Hello all, this is a research paper I had written during my exchange semester at Willem de Kooning, Netherlands (2019) as a part of an elective course. Let me know your thoughts on it! I made my own title for it : subjectivity + objectivity = sobjectivity 😀
As a kid I always heard my parents say, ‘Be the best version of yourself in whatever you pursue’. They set great examples for me by excelling in their respective fields with hard work and passion. One saying by one of the legends of Dutch Graphic design Jan Van Toorn was exactly why I decided to pursue design and what impact I want it to have for the people around me:
“Think of your work and think of what’s going around you.” The main idea is to analyse two very salient aspects of the design field which seem different but are very much interconnected. To date designers debate about “subjectivity” and “objectivity” and which one of these approaches leads to a successful end outcome. The work designers make is inspired by taste, and taste is often derived from what they’re exposed to during their upbringing. This leads me to the initiation of the second part of the paper: Decolonisation in Design. Decolonisation basically means changing the way we think.
It is important that all of us are aware how each passing day the way we think, done and being across communities and cultures are being structured to be more similar due to technology. This is an analysis of decolonisation of politics in design in a world where thinking and cultures are being aligned yet we face one challenge: How do designers encounter clients who do not belong to the same community as them and whether we should adopt a subjective approach, an objective approach or pass on the project to someone who relates to that community.
Jan Van Toorn and Wim Crouwel adopted two very different perspectives towards their work; one being a subjective approach and other being an objective one. Though both had disparate approaches they both left a mark in the history of graphic design. While one believes that the designer’s sacred duty to present what the clients want to say, as clearly and objectively possible. There is no need to be involved in the message as it’ll make it inevitably clouded and confuse the message making it harder for the viewer to understand. Crouwel thought of technology as a source of wonder and said that design is a matter of analysis and rational order, not of art, and the graphic designer ought to approach his task more like an industrial designer. He was a man who wanted to create a sense of order amidst the world’s immense visual chaos. Crouwel and his studio wanted to streamline and standardise the design process. According to him a rational, scientific approach served as the best guarantee, provided proof of professionalism and when used as basic principle was proof of personal style, instead of the changeability and the randomness of forms and individual opinion. He rejected and avoided ambiguity as well as symbolism and indistinctness. He argued that designers had to be neutral, professional and always rise above the trends of zeitgeist. The message was the ‘essence’, meaning the design had to be clear and functional.
With the formalist principle, one can achieve clarity, balance and detachment. It aims to be ‘objective’ which creates a professional impression. However, it also comes of as cold, if not sterile. On the other hand, the reader is allowed a great amount of freedom to interpret the content and is not pushed into a direction. Yet, it remains questionable whether this objectivity is merely the gloss of an authoritarian attitude, suggesting reliability and security while rejecting imagination, thus excluding participation.
Van Toorn on the other hand Crouwel’s technician like posture is an illusion. He strongly believes that no objective message and no neutrality on the part of the designer because of any act of design in which the designer will intermediate will introduce the element of subjectivity. Since he believes that subjectivity is inevitable the designer should explicitly acknowledge and make use of the opportunity to construct and critique design’s social meaning. Once decided that subjectivity is going to be a part of your design process it is natural to want to work for clients whose thought processes match with the designer’s personal convictions. He argued that a rational approach programmed and conditioned the public, was neither neutral nor objective and insufficiently expressed like meaning and identities. He says “Chaos is essential”; reminds us of an irrational, emotional reality that is tough to explain verbally. He felt that applying chaos and images from everyday life improved communication with the public, while also offering space to viewers and readers to form their own opinions about the message trying to be depicted.
He took pleasure in the design process as an exploration of materials and knowledge. He is like an editor or a film director who creates an ambiance which is a great risk in running a failure, hence increasing participation on the part of the viewer.
Therefore, he mainly worked for cultural clients. It’s a little obscure how his designs could be applied in more quotidian forms of design in business purposes.
Both designers rejected ambiguity and assumed that information could be separated from representation. What they also had in common was an unwavering commitment to the rightness of their respective analysis and practice. They also agreed that Graphic Design is very much linked to the social space- to a social role and the public domain.
Another designer that piques up curiosity is Anthon Beeke. Much of his work can be experienced as a restrained and measured provocation. He was quick to take up arms against the distant and distinguished style of the older Wim Crouwel. Crouwel and Beeke due-led with their conflicting attitudes towards graphic design: Crouwel represented the collectively aimed faith in progress rooted in Modernism from the interbellum, while Beeke represented the generation aiming at breaking rules and boundaries. His work was an intersection between modernist, self-control an individualistic transgression. Beeke was always doing the dirty on the still young profession of graphic design. But this ‘critical role’ had a very specific design side: in his designs, Beeke introduced ‘as many banalities as possible’ which he immediately smoothed over with ‘just a lick of American glamour, Swiss precision or Calvinist decency’. He was able to develop into someone who crossed borders between the profession and the ‘outside world’ and established his reputation as a provocateur on both sides. But the analysis also throws light on the way Beeke works. He repeatedly forced his audience to judge design itself, to choose between good and evil, beautiful and ugly, artistic and banal. Beeke always confronted the media and its use of visual material actively, without anxiety. In this he distinguished himself fundamentally from colleagues who observed the increasing power of media and the emerging visual culture with critical eyes. While he effectively exploited his image as a personality and professional, a mixture between a street fighter and executive designer. He lived through the war and reconstruction, modernisation, internationalisation, growth in wealth, rise of popular cultures, protest movements, sexual revolution and developed a political consciousness and profited from the international media that settled in the city.
It seems like media imagery always came to him more naturally from childhood and he longed for public culture that would take the common personal and everyday world of experience into account too. He continuously examined the media and visual culture around him. Printed media appealed to him, but also the visual written culture of the street. His position as a designer is rooted in the culture of mass communication after war. Beeke’s work shows a tougher sensibility and more acerbic, with less hedonism and more social consciousness. His position is almost antithetical, presenting himself as a brutish savant, a cipher through whom ideas flow without filter and repeatedly cites his lack of formal education and solidly proletarian roots as anti-intellectual bonafides. It becomes clear that ‘his work isn’t about design, it’s about him’. It is this untheorised stance, and because he has such a seemingly straightforward and un-nuanced reading of his own work that makes him open to such diverse critiques.
His work is often intentionally lowbrow and anti-compositional. Rather than referring to his fellow professionals, he draws from the butcher shop (from which he proudly emerged). In that way he plays the game of evolution: if you know your audience is expecting something, you do the opposite; if you know they expect to defy their expectations, you do the expected thing. In mocking the traditions and skills so carefully guarded by emerging professional class, he sets himself apart. His work is parody as it assumes and dashes the obsessions of his predecessors. Sometimes it seems that his work appears in some ways foreign to Dutch design.
The Dutch offer a refreshing insight into how designers of all types might synthesise several diverse elements appropriate to their audience and context. The impact of Dutch contingent is powerful and immediate. Each one brings an alternate model of critical practice: Van Toorn, a probing investigation of social conditions and a strong affinity with Lissitzky, Beeke a parodic, hyper sexualised image-based production that seems outside of Dutch compositional tradition, and Crouwel builds on the modal structures of Miller- Brockmann. Perhaps in the well worn 20th century dichotomy, Beeke is Picasso to Van Toorn’s Duchamp.
All the designers were in some way or the other influenced by the culture they were brought up in and the clients they dealt with which leads to another question: How would they have faced clients in the present where a lot of communities, cultures are getting aligned and the perspectives of people is not the same as them. Do you let subjectivity influence the design or pass it on to some designer who can relate to them? It brings us to the second part of the paper: Decolonisation politics in design.
Decolonisation (changing the way we think) is often used instead of diversity these days. For educator and designer Danah Abdulla, one member of the research group Decolonizing Design, “decoloniality is about shattering the familiar.” She says that design today “does not disrupt the status quo, it does not disorder the established order.” Recognising that capitalism “is an instrument of colonisation,” and therefore that it’s almost impossible to truly decolonize in Western society at present, she says that decoloniality is about reimagining something beyond the current system we exist in. An aspect of decoloniality is questioning how solutions might be experienced in someone else’s shoes. It can be something extremely small as selecting a typeface. It is also necessary to remember when and what imagery to use.
Designers are trained to be chameleons: We shape ourselves to whatever brief comes our way. But there are certain situations where we cannot begin to identify with the lived experiences of the audience we need to communicate with. It’s in these moments that we need to take ourselves out of the equation as the creative. For example, if an organisation exists in the United States that is for and run by Black immigrants, surely the designer communicating its messaging should reflect the organisation’s identity? To avoid taking charge of another’s narrative, or appropriating what isn’t yours, recognise when a project is not yours to take. When it’s not, promote someone more appropriate to take your place. If the project is for a nonprofit venture, after taking yourself out of the creative arena, help fund the effort. In an industry like design, there’s a great disparity between those who learn design and those that get paid for work. Therefore, taking yourself out of the equation can be an opportunity to ensure people from marginalised backgrounds get a place in the creative community.
The first objective is challenging and critiquing the current status quo in mainstream contemporary academic and professional discourse and bringing greater depth to the conversations happening around issues of gender, race, culture, and class. First, there is the necessity of creating a space for designers and design researchers working outside the confines of the Anglo-European sphere, at what we would call the margins of mainstream discourse. Within the current landscape of design academia, non-Western epistemologies and practices have not been taken seriously, and this has a history going all the way back to the need to develop design methods as a reaction to what was craft-based design — incidentally associated with pre-industrial, non-European cultures. Dichotomies like this one persist to this day, where the legitimacy of relying on texts that do not fall within the Western canon is constantly questioned (in fact, even within this canon, some design scholars would argue that some traditions and their texts are undeniably more legitimate than others — this particularly applies to empirically driven, positivist approaches to design). Creating this space is necessary — without it, no generative, plural practices and discourses can emerge within the larger design community. Second, the articulation of the way that asymmetrical (colonial) power relations and logics of coloniality assert themselves through technologies and techniques, or, as we can call it, through artifice. This entails understanding the formation and origins of the modern Anglo-Eurocentric world-system — i.e. how it is that Western artifice came to dominate and constrain other artificial trajectories through the history of colonisation down to the present day. This is also in context of how communities and cultures are being structured to be more similar using technologies, which leads to creating accounts of what the essence and the ontology of modern artifice is, separated as it is from sacred and natural law, and showing how specific modes and forms of colonial power manifest in specific modern technologies. Third, the pedagogical aim of bringing the works of different discourses on issues in culture, modernity, and globalisation, from critical thinkers with anti/post/decolonial agendas, into design discourse, as well as disseminating this politics and the knowledge it draws from into design education and practice. Decoloniality is not something new: it has existed for as long as the colonised have resisted colonialism. It is important to highlight the fact that there are plural approaches to tackling the problem of modernity, given that different parts of the world and different subjects and communities have experienced colonialism differently. Bringing out these diverse points of view is crucial to maintaining a rich and vibrant culture of exchange and collaboration in scholarly thought and practice.
Practicing decolonial design means thinking beyond design as it exists today, given that its very disciplinary inception in the twentieth century went hand in hand with the development of our modern hyper-industrial complexes and their corresponding societies of discipline and control? It is important to delink from the present world-system. This means that decolonial designers should stop acting with and through the institutions that embody, uphold, and perpetuate the tenets of modernity. This includes humanitarian enterprises, most notably NGOs and think tanks, cultural institutions like the contemporary art market, the Western academic complex and its systems of knowledge control and dissemination, and political movements including failed versions of various identity politics that frame emancipation and equality in terms of assimilation into the world- system. It also means epistemic delinking, i.e. decoupling oneself from a pure reliance on the Western canon and from Western design frameworks, methods, techniques, and practices. Secondly, confronting and overcoming the colonial rupture, which means the reconstitution of a truly post-modern subject. It is unlikely that the colonised subject today can go back to a prior, pre- modern state of being — for most kinds of subjects, those have been forever lost. However, one can reach back to both historical understandings of past being and their changed nature in the present to recover essential ontological features that would point to a new future state. For example, given that the roots of modern technology lie in the Greek conception of techne, we can ask what other possible artificial or corresponding ethics could be derived from other philosophies of technology. Thirdly, the creation of plural design practices that are futurally prescriptive and aim to propose alternatives to the neocolonial world-system. We need alternatives to free-market capitalism, to Western-style democracies — whether parliamentary or presidential — to Western value systems that define abstract concepts like freedom, equality, justice, and choice on their terms, to models of the human as rational, selfish, pragmatic, etc., and specifically for designers, towards new ways of designing; new hybrid, derivative, and syncretic practices and discourses. We should aim to have many diverse forms of design practice in the world — each specific to its region and its biosphere, each rooted in the cosmologies and mythos of its culture, each concerned with defining its own aims and identifying and addressing its own problems and opportunities. We should aim to cultivate many ways of thinking, being, and designing, derived from different artifices and world views, aimed at addressing many different needs and desires.
Hence, right from the outset, it is important to note that not only was there an epistemic programmed to delink from Western knowledge systems, based on a recognition not only that, as Walter Mignolo notes, that “Western democracy and socialism are not the only two models to orient our thinking and our doing”, but that modernity itself “is not an ontological unfolding of history but the hegemonic narrative of Western civilisation. So, there is no need to be modern. Even better, it is urgent to delink from the dream that if you are not modern, you are out of history. Alternative or subaltern modernities claiming their right to exist, reaffirm the imperialism of Western modernity disguised as universal modernity.” (Mignolo, 2011)
Hence, the central danger of continued coloniality, of Western political, economic, socio-cultural and epistemic systems fracturing the histories of the colonised and displacing their presents in the name of international development, progress, and ‘becoming modern’, is not merely epistemic but ontological — modernity and the modern world system, the global system of institutions that continue to dictate how things should be in the ex-colonies, are a threat because they change and have changed who we, the colonised, are. Projects of decoloniality are therefore double projects — the colonised must, as they attempt to delink from the modern world system and find alternatives, must also begin with questions of who they are now, what they are becoming, and what they should be. When histories have been ruptured and the link to the past is tenuous, the colonised must negotiate a new relation to the past in addition to navigating through the constantly shifting contours of the present. If we accept that the material or the artificial, i.e., the designed, plays a crucial role in determining our ontologies as different beings spread across the world, that it determines not only how we see and interpret the world but in how we define ourselves, then one begins to realise that the role that international paradigms and practices in the design disciplines have also played, and continue to play, a large role in the perpetuation of the modern world system and in colonial difference.
Now we come to an analysis of a very specific role of the role of graphic design and visual communication vis-a-vis coloniality and culture. Part of the problem is modern design education has to do with the fact that programs prioritise ‘European art and design histories as the key pedagogical source over non-western design lineages. It does not relegate the visual culture of an indigenous minority group to be an object of specialised courses within a curriculum rather than allowing that visual culture to be part of the cultural production that design does in society. This then also has to do with the false dichotomy, first articulated by designers like Christopher Alexander in the first Design Methods movement during the 1960s, the Western designers plan and ‘design’ non- Western civilisations merely imitate and produce ‘craft’. The authority of the canon has undermined the work produced by non-Western cultures and those from poorer backgrounds so that Ghanaian textiles, for example, get cast as craft rather than design. Classifying traditional craft as different from modern design deems the histories and practices of design from many cultures’ inferior. We should aim to eliminate the false distinctions between craft and design, in order to recognise all culturally important forms of making. ‘Craft’ then takes the place of curiosity and novelty in Western design education and acts as the counterpoint to ‘true’, methodical, problem solving oriented practices of design.
Design thinking rhetoric is similarly exclusive: To frame design thinking as a progressive narrative of global salvation ignores alternative ways of knowing. Designers see themselves as problem solvers and therefore, of coloniality as a problem to be framed and solved, instead of as a condition of being modern that needs to be constantly negotiated with. Trying to “solve” coloniality by producing a range of cultural artefacts without trying to change or at least, reimagine, the systems within which those artefacts are imagined, produced, distributed, and consumed, is like treating a severely ill person by merely alleviating their symptoms. Instead of treating the problem of representation of indigenous perspectives as a multifaceted epistemological problem of erasure and privilege, it reduces the problem to a political problem of participation. Like sexism could be solved by hiring more women in the workforce, is one of the logics by which neoliberalism reproduces and perpetuates itself- by ensuring adequate representation in and contribution to its own systems of production and consumption without changing them.
The nature of communication design as discipline begs to be questioned — historically, communication designers have seen themselves primarily performing in two capacities: in the sense of design as cultural production, communication design performs the task of creating symbolic systems that, among other things, reinforce a sense of continuity of cultural identity, and in the sense of its capacity to problem solve, it has the performative role of awareness building and (re)education. As cultural production, the creation of symbols, and their role in educating the masses happens within a larger system where symbols function in sustaining an order of particular imaginaries (ways in which people perceive cultural Others, build a sense of community, construct their desires, etc.), the colonised, especially the indigenous colonised living in a land that still continues to be occupied and ruled by colonisers (as opposed to ex-colonies like India where there is no direct presence), are faced with the problem of not only which symbols to produce and perpetuate, but with the role that those symbols can play in either maintaining or challenging the popular imaginaries of the dominant system. What works for people in India cannot work for people in Africa, Indonesia or China. Furthermore, a politics of decolonial design that ignores deep analyses and introspection on the (deeply unequal) relationship between coloniser and colonised, that ignores both the local and global nature of colonial systems, and that assumes identity to be unproblematic, a given, is no decolonial politics at all.
This also brings up a few interesting examples they we come across. It is a Ted talk by an African designer Saki Mafundikwa who is a Graphic Designer, Typographer and Design educator who studied, taught and worked in New York but later returned to Zimbabwe and opened the country’s first graphic design and new media college. He says in his talk that all of us need to look inwards for influence. Africa has had a long tradition of design, a well-defined sensibility, but the designers in Africa struggle with all forms of design because they are more apt to look outward for influence and inspiration. A quote by Marcus Mosiah Garvey summarised the whole talk into a few words: “People without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
Distinctions and divisions can “other” both designers and designs. Simba Ncube, a graphic design student and researcher at London’s Central Saint Martins, describes his experience of being labelled as a “Black designer:” “While identity and solace can be found in the words, they still ‘other’ the practitioner and therefore their work,” he says. “When Western conventions are centered in design, this means that anything else is seen as ‘different.’” When a homogenous group of people decide what’s “good,” it’s detrimental to the profession, and results in most people striving towards a similar style. Ncube’s research explores one example of colonialism’s effect on design standards. “Our reliance on western culture inhibits our ability to incorporate other standards. Ncube also cites an example of a culture that doesn’t design using perspective at all. Zulus live in what has been described as a “circular culture.” Their huts are round, they don’t plough land in straight furrows but in curves instead, and their villages are designed in circular formations. In finding such successful solutions for the organisation of private and communal space, Zulu architecture should be understood as design innovation. Realising that the standards we’ve been taught are not universal is key to decoloniality. And it’s not easy: Ncube likens the process of unseeing Western culture as getting a “fish to understand that it’s in water.”
Another thought-provoking example would be of “The Design of The Passport”, particularly for the way in which the border controls acts as techniques of exploration and discipline structure relation of power between and among design students, practitioners, researchers and educators. Designers seemed to be allies of the industry, of productive rationality, of the capitalist entrepreneurial representation. Design is still regarded as an ‘apolitical’, solution-based discipline which seeks to promote social equity through a capitalist-imperialist mode of exploitation. Passports thus can be thought of as instances in which the relations, contradictions, convergences and intersection of design and politics collide.
Subjectivity and decolonisation have a very strong interconnection. Talking from experience and coming from a country with one of the highest diversities in the world (India), aspiring designers, students with professional or no professional training, take so much inspiration from the Western culture that it starts to show in their work, maybe it is their fault or maybe its not. Design as a professional choice is relatively not that explored as the other fields like medicine, law, architecture and engineering though it is making its way into the minds and hearts of the younger generation who are getting more and more exposed to ‘Design’ and its boundless future scopes. India has a total of 29 states and each state is so culturally rich that it is bound to influence your thought process and you work (specially in fields like design). Take for example, Rajasthan a state right next to Gujarat (state which is very known for its textile design; also called as the Manchester of India) is known for its grand architecture since it has been home to a lot of royal families and has extravagant hotels like Taj Umaid Bhawan, Rambagh Palace Jiapur and many more. It is also home to popular festivals like Marwar Festival, Pushkar Fair, Bikaner Camel Festival, Bundi Festival and Mewar Fair, among others. This state is also home to the Great Indian Thar Desert which occupies most of the area, Hence, the people over there tend to wear very bright colors. This is just like drinking a drop of water from the ocean but even this would affect the way people approach design who come from this background. People should not run away or avoid letting their culture seep into their work. That is how the design community would grow around the world. If everything would start looking the same and be over inspired from the same work again and again that would lead to a saturation point even in this everchanging world. If a designer doesn’t relate to a community then he or she should start collaborating with local designers instead of passing up on a whole project. It’s not just who you work with, but also how you collaborate. For studios, agencies, and any others hiring for a project, make sure to not only pay your freelancers’ worth but also that the culture of your company is welcoming to them. If you hire a person of color, make sure that they won’t be faced with daily microaggressions. This aspect of decolonisation overlaps with diversity and inclusion; it’s important not just to bring people to the table, but also to ask yourself, what sort of seat are you offering? The reason being the cultural difference between the designer and the target audience would probably lead to the failure in the final design outcome, if you don’t understand what works and doesn’t work in that set of people. Collaboration puts those minds together, combining their separate, specialised expertise to create solutions that tackle all aspects of a shared goal. Instead of coming at a problem from one angle, design collaboration places that problem in front of all experts, forcing them to consider new perspectives and possibilities. Design collaboration brings in many people, each with their own perspectives and strengths. It gives everyone a voice. These fresh perspectives give designers more information. Perspectives equip designers to make the right decisions on choices that have lasting impacts on other design, development, and marketing options down the road. With subjectivity decolonisation also plays a very important role in changing the mindset. Premier design institutions like The National Institute of Design are working towards creating new hybrid, derivative, and syncretic practices and discourses which are special to Indian context. This way we do not blindly follow the Western trends or get over inspired by them and lose our identity and start making similar designs as them.
Ultimately, there is no finite end that we’re trying to reach: Decolonisation is a process. The fact that it’s a journey means that in order to keep evolving, we must be continually curious, and educate ourselves about what we haven’t experienced directly. The choices we make as designers are intrinsically political: With every design choice we make, there’s the potential to not just exclude but to oppress; every design subtly persuades its audience one way or another and every design vocabulary has history and context. Learning about the history of colonialism will open our eyes to how power structures have formed society today, and how they dominate our understanding of design.