonizing Industrial Design
Raja Schaar, IDSA