When you design for everyone, you design for no one. Instead, you design for the norm, and the norm is based on power structures many of us question today. Let’s look at colonialism, norm criticism, how that is linked to design, and how we can design better.
I’ve started walking my mother in law’s dog lately, and it’s taken me on daily adventures around the nearby forests, fields and beaches. It’s been a lovely new routine. However, I’ve noticed, an abundance of signs spelling “Private property, no access”. Some go further and let you know what might happen if you continue anyway. It is really quite confronting to see nature cordoned off, fenced in and feel the passive threat from these signs.
This is the context I live in, and I want to see it for what it is. I’m in Te Tai Tokerau, Aotearoa, celebrating a Christian winter tradition under my nikau palms in the middle of summer. Colonialism introduced a British culture in the South Pacific. It also introduced land ownership and privatisation here through the British settlers. It reduced the commons to something only a few could purchase and access, and in doing so, it took away from the people, the right to be free. We as people lost access to our land, our whenua.
Colonialism takes different shapes in different places. It can be defined as “control by one power over a dependent area or people” as described by Erin Blakemore in this National Geographic article.
The concept of colonialism is closely linked to that of imperialism, which is the policy or ethos of using power and influence to control another nation or people that underlies colonialism.
This control is closely linked to taking over land, imposing culture, law and religion on people, and using resources for one’s own expansion.
Pedro Oliveira talks in an interview by Felipe Sbravate about how at design school, we are taught that design was born with the industrial revolution, a perspective that completely ignores and takes no notice of the fact that people around the world have designed solutions to problems for as long as we’ve been around. Anoushka Khandwala describes how traditional designs of woven fabric instead have been classified as craft, and seen as inferior.
This is an interesting sign because connects the idea of “design” with the Industrial Revolution, ignoring the design principle as a human activity […] without even mentioning the idea and practice pre-colonial of the original people. — Pedro Oliviera
As designers, or people in general, we can use different lenses to view the world around us. We can turn up our awareness of our context and actively seek to take in different perspectives. In terms of our context, I would argue that it is our responsibility to do this, as people who greatly impact the world. It is my responsibility to look at the colonial perspective, and take into account how that has shaped the world we live in.
The norm is what you don’t see. The norm is also what you see if you don’t try to see. In this case, we’re talking colonialism. I can easily live my life without thinking about the devastating effects colonialism has had on the society I live in because I live in a place where the norm is colonialism.
Earlier this year, I wrote about viewing the world through a gender-lens, and I want to bring that perspective in here, because these two lenses have something interesting in common, and that is power structures.
Colonialism isn’t just something in the past, it has cemented the power structures we live with today. And we keep cementing, because colonialism wasn’t just handed down from one generation to another. Every time we interact with people and systems around us, we contribute to the idea of today’s colonialism. By looking at the world through the critical lens of colonialism, we can start to identify these behaviours, and acknowledge that they might be the norm.
I urge all of you to take a norm-critical approach to what you do. It doesn’t mean we banish norms completely and run around as if there was no tomorrow. Instead, what it means is that we take a critical approach to what currently is normal. We look at our design brief, our organisation, our community and so on, with the intention to identify power structures.
When we do not see the norm or do not emphasise others’ experiences, solutions risk strengthening stereotypes and limiting, hindering or even discriminating against others. — Börjesson et al, 2016.
We identify the hierarchies linked to our norms, in the case of colonialism we can see a clear power structure between the colonisers and the colonised. It is in itself a power structure. We can then take a look at who is represented, and who is underrepresented when we define our potential users of whatever we design.
Looking critically at norms also means acknowledging that whatever isn’t within the scope of the norm, is seen as different. This “otherness” might only be “other” because of the norms, and the power structures within the norms.
Some take advantage of the existing power structures, and actively design products and services for people with purchasing power because we operate in a society where money is one of the few measures of success. But we don’t have to play that game. A responsible designer wouldn’t play that game.
To try to combat the exclusion, inequality and unfairness of power structures today, I’ve thought about designing for everyone. I’ve thought that design can be used to create amazing experiences for all, but I’ve changed my mind.
The reason is norms. We tend to think of everyone, not a multicultural, wide-ranging variety and diverse group of people. Instead what we think of is the norm. Historically it has resulted in a world designed for white privileged men. Caroline Criado Perez writes in Invisible Women (2019) about how everything from medication and technology to transport is all designed for men.
Human-centred design is all about designing for the human that needs the solution to their problem. It is about understanding the context, and understanding the norms within that context. So designing for all is not the solution, but even if there is no design that will satisfy everyone, we should also be careful when “labelling” design. A label can stigmatise as much as not being seen at all.
There is unfortunately no one tool to solve the problems around design in a colonised world. No one (but your future self and society) is going to tell you that today’s modus operandi is off. And as long as we’re happy contributing to colonisation, discrimination and general non-progressive ways of doing things, I guess all is good. But we’re a growing number of designers asking ourselves, how can we use our skills to do good.
The 4R method is used by The European Observatory for Gender Smart Transport to look at, you guessed it, gender and transportation. They apply the four concepts of Representation, Resources, Realia and Realisation and I think it can be used generally in any context, looking at any form of norm-critical approach, not just gender.
Eye on Design has a great piece on Decolonising Design by Anoushka Khandwala, that brings up the standards we’ve grown up with in colonised societies (or colonising societies). The process of decolonising design includes realising that these standards are not universal.
Be critical and humble, are the last four words I would like to leave you with. It’s a combination that isn’t the most straight forward, but that’s how it has to be. We’re dealing with a complexity of problems, the solution isn’t simple.