The Politics of Design

In this edited extract from the Introduction to their book, Federico Freschi, Jane Venis and Farieda Nazier reflect on the role of design in colonial societies.

In seeing to understand the causes and ongoing effects of global inequality, the relationship between design and politics deserves particular scrutiny in the postcolonial context. Despite being the product of deliberate political and social intentions, successful design appears 'natural,' its ideological biases effectively hidden in plain sight. In former settler-colonial societies, this invisibility begs the question of the historical complicity of design in imposing and maintaining racialised hierarchies of privilege, access, identity and notions of 'belonging'.

While the former dominions of the British Empire in the southern hemisphere - Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia nd South Africa - followed different paths to sovereignty, they are united by several common factors. Although in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia design engineered for cultural separation was not part of a visible agenda, as it was in South Africa, racial inequalities were and are facilitated by the Western design aesthetic of the European colonial communities. In their multi-colonial contexts, design became the business of the 'civilised' settler who poured money into 'creating a home away from home.' The 'native' sensibility was, in turn, exploited to betoken 'authentic' national identity when it was expedient to do so, or degraded in cheap tourist souvenirs.

In varying degrees, the inescapable and systemic inheritance of what was essentially racialised design continues to inform the present across these geographical locations, evading critique and hampering efforts at decolonisation. Contributors of the essays in this book are united by a common interest in the intended and unintended consequences of historical design choices. They show how the often invisible biases implicit in these choices continue to guide, shape and inform the present.

July 2022