MFA Interior Design Roundtable: Decoloniality & Participatory Design
From Parsons Deans Office
Design has profound implications with colonialism. Historically, it has been used to materialize and impose structures of power, control, and differentiation that have led to the displacement, silence, and erasure of indigenous populations and the occupation of their territories in favor of extractive capitalism and the expansion of white settlements. Still today, design perpetuates and sustains settler colonial projects and other forms of coloniality by playing a role in redlining, gentrification, extraction of resources and labor, surveillance, settler infrastructures, as well as by promoting homogenous points of view and aesthetics that render Western knowledge and white experiences as universal.
Calls for decolonizing design have become recurrent in academia and among practitioners. However, imprecisions surround the concept—what it means and what it entails—with the risk of rendering "decolonization" a void go-to word rather than a call to action. One thing is sure, though, to disentangle design from colonialism and coloniality, we need to question the very foundations of the discipline. How do we begin to unpack design structures that reproduce colonial power dynamics? In this roundtable, we begin to explore this question by focusing on the role of the designer, the design process, and the need to incorporate other forms of thinking and doing into the discipline. These topics are foregrounded in the thesis of MFA ID students Adriana Sosa and Samantha Press. Working in different contexts, both projects engage with indigenous populations, their cultures, experiences and forms of resistance. In conversation with designer Hajira Qazi, whose work addresses decoloniality in participatory design, this roundtable will unpack the tensions, conflicts, biases and power dynamics that underlay cross-cultural research and design.
Design is often framed as a creative and technological answer to issues, which positions the designer as a problem-solver or fixer. Consequently, communities are rendered clients or users, which removes their agency and identity, subordinating them to the designer's will. This vocabulary reveals inherent hierarchies that disregard the experiences, contributions, and knowledge of BIPOC communities in the design process. What possibilities appear when we decenter the figure of the designer and stop framing the design project as a solution? Rather than impose, can design be a collaborative practice in which the designer facilitates, assists, promotes, as well as cares and heals? How can we further expand design's vocabulary to recognize and include the diversity of actors and stakeholders, the complexity of the practice, and the many forms of involvement?
Furthermore, we question the tools, methodologies, and beliefs that direct the design process. Derived from colonialism and its biopolitics, mapping, surveying, observation, and data collection easily reproduce an all-encompassing human gaze—Western, human, male—that dehumanizes, exerts control, and simplifies the many layers of complexities across communities, contexts, and cultures. By acknowledging these tools' inherent nature, it is possible to re-think and re-appropriate them in favor of more democratic and inclusive design processes.
Notwithstanding the above, it is urgent to incorporate indigenous forms of seeing, thinking, and doing into the discipline. Homogenizing Western discourses have obscured indigenous design and spatial knowledge from design history and theory by disregarding them as primitive or relegated to the past. On the contrary, indigenous design resists and contests current political, economic, and social structures, offering complex forms of sociality and conviviality as relevant alternatives in the face of the on-going crises. In this context, non-indigenous designers should facilitate and amplify the voices of indigenous leaders, intellectuals, and activists, who need to be actively included and recognized within the design discipline, as well as the larger implications of decolonization such as land reclamation, self-determination, and indigenous sovereignty.