If you are a designer working in a more commercial setting, the practice of decolonisation might seem very far removed from your daily routine. At WDCD Live Amsterdam 2022, we explored why nothing could be less true, bringing artists and activists together in a series of conversations about how colonial history continues to affect the products, spaces and systems we design. We also talked about how privilege and oppression relates to gender, and made zines to help us better understand our own biases. Below, we recap the most memorable moments of the day, including a few important lessons for rethinking your practice.

Breaking bread together

Leading the Decolonising Design workshop was Süheyla Yalçın, a multidisciplinary artist who is the founder of NederTürk, a digital archive collecting oral histories at the intersection of Dutch and Turkish identity. As participants entered the room, she invited them to find a comfortable seat on the floor, setting the tone for an intimate and eye-opening session.

The crowd was made up of creatives and design-enthusiasts from various backgrounds, disciplines and life experiences. Some were well-versed in decoloniality, but many were unsure of how to apply it in their everyday lives. Culinary activist Lelani Lewis guided the group into open conversation with a serving of cassava bread, a dish that is closely tied to the history of slavery in the Caribbean. One by one, participants introduced themselves while sharing food with one another. ‘I loved it when Lelani took us through the ‘breaking bread’ ceremony,’ remarked fellow guest speaker Gyor Moore. ‘I thought it was beautiful to share that experience with what was basically a bunch of strangers.’

Together, they started to unpack what decolonising design means to them. ‘Building new narratives that challenge our ideas of what is normal,’ said one participant. ‘Learning to design with people, not for people,’ ventured another. To this, a third person stressed: ‘and sharing the benefits.’ Throughout the next hour, a few key questions rose to the surface, like how Western ideals have impacted our understanding of ‘good’ design, and what more diverse and inclusive creative processes might look like.

‘Everyone was very engaged and sometimes even a little bit uncomfortable—which I thought was actually fitting for the context of the conversation,’ said Gyor, who shared insights from years of working as a mediamaker and advocate for LGBTI+ rights and anti-racism. Another guiding voice in the discussion was Setareh Noorani, an architect and researcher who works to expose the power structures that dominate our museums, schools and archives. For her, an essential aspect of decoloniality is to expand what we think of as canon, and seek out references that exist beyond Anglocentric and Eurocentric ways of knowing. Graphic designer Cengiz Mengüç rounded out the string of guest speakers, bringing to the table a conversation about how the formal elements of design, like typography and colour, can perpetuate harmful stereotypes about migrant cultures. Ultimately, the kaleidoscope of issues we talked about showed that decolonisation is not a box you can tick off, but a long process that demands continuous and collective change.

A deep dive into gender bias

Across the festival, another workshop was taking place which asked similar questions about how to degender and depatriarchise design. Leading the jam-packed session was designer Bappie Kortram, who kicked things off with a lively introduction. ‘In this workshop, we are going to do a deep psychological dive into your gender biases,’ he began. ‘And you are not allowed to leave until you are completely degendered.’

With equal parts humour and critical insight, Bappie then broadly described the agenda for the session, which was set to be one of the most creative and collaborative of the day. He also explained that he happens to be a trans man, and is half of the brains behind Kutmannen, an online platform to discuss everything related to being trans, transitioning, and gender.

Participants were then asked to join the first of several exercises designed to expose how unconscious gender bias influences the way we communicate and create. The goal here was not to come up with right or wrong answers, but to better understand how cis- and heteronomativity affects every person in the room. Among other things, we asked: What do our associations with certain words reveal about our cultural stereotypes? Is blue really for boys and pink for girls? Why are virtual assistants mostly female, and street names mostly male? And how do these assumptions affect the way we design?

Sharing their responses to this question were a panel of guest speakers hailing from various corners of the globe. Nigerian fashion designer Adebayo Oke-Lawal spoke about using gender-fluid clothes as a tool to liberate people from toxic masculinity. Authors Maria Conejo and Zoe Mendelson dove into the story behind Pussypedia, a multimedia project which empowers women* to learn more about their bodies and take control of their sexual freedom. Last up was Ammara Jabbar, an artist and writer from Pakistan whose work explores how gender norms are reflected in the very construction of our language. (*When we say women, that word always includes trans women.) 

During the second portion of the session, participants broke into small groups to make collages exploring ways we could disrupt our biases towards things like tampons, video games or the military. ‘When the groups presented their creations, it was funny, inspiring, exciting,’ said Lara, who joined the session as WDCD’s programme manager. ‘The room was really fired up. It was great to see and hear the participants share their process of how they came to their collaborative visions. The hosts and guest speakers were also very engaged with the outcomes and shared helpful feedback to each project that was presented.’ Today, these experiments live on as part of a zine that can be viewed here.

The session ended on a high note, with the sense that another, more equitable world was not just possible, but actually within our reach. As one participant put it, creatives can play a massive role in shaping how we perceive reality: ‘When we design with gender biases in our minds, we keep them alive—like a vicious circle. This session made us aware of this issue and inspired us to make a change in our daily practice.’

Missed WDCD Live Amsterdam 2022? See more highlights from the festival here.

All photos by Enrique Meesters.