Design: process, politics, aesthetics

The typical design process is linear: information is gathered, design is developed, it’s implemented and we are done. The extractive nature of this design process is colonial in nature.
This is how Bryan Lee Jr (African American Design Nexus, 2020), the Design Principal at Colloqate in New Orleans, a nonprofit multidisciplinary design practice, speaks about the difference between outreach and engagement, typical tools in the arsenal of designers seeking community engagement in their projects, and organizing:

… we’re talking about the first two being very extractive, outreach being kind of a connection point between folks that has no guarantee for a future relationship. There’s no guarantee that we collect this data and we bring it back to you. It’s really just a way for us to either communicate a consideration that we already have or to extract data points that we do not have. Engagement goes a step further and oftentimes explicitly seeks to extract data and have some sort of small feedback loop but always an effort to amplify the power of those who are doing the extraction.

Organizing builds power in with or community. It is secondary that we are looking to extract, or pull, or aggregate, or draw data from community. And this is important because the narratives, both qualitative and quantitative, that come from community are absolutely necessary in our process. But if we are able to reduce our own power and redistribute, then the wealth of knowledge that exists within communities becomes a part of the coalition that is working towards a particular project or working towards the larger plan of a neighborhood.

A different design process, that architects like Matthew Hickey (2021) put forward as approaching design from an indigenous lens, moves in a manner of natural cycle (like day into night or seasons changing), emphasizing connectedness and the effect of decisions we make today on the future.

In the case of this project, because pedagogical questions intersect and interrupt the design process, and because they are oriented always towards creating particular subjects and particular futures, the design process is represented by a spiral, uncoiling both towards the future and straining inwards, towards relationships with place and its complex histories.

This design wishes to be a political process that realized (and embraces) the pressure of creating new systems of reference: both in design process and in design aesthetics. Alexis Shotwell (2016, p. 158) highlights the connection between aesthetics and politics:

Creating new normatives is always in part an aesthetic project in the sense that it aims to shirt the grounds for judgment. It is perhaps most effective, then, to use aesthetic forms to directly alter the conditions of judgment, to claim beautify in the fact of invisibility.


African American Design Nexus, Nexus Podcast: Season 1, Episode 3: Bryan Lee Jr. joins us to continue our conversation with De Nichols about the #DesignAsProtest collective and Dark Matter University. August 26, 2020. Online.

Hickey, Matthew (2021, February 23). Design through an Indigenous Lens: Decolonizing our Approach to Architecture. UofT Daniels Lecture Series. Online.

Shotwell, A. (2016). Against purity: Living ethically in compromised times. U of Minnesota Press.