Unauthorized Design (part 1)/

Its arguable that in western cultures design is the most prolific generator of cultural artifacts. The breadth of what is affected by the domain of design is substantial, everything from alphabets to signs to clothes to furniture, interiors, buildings, parks, and cities is designed. Everything is packaged in design, and design does more than communicate what a thing is, it is instrumental in creating the meaning/value of the thing. Juliet said, “…that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet;” but I think most people would agree, a coke in a green can would taste funny. For better or for worse, a substantial part of what we call culture today is made by designers.

The problem is that design (or disciplines that design) is a specifically white, affluent, straight, European phenomenon. In fact, for the sake of brevity, I’ll refer to white, affluent, non-queer, male, protestant professionals working in disciplines of design as the Design Authority. The process of design, the designer client relationship, and the means of production were all created and controlled in service of this single dominant cultural power. Designer’s and their clients recognize other cultures as markets for design, but rarely ask them to participate. Conversely, when non-authorized designers create they are expected to be designers first, to subscribe to an existing culture of design, and to deny their own marginalized voices.

Try a little exercise: think about what makes traditional (ie, pre-colonial) Arabic architecture distinctly Arabic. Now think about what makes contemporary Arabic architecture Arabic (I’m sure I’ll be talking about Zaha Hadid later). What does feminine graphic design look like (hint: if you’re a man, you better not say “pink” or “spiritual”.) How is a Latino car different from a white car?

The problem lies not just in the typical socio/politico/economic mechanisms of subjugation (which are always at play) but in design itself. The markets and audiences for design are the same as for any cultural production. Yet while there is (limited and/or ghettoized) participation from marginalized voices in literature, theater, dance, music, film, art, cuisine, etc. those same voices are distinctly absent in design. There are only two reasons why this could be: Either design is culturally neutral and thus is well suited to all cultures or disciplines of design have explicitly implemented mechanisms of social and cultural exclusion.

Over the next weeks and months I plan on examining these issues in greater depth. As always, suggestions, criticisms, interpretations, and rebuttals will be more than welcome.