Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 15, 2024
Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall Decolonizing Design: A Cultural Justice Guidebook Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2023. 136 pp.; 6 b/w ills. Cloth $24.95 (9780262047692)

Through a deeply personal and insightful exploration, Elizabeth Tunstall’s Decolonizing Design: A Cultural Justice Guidebook demonstrates her commitment to the decolonization agenda. Organized into five chapters, the book delves into various means to decolonize design by exposing how her lived experiences have shaped the meaning of such a task whilst providing a deeper understanding of the work involved in this process, making it a valuable resource for anyone seeking to understand and implement it. Chapter one blends personal narratives and reflections that address the need to put Indigenous nations and peoples first as a crucial step to decolonize design, emphasizing positionality and self-preparation to facilitate such a process. The chapter introduces two theoretical frameworks that helped the author understand colonial histories within her countries of residence, the United States, Australia, and Canada, as well as the nuances within decolonization discussions. The first framework, the settler-native-slave triad, describes the structural order in settler colonialism and the imposition of settler sovereignty over the land, leading to the eradication of native people and cultures. The second framework, transculturation, proposes three possible processes that different cultures encounter–acculturation, deculturation, and neoculturation. Tunstall continues to share and reflect on her contrasting learning and challenging experiences at Stanford University, Melbourne, and Toronto, which grounded her advocacy for Indigenous sovereignty as a means of reconstruction and healing. She also acknowledges her struggles prioritizing Indigenous perspectives and the need for patience during Indigenous deliberation and through relationship-building. Additionally, she recognizes that decolonization is an unexplored territory that requires humility to embrace the mistakes made and actively listen to how to make amends. Based on Tunstall’s reflections, the chapter concludes with a vision of decolonizing design that brings liberation and optimism, emphasizing the potential of design as a relational practice and the importance of recognizing and celebrating the nuances of our identities equally. This vision presents a possibility model of what could be achieved by putting Indigenous perspectives first.

In chapter two, Tunstall dismantles the modernist project by focusing on technological advancement as a rhetoric of progress to improve living standards and the well-being of the masses. Thus, for Tunstall, to decolonize design means to delink from a design praxis within a specific historical context and geographical origins, that is, the design that arose in Europe in the nineteenth century and resurfaced with the Bauhaus after World War II, a practice which she considers to be a modernist representation that carries modernist values. The trademark “better living through technology” sets the stage for a critical examination of the impact and implications of the modernist project through design. It highlights the improvement of life due to the affordable and quick production of things, making them more accessible to the working class. Even through this industrialization—enabled through colonization— technological benefits did not reach European workers and marginalized groups until mass migrations and labor movements brought such improvements. Over the last two hundred years, the narrative of technological progress has shifted in focus from a European-centred to a global project and now is a prominent narrative within the industrial design field; despite the benefits that might have been experienced before by the workers, still nowadays, all those benefits are at the expense of racialized people—Indigenous, Black and People of Colour communities (IBPOC), and their lands. This examination sheds light on the harmful consequences of the technological unfolding from the Industrial Revolution, particularly in perpetuating a master-slave relationship inherent in modern technology, which has had detrimental effects on IBPOC communities. Tunstall affirms that dismantling the tech bias could lead to new ways of engaging with technology, especially if it were infused with relational thinking, offering an approach to a more ethical, inclusive, responsible, and sustainable future for technology.

In chapter three, the author explains the interrelationship between racism and the modernist project, as well as the inherent biases of design on perpetuating the white supremacy culture. Tunstall challenges the “universal humankind” notion that neglects non-European ethnicity and national identities. The critique extends to the Bauhaus legacy and history, emphasizing its attachment to racism, grounding its design practice upon modernist values, and muting other designers and their communities that did not align with the “universal man” story, perpetuating unequal distribution of design affordances. Tunstall explains that despite the efforts, Europe has not been able to achieve the story of universal humankind, a narrative envisioned as white, cis-male, Anglo-Saxon, Christian, heterosexual, affluent, and able-bodied and minded individuals, which excludes a wide range of people and bodies. She describes that the modernist and colonizing projects established a racial hierarchy that permeated the portrayal of design excellence, diminishing and even erasing the practices of productive and creative practices of IBPOC communities. For Tunstall, white superiority is manifested by protecting white bodies and normalizing its founding values, pointing its origin to Europeans’ trauma due to historical brutality that shaped their attitudes and conduct, spreading them through their diaspora and informing white supremacy culture to date. Thus, the role of design has been to materialize these values through industrial and mass production, eliminating human imperfections. Furthermore, the chapter emphasizes the need to reclaim the diverse origins of design, challenging the misconception that design was initiated in Europe in the nineteenth century and that Bauhaus is its major expression, leading to significant repercussions in design pedagogy. Addressing this problem, Tunstall shares her experience in creating a design course in Australia to transcend modernist principles and embrace aboriginal values to counteract white supremacy culture. The course created paths for reconciliation without compromising ethnic and national identities.

In chapter four, Tunstall argues that decolonizing design through making amends goes beyond diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Through her lived experiences, she delves into the complexities and challenges encompassing such amendments, asserting that institutions often fail to achieve true DEI due to cultural constraints and oppression from the power structures. She advocates shifting our efforts towards systemic change through decolonization, addressing the need for genuine transformation within design institutions. Tunstall explains that skepticism held by racialized communities, passed from generation to generation, is because of performative allyship—not compromising anything valuable to push forward decolonization. Later, she describes how she has fought performative allyship through hiring initiatives as a good starting point, stressing that change starts from within; thus, decolonization means handing over positions of power to Indigenous peoples in design institutions. However, when hiring, Tunstall warns against seeking a supertoken—an individual who belongs to a marginalized group(s) with highly sought-after talents— as it may bring visible diversity without genuine inclusion or decolonization. Another pitfall of diversity and decolonizing initiatives is pressing the few diverse employees to assimilate the dominant culture, which in many cases is the white supremacy culture. To counteract both risks, the supertoken and forced assimilation, Tunstall offers countermeasures, such as redefining standards to avoid systemic exclusion and doing a cluster hire to create a diverse subculture as a starting point for institutional transformation. From her experience at OCAD University, Tunstall provides tips for writing the call for a cluster hire to bring diverse individuals with racialized identities into an institution and advises changing the hiring criteria to avoid systemic exclusion. Additionally, she introduces the concept of the “praxis star” and the “community connector” as individuals who can contribute to DEI within design institutions.

In chapter five, Tunstall discusses the urge to reprioritize economic resources as an integral part of decolonizing design. She immerses readers in the economic implications of colonization, particularly the transfer of wealth from IBPOC communities to white Europeans and/or their descendants. To that end, Tunstall affirms that decolonization means giving back the land to their original custodians rather than simply paying off Indigenous communities. Tunstall raises thought-provoking questions about the cost non-Indigenous individuals, as settlers, would incur if they were to pay rent to Indigenous land custodians, affirming that we are on perpetual debt owed to them for inhabiting and sourcing their land, alongside the economic, ecological, and cultural damage associated with these activities. To her, decolonizing design represents a minor economic value and effort compared to the debt owed to Indigenous peoples. Moreover, Tunstall challenges individuals and organizations to consider what they are willing to give up so that IBPOC communities, which have been systematically and structurally marginalized within the design field, can finally hold real positions of power. Failing to do so perpetuates harm and perpetuates the cycle of exclusion and exploitation. Finally, Tunstall provides a comprehensive summary of the key points and takeaways from each chapter, offering precise and actionable steps for decolonizing design. These takeaways encompass a range of considerations, from personal attitudes and practices to institutional and systemic changes, making them significant contributions to the design field.

Andrea Navarrete
Visiting Lecturer, School of Design, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University