Post-Colonial Design Blowback: the challenge facing the global design industry

With Bruce Nussbaum

My twitter feed informed me this morning about the storm in the designer teacup raging around Bruce Nussbaum’s post last week “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” and I followed through religiously by catching up on “In Defense of Design Imperialism” – the rebuttal  by Robert Fabricant, creative head of design consultancy Frogdesign as well as the far more thoughtful piece – “The Problem with Design: Imperialism or Thinking Too Small?” by Alex Steffen on Worldchanging.  Though it has been 3 years since I’ve actively thought about, analyzed and written on the actors and the global design industry, once I digested all that I’d read here, I knew that the time had come for me to speak forth on this issue.

Unlike the others involved, I have roots in both the “Global North” and “Global South” per Steffen’s terminology and consider myself a member of the global design industry.  I have also studied design at the graduate level in India, at the National Institute of Design as well as in the United States, at the Institute of Design, IIT Chicago where I was simultaneously the Director of Admissions. I give this background as context for my thoughts on this topic –  since they will be based on my observations and conversations with most of the players involved as well my own wanderings around the rich and the poor world.  I have the experience of consulting with leading Bay Area design studios such as MetaDesign, NewDealDesign, Method as well as working in the BoP markets of Africa, India and the ASEAN and finally, I am neither male nor native to the “Global North” (to be politically correct). I am also concurrently a legal resident of the United States, Singapore, India and Finland. All of these factors, I believe, when taken together, allow me to bring a certain global perspective to this issue.
So, to begin at the beginning, what seems to be the bone of contention here?

Bruce began by pointing to two instances of barely suppressed resentment that he observed – once in Singapore,  at the ICSID conference late last year and once back in New York, but by Kishore Biyani – probably one of India’s best known design investors and successful mass market entrepreneurs. In both instances, it was a young woman’s enthusiastic embrace of human centered design’s potential and ability to save the world’s huddled masses – and in both instances the grumbling was along the lines of “Who are you to come and solve our problems? What about our local solutions?”. Note that both speakers had been from the “Global North”, or rather, to be accurate, from the United States and the grumblers from the “Global South”.

These datapoints led Nussbaum to wonder whether the whole movement of humanitarian design (also known variously as design to do good, design for social impact, design for the other 90% etc etc) was being considered yet another form of imperialism. To quote:

So what’s going on? Did what I see in these two occasions represent something wider and deeper? Is the new humanitarian design coming out of the U.S. and Europe being perceived through post-colonial eyes as colonialism? Are the American and European designers presuming too much in their attempt to do good?

And I took this thought to talk it over with some of the young Finnish designers here in the Design Factory community – after all, as Mikko pointed out to me, you can’t get any further up the “Global North” and still be part of the design community than Helsinki ;p Their responses floored me – ranging from an observation that Fabricant’s response was identified simply as “Well, they are a for profit design studio, their agenda is to continue projects in this space not actually save the world is it, but to make money from such projects.”  to the fact that nothing I’d said about this issue sounded fair or balanced to them. These very words, or at least the fact that there’s an imbalance, have been used by Steffen in his response to the conversation.

But back to looking at Fabricant’s essay on ChangeObserver – it seems to me that he has not addressed the issues that Bruce raised but instead defended Emily Pilloton (a mere detail in this situation, imho) and then defended Frogdesign’s approach to social design or design for impact – primarily since their focus is now on the mobile phone as a platform for social and economic development at the base of the pyramid.  In fact, he continues to use the semantically laden verbiage in the title of his essay “In the defense of design imperialism” – come now, you can defend design and its role as a change agent but if you are going to stand there and defend imperialism, you are only underscoring the challenge posed to the future of the global design industry’s attempts to find solutions for a better world by organizations such as yours.  The irony inherent in that essay title is in itself extremely illuminating and informative, and sadly weakens his case immensely regardless of the quality of any points he may have made in the body of his essay.

On the other hand, Alex Steffen acknowledges the greater complexity of this situation and the questions that Bruce has posed. While I find it endearingly outdated to be referred to as a designer or engineer from the “Global South” (hence my own use of quotes around it) he does point out two key issues which will not go away and as we’ve seen from Fabricant’s essay, are not being addressed by the world’s largest design studios either.  These are:

1. The imbalance of access to knowledge, and
2. Lack of access by many in the “Global South” to the means or media to spread ideas or have their voice heard.
Steffen ends his piece with these thoughts:

So, perhaps it’s worth shifting the debate a little to discuss the obligations of not just humanitarian designers, but all designers to design responsibly? Maybe presumption is less the problem than a lack of planetary thinking.

Yes, there is certainly a lack of vision and one that takes a big picture perspective into account.  That is food for a post for another day. Back to the question that Nussbaum posed and my response.
Bruce, you hit the nail on the head with this one, and naturally it hurts. Hence the squealing you hear from everyone. 

What’s missing in all of this rhetoric on humanitarian design emerging from the OECD world? For starters, no acknowledgment of any of the following issues:

1. A sense of mutual respect – which in turn leads to the perception of arrogance and patronizing good works
2. No sense of give and take – that you may have something to learn from us
3. Lack of awareness of the global political realities or ignorance of history – that your average Indian, Chinese, Filipino or even Finnish designer is far more politically aware and thus doesn’t see you simply as a designer but as an American designer (or British or white or whatever etc), with all the political ideology and history that your nationality entails. This will and does influence their receptivity to your idealistic rhetoric so it behooves you in turn to be aware of the history and politics and perhaps tread a humbler, more respectful path? Bruce has already touched upon this.

The young Finnish designers were even more forthcoming to me – an ethnically Indian woman in her forties – that none of these approaches to design for emerging markets or the BoP or for social impact etc sounded fair to them. They said,

Look, we’re going in there to find out more about them and how to design stuff for them right? But what are offering them in return? Are we simply going to take this knowledge or learn from them with nothing in return? They have more to teach us than we them, so what can we do to balance this transaction? And it doesn’t just stop there, we aren’t there to make a quick buck but to make friends and alliances. To listen to people and to understand them not simply observe for unmet needs that our high tech stuff can fulfill. If we are going to make money, then they should too. There need to be answers that are somewhere in between.
Who are we to tell them how to live or what to do? We need to listen to them and find out how can we best work together to solve the problems in a mutually beneficial manner

(ed’s note: Finland has never been a colonizer nor an Imperial anything and a neutral meritorious society with women as president and as prime minister right now)

There’s certainly more going here than immediately meets the eye, its simply that now these issues are beginning to impact the design field as well. And no matter what, as Alex Steffen pointed out as well, we need a middle path – a vision for the future that the rich and the poor, the first and the third or the North and the South can all aspire towards, together, on this planet we call home. Pragmatic, realistic solutions that are co-created jointly – a balanced fair approach to problem solving.

And, it is these thoughts that I leave you with for the moment.

This entry was posted in Cross pollination, Design, Wisdom.


  1. Jay Harlow
    Posted July 16, 2010 at 20:08 | Permalink
    I had the privilege to teach design in India for a short while as a visiting instructor at Srishti School of Art+Design. I noticed a tendency—less so at Srishti than the in larger design community—to try quite hard to emulate the vernacular of western brand-driven design as closely as possible. One young woman in the audience at an ICOGRADA conference I attended even stood up to ask the question of how to do so rather directly of one of the (non-Indian) speakers.
    Of course this impulse makes sense contextually, for any number of historic, cultural, and economic reasons. But it is also made me tremendously sad to see, in a country which has one of the most diverse and rich visual cultures in the world; and one which has communicated so much of that culture (via literal imperialism) back to the North.
    But I’d suggest that until design communities in the South gain the confidence to stand on their own vernacular, some remnant of the old paternalism will manifest from the design communities of the North. The pattern is simply too old. I completely agree that Northern designers working with constituencies in the South need to be mindful of this.
    But just as importantly, I’d suggest it is essential for Southern design communities to learn speak with their own voices; and for leaders in those communities to become active in this area.
  2. Posted July 16, 2010 at 22:12 | Permalink
    Thank you for your thoughtful and informed comment. However, I do believe you may be conflating the issue of aesthetics with the issue at hand – which is the basic concept of “design as a force for social impact i.e. that which improves the lives of those at the BoP or base of the social and economic pyramid” also being referred to here as “humanitarian design”.
    Therefore on your observation on aesthetics – one would ask in today’s world whether in any urban center (such as Bangalore or Shanghai etc) there’s any real differentiation between “west” and “east” in terms of product design aesthetics or graphic design sensibilities – is not more of a global aesthetic tailored to local tastes and media and operating environment? What I tend to call mainstream consumer culture?
    But regarding humanitarian design or rather the idea that the designers from the ‘rich world’ are the ones who can provide a village in India with potable drinking water (per the example Nussbaum uses) versus Tata’s Swach purifier (currently a finalist in the WSJ Innovation awards) which has been designed not only look good in any kitchen, east or west but also in a village home in India – is it any wonder that that assumption of innovative solutions coming only from the west is seen as a wee bit patronizing perhaps? Especially when its often accompanied with the assumption that the ‘natives’ may not have a clue about the UCD or design or local solutions?
    I imagine this situation is worse in Africa – that while there aren’t “western aesthetics’ involved in the local solutions, even a cursory glance at websites like will inform us that there’s innate creativity and ingenuity being utilized in conditions of scarcity to come up with locally relevant and affordable solutions.
    This is the real issue, not whether young Indian designers, like young designers everywhere, want to know how they can design the next iPod.
  3. Jay Harlow
    Posted July 16, 2010 at 23:50 | Permalink
    Nita, thanks for your reply. Sorry, it wasn’t my intention to introduce a tangent, but make a relevant point, namely, that aesthetics are indeed one mechanism by which the paternalism Nussbaum suggests occurs.
    I agree that there is an international aesthetic, especially in the realm of product design. I would not call it truly global; but rather a blend of European and American cultural values (after all, who is doing most of the consumption of designed goods?). I think this homogeneity is in fact both a symptom and a cause of the larger problem.
    Since all problems are defined through this discourse, solutions are weighted in favor of those who speak it most fluently, and the market rewards this fluency—which is why designers the world over want to learn it. But this circuit tends to ignore what alternate approaches may have to offer, in particular to culturally-specific problems. Or, as Nussbaum wondered, “Might Indian, Brazilian and African designers have important design lessons to teach Western designers?”
    In my particular experience, I found that young Indian designers were so successfully employing this “global” voice, that they weren’t listening to the lessons of their own culture. I suspect it is the same in other parts of the developing world, and I think the emergence of those voices will start to provide the necessary equilibrium needed for true cross-cultural design collaborations.
  4. Posted July 17, 2010 at 00:09 | Permalink
    Hi Jay,
    Thanks for following up, btw the name is Niti.
    Back to the issue under discussion – if I read your response correctly, you’re saying that the western aesthetic’s dominance in consumer culture is partly the reason for the attitude taken by many seeking to “help the poor and down trodden” in Africa, Asia, Latin America etc that they have a ‘mission’ or “obligation” to solve these society’s problems through their design knowledge? It is this attitude of almost a fervent idealistic “design can save the world” missionary zeal that comes across in most of the talks and speeches that result in the observation that Nussbaum made. (and which naturally sticks in the craw of the rest of the world, leading to the attitude of “who are you to offer us a solution?” he writes about)
    I fear that you’re perhaps still not addressing the issue – that of the attitude or thinking (of the dominance of western aesthetic to use your own example, as one of many dominant logics in play here) that leads to the concept of humanitarian design in the first place, and is it that which is patronizing and thus percieved as imperialistic or colonial?
    Where is the talk of skills transfer or more design schools in Africa so that local creativity can solve local problems? Where is the discussion on entering these markets with a respectful attitude that while the aesthetic that has dominated media and thus influenced consumer choice, it is the knowledge and sensibilities of the locals (the BoP in this case who are the majority of those that humanitarian design addresses) that would help create those solutions?
    You refer to mainstream designers working for mainstream companies, not those developing products like the HIppo roller or lifestraw, both of which still await effective distribution and business models in order to diffuse through the locales where they are needed.
    And I’m speaking from a far broader perspective than simply young designers, or young Indian ones that you may met.
    For its not the young who have the influence and voice to shape policy and attitude and thus the way money is invested or spent on design is it?
  5. Posted July 17, 2010 at 01:14 | Permalink
    Hey Niti
    Gotta say I did scoff at Steffen’s outdated terminology. Guess I must be firmly “Global South” being both ethnically Indian and based in New Zealand!
    Thanks for highlighting “Lack of access by many in the ‘Global South’ to the means or media to spread ideas or have their voice heard.” This is one of the reasons I’ve largely stayed out of the discussion – seems to be a conversation between armchairs.
  6. Lilly
    Posted July 17, 2010 at 08:03 | Permalink
    Thanks for posting this. I’ve been studying designers in India and have found your point about access to media to be true. To some extent, I’d hazard a guess that designers also need access to a certain English middle-class lifestyle to 1) be taken seriously as designers and 2) to be considered having the requisite experience with consumer culture for design’s professional practices to make sense. Do you think this is the case?
    Also, of relevance, my colleagues and I published a paper at CHI this year that speaks to many of your points and ads structures of economic domination and essentialist ideas about cultural difference (their visual culture, our visual culture) to the mix:
    If you have a chance to read it, it would be great to get your feedback.
    It’s really interesting to hear the insight the Finns had on the situation. Big design conferences like Design Yatra often feature majority white male panelists so I had guessed that awareness of these issues was low.
  7. Posted July 17, 2010 at 13:10 | Permalink
    Hi Meena; Lilly,
    Thanks for your comments.
    There’s a lot of complexity in there about the concurrent perception of Western aesthetics as the bar for good design among the design community outside of the OECD but its also an attitude prevalent in most nonwhite nations – especially postcolonial ones – where two contradictory thoughts tend to prevail – one which perceives everything western as modern and “to be aped” (to use the Indian media’s preferred term) and the other which rejects this. That is an entire body of study by scholars of post colonial sociology I would imagine. And most likely also influences what is seen in the field of design.
    However, reading your thoughts makes me wonder whether I need to distinguish far more clearly in another post today on what it is that I am addressing – that is, specifically “Design for the BoP” or that related to poverty and hardship, not mainstream or urban culture.
    Otoh, this also makes me wonder whether the automatic default assumption of “if its imported it must be better” is what seeps into humanitarian design – that is, as has been asked by those participating in this debate – why aren’t the designer’s from the south addressing these issues?
    Like I said, there has to be a middle path – not one side is better or the other (north and south) but rather, how do we ALL, as EQUALS (but different) work together to solve the problems that face us today?
    Let me write today and lets see where the thoughts go on this…
  8. Posted July 17, 2010 at 13:17 | Permalink
    Another thing that strikes me about this whole issue is that when designers from the “Global North” come in to provide potable water for Indian villages, they rarely if ever acknowledge the existing solutions or local innovations that may be there but rather assume (thus the effect of presumption on their part) that there is *nothing* there and they are the first to come in and think about these poor people in the village etc.
    This is different from saying, hey we know you’re working on stuff and there’s stuff like what Tata has been doing for decades or whatever, but we are here too and we think we have a way to do this – either working jointly or even acknowledging the existence of local solutions.
  9. Posted July 17, 2010 at 18:39 | Permalink
    Lilly said:
    To some extent, I’d hazard a guess that designers also need access to a certain English middle-class lifestyle to 1) be taken seriously as designers and 2) to be considered having the requisite experience with consumer culture for design’s professional practices to make sense. Do you think this is the case?
    Lilly, this is a post in its own right or at least a long email directly to you. I have seen exactly this challenge – that of lack of exposure influencing the quality of the design solution whilst in design school.
  10. Jay Harlow
    Posted July 17, 2010 at 21:54 | Permalink
    Niti (sorry for the typo above!), I think when you say:

    this also makes me wonder whether the automatic default assumption of “if its imported it must be better” is what seeps into humanitarian design

    That is precisely the point I was attempting to make. I think you’re absolutely right that it’s really a different discussion than the Nussbaum/Pilloton/Steffen/et al debate, but I think it’s the other side of the very same coin.
    I couldn’t agree more with your suggestion that there should be “talk of skills transfer or more design schools in Africa so that local creativity can solve local problems”. That’s precisely why I was concerned with the aesthetic “aping” I saw amongst young designers in India. That deference—in methodology and aesthetics—automatically subjugates those designers’ experience, values, and ideas to those emanating from the ToP. Audre Lorde put it succinctly: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
    Certainly, as you suggest, ToP designers must be respectful of local knowledge and cultural values when attempting to solve “humanitarian design” problems. But additionally, I think that the most surefire way to level the playing field is for educators to instill a sense of confidence and authority amongst young designers at the BoP, so that local designers can begin to recognize and solve local problems before foreign “humanitarians” even become aware that these problems seem to require their intervention.
    Thanks for the great discussion.

  11. Posted July 30, 2010 at 10:37 | Permalink
    hi niti,
    thanks for writing this. it made me smile.
  12. Posted July 30, 2010 at 10:58 | Permalink
    Thank *you* for reading it and smiling :p
  13. Posted July 31, 2010 at 06:08 | Permalink
    Hi Niti,
    thanks so much for providing the insights from the designer’s point of view to the BoP discussion in your blogs. Although I am not a designer I would like to share my two pence worth in this debate.
    There is one small word that strikes me in this particular discussion, which is “for” as in “designing for the BoP”. I come from a business and not from a design perspective to the BoP and I learned, after dropping in from Europe to the Philippines, that “for” does not work, but “with” does produce some great results. Using co-creation as the basis for business innovation at the BoP has resulted in far better results than downloading existing pre-conceptions and trying to adapt them to the BoP. So the shift from “for” to “with” is not only semantic but symbolizes for me a different approach as it:
    1. Integrates local knowledge
    2. Acknowledges local knowledge
    3. Leads to tangible results at the local level, eg
    4. Avoids post-colonialist inhibitions on both side, as this runs both ways. From my experience it is not only: Who does he think he is to tell us?; but also : Who am I to tell them?

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by DesignObserver and Kara Pecknold, FIU Solar Decathlon. FIU Solar Decathlon said: RT @DesignObserver: Post-Colonial Design Blowback: Nita Bahn responds to @brucenussbaum et al: Fabricant here: http … […]
  2. […] Alex Steffen (The Problem with Design: Imperialism or Thinking Too Small?) and Niti Bhan (Post-Colonial Design Blowback: the challenge facing the global design industry) – amongst […]
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