Decolonizing Design: Harnessing the Power of Design Responsibly

Over the course of the past several weeks, our Design for Non-Designers series has introduced you to hands-on tools to help your nonprofit create and share its original designs. Today, we are going to focus on the big picture by looking at how design can be used to facilitate inclusion and anti-oppression in a variety of media, exploring the concept of ‘decolonizing design’ and the principles of human-centered design in particular.


The Power of Design


We are used to thinking about good design as something that works seamlessly in the background to bring to life a message in clear and compelling ways. After all, as the popular saying goes, “good design is 99% invisible”. While it’s true that what has the most impact is often a design that doesn’t get in the way of the message itself, this kind of thinking has all too often led to the impression that designing is a neutral activity. As we are seeing more and more, quite the opposite is true: what we design shapes stories, which in turn shape culture, and what that culture represents and validates is a formidable source of power in our society. As a result, we must make sure that that power is wielded for good and that it is deployed respectfully, for example, by avoiding the reinforcement of stereotypes and cultural appropriation.

As a member of the nonprofit community, your work likely includes elements of outreach, awareness-raising, education, frontline service provision, and/or intercultural dialogue. While we may not think of it this way from the get go, all of these activities (and many others!) intersect with design. That’s because whether you are looking to produce new graphic materials for your social media campaign or whether you are working on a new program to deliver to your constituents, the process of creation brings with it a set of choices that will inevitably shape everything from content to delivery and, ultimately, project outcomes. The practice of “design thinking” is a way of ensuring that these steps can be engaged with mindfully and with intention, bringing a new level of depth and learning to the process. As the Interaction Design Foundation explains, “design thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding”.

When it comes to your organization’s creative strategy, having a solid understanding of power structures and being intentional about your approach to design is therefore a crucial prerequisite to ensuring that the outputs you produce are aligned with your mission and advance the values of diversity, inclusion, and equity.



What Does Decolonizing Design Mean?


One way of deepening your commitment to harnessing the power of design is to employ an approach centered around the work of decolonization, reconciliation, and co-creation.

In this context, decolonization means unpacking the assumptions inherent in popular understandings of design––particularly by recognizing its historical bias towards Western/Eurocentric systems of knowledge and aesthetics, and by challenging claims of neutrality and objectivity. As this article on decolonizing design explains, “decolonization is a process that starts with self-reflection, structural evaluation, and institutional restructuring, and it requires time, vulnerability, and accountability.”

Today, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) practitioners are making important contributions to the process of interrogating the role that design can play in bringing about cultural and structural change. For example, the Design Justice Network is an international community of people and organizations who are committed to rethinking design processes so that they center people who are too often marginalized by design. The Critical Design Lab works in a similar vein by representing a collective of non-Black people of color and white disabled designers, scholars, and activists, who use a critical approach to design to interrogate accessibility. Other groups like depatriarchise design, a nonprofit research platform rooted in intersectional feminism, use a variety of media to examine “the complicity of design in the reproduction of oppressive systems” and to tell “long-silenced stories”.

If you’d like to explore how your organization could incorporate the values and aims of decolonizing design into your own work, the International Indigenous Design Charter offers a helpful starting point for thinking about power-sharing ways of approaching professional design practice. Below is an excerpt:


Self-determined: Respect the rights of Indigenous peoples to determine the application of traditional knowledge and representation of their culture in design practice.

Impact of design: Consider the reception and implication of all designs so that they protect the environment, are sustainable, and remain respectful of Indigenous cultures over deep time: past, present and future.

Charter implementation: Ask the question if there is an aspect to the project, in relation to any design brief, that may be improved with Indigenous knowledge.Use the Charter to safeguard Indigenous design integrity and to help build the cultural awareness of your clients and associated stakeholders.


As the Interaction Design Foundation argues,


thinking about new possible futures that are non-oppressive and non-hierarchical” is also part of the designer’s role.


The California College of the Arts’ Decolonizing Design program expands on that notion by thinking about design's power to faciliate transformation. They write, “as designers, when we create thinking about the future, we are thinking about possibilities, we are designing possible futures (plural). We should be working on designing futures that are non-oppressive, non anti-black, and trans-inclusive; futures where the human is not the center of the narratives but a part of many narratives”.


This is a valuable opportunity for any nonprofit to think about its strengths and how these can make valuable contributions to the process of diversifying design outcomes and creating spaces for transformative futures to thrive.



Tools & Practices for Decolonizing Design


From engaging in learning experiences to using your financial resources to support the work of BIPOC creative practitioners, there are several ways that you can practice the work of decolonization and reconciliation within your organization. Below is a non-exhaustive list of ideas to help you get started thinking about embedding these goals into your design practices:



Drawing Change is an organization that offers meeting facilitation and graphic design recording to a wide range of changemakers, including innovators in healthcare, education, and governance. Since 2017, their training workshops have included a module on practicing Indigenous cultural safety. Getting familiar with the concept of ‘cultural safety’ is a way to work respectfully with the knowledge traditions and value systems of groups other than our own, and to do so in a way that ensures consent and co-creation. While Drawing Change’s guiding questions target facilitators and graphic artists, their prompts offer valuable reflections for anyone looking to learn more about how their work (and design choices) can support anti-oppression and intercultural dialogue. Some questions they ask include: “How can I support Indigenous cultural safety, and cultural humility, as a graphic facilitator? What actions can I personally take before the session, during the session, and after the session?” Be sure to click through the article to read their answers in full–– and check out our article, Celebrating Indigenous Tech for more prompts!





If your nonprofit has the budget to work with creative professionals, then make a commitment to using those resources to hire folks who face higher barriers to entry in design fields. Here are some leads on how to find them:


  • Canada’s Film in Colour is an online directory that helps people discover and hire film and TV industry professionals of colour, including directors, writers, producers, editors, crew members and many others;
  • AccessVFX is a global nonprofit that focuses on actively pursuing and encouraging inclusion, diversity, awareness and opportunity in the animation and gaming industries;
  • People of Craft is an international community of creatives of color who work in design, advertising, tech, illustration, lettering, art, and other crafts;
  • If you are looking for an Indigenous design and media agency, Design de Plume and Animikii provide support with website design, branding, custom software, graphics creation and lots more.
  • Support the work of creations like Black Illustrations, who offer tools for correcting the underrepresentation of Black folks in digital media.
  • You can also search the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business directory for access to more member businesses in the creative fields. The BIPOC Creative directory similarly showcases the services and talents of photographers, stylists, set designers and other professionals.

Image credit: MethodKit.





MethodKit is an organization that turns in-depth research on how we think and talk into tools for effective co-creation. Their thematic kits provide instant ways of thinking about complex issues, facilitating collaboration and assisting with decision-making by helping you discuss, map, plan, ideate and prioritize action items. Their extensive library of card decks covers anything from team development to workshop and lesson planning, as well as service and behaviour design, app and web development, marketing and PR and so much more. You can also use the cards to unpack concepts like privilege, human needs, sustainability, and power.





Another way of harnessing design’s potential for social and cultural change is by tapping into its power to build empathy and learn about the lived experience of others. For years, nonprofit design studio IDEO has been refining its approach at the intersection of empathy and creativity by developing resources in support of ‘human-centered design’. Design Kit is their online learning platform full of practical tips on how to apply human-centered design in any context. Their field guide will introduce you to key ‘Mindsets & Methods’ and provide step-by-step guidance for putting them into action the way a designer would.

What is Human-centered Design? from on Vimeo.


If you’d like to explore how to blend design thinking and action further, Beautiful Trouble and its companion toolkit Beautiful Rising tease out the key elements of creative movement-building, providing accounts of memorable actions and campaigns and offering time-tested guidelines for how to design successful campaigns. (Check out their cool visual exploration tool for a taste!) Both prioritize local voices and leadership at every stage, and are published under a Creative Commons license to facilitate access. (You can read last week’s post on Creative Commons to learn more about the world of open-access creation!)



Resources for Going Deeper

If you want to learn more about how you could incorporate design thinking, decolonizing design, and human-centered design principles into your nonprofit’s work, we have compiled a reading list to help you think through key concepts and identify action resources:

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