Skip to content

Decolonizing Design Futures

Abstract: The never-fulfilling promise of a bright future has justified modern colonization for centuries. Modern design follows suit. Modern design has been exported to former colonies as a neutral, non-political way of making. The futures that came with them have contribute to maintain the coloniality of making, nurturing a sense of nostalgia and a conservative attitude that does not contribute to breaking free from dependence. Design futures may only contribute to decolonizing worlds if these are collectively designed by, with, and for the oppressed. Experiments of doing so in Brazil are presented.

This was a guest lecture in the Design Futures Course, Politecnico di Milano, 2024, hosted by Prof. Manuela Celi.



Full transcript

I’m really happy to be here and have this conversation with you. I know it’s going to be maybe a difficult conversation. I’ll probably touch upon some sensitive topics, but bear in mind that my final goal is to give you a sense of hope for the future. I’m going to raise a lot of critical issues within the way how design futures have been developed in our field. I’m interested in taking something out of design, right? Decolonizing is all about taking the colonization out of something but also being in a fight against colonization because you cannot take that from colonizers that easily.

I hope that you also become inspired by the work that people in the former colonies like Brazil or the US and other places that have been subjected to colonization are also working on. I’m going to actually draw on that kind of visions of the future. If you are interested in any of these topics, I will not be able to go deep into them but you can do that later on if you check my references by the end of my slides.

First of all, I need to establish the relationship between design futures and colonization. I mean, why talking about this? What do they have to do? For that, I will have to go back to the past, of course, because we need to scrutinize and check the role futures played out in colonization. Colonization is a modern phenomenon that spread through the world from Europe and European nations, erecting this geopolitical divide or division between a world that was already made, ready-made, or the best made possible, which is Europe, or the metropolises and a world to-be-made, the colonies.

Usually, this is referred to as the old world and the new world, but this division does not help to understand that the difference is based on making. The world-to-be-made was considered to be a world that had nothing there, an empty, a void world that has to be made, whereas the European world or the old world was considered to be ready-made and the world in the Americas and later on in Asia, Africa, Oceania, and other parts of the world, they should all be made to become closer to the European worlds.

However, there worlds in the new world before it became a new world to European. European had to unmake those old worlds to make their new worlds there. If you consider the indigenous communities that lived in those worlds, they were already making different ways of living together, producing a culture of very high standards, sometimes even more advanced than Europe in some aspects. They refer to those worlds as Abya Yala, Turtle Island, Pindorama. These names are still in use today by indigenous people to remember that this is still a different world even after centuries of colonization.

For every Thing that was made in Italy (and now I’m poking you) but in Europe in general, or any other metropolitan space, there was something else unmade in a colonized space. This is still somehow a reality, because even to make a industrial product in China, you need to unmake sacred mountains, rivers, or reserves of any kind of material that is needed for this production in the so-called underdeveloped world or colonized space.

After looking at this phenomenon, I developed the concept of coloniality of making to characterize this divide based on theoretical engagements with the Modernity/Coloniality Group and the work of Álvaro Vieira Pinto. It emphasizes the mutual dependence between those different worlds. Metropolises are making their world out of unmaking colonies. This is similar to what Escher tried to convey with his Drawing Hands (1948), although not in such a symmetrical appeal. There’s definitely one side getting most of the benefits in the colonial relationship, reason being why it is not a sustainable one. It’s a relationship that harbors conflict and frustration because one hand becomes tied by the other hand.

Art by Rodrigo Gonzatto (2022)

Philosopher Álvaro Vieira Pinto developed a much more fundamental concept called handiness to explain what’s going on in this relationship. Underdeveloped handiness never reaches the same level of the developed handiness, in this case, the colonizers, because the colonizers continue to develop themselves after the relationships was established. This is why the distinction between developed and underdeveloped nations remains current, as it helps to understand how the coloniality of making still plays a role in such international relations. For instance, if you visit an artificial intelligence image generation website like and search for ‘design in developed nations’ compared to ‘design in underdeveloped nations,’ the disparity becomes clear. There will never be a point, under this unequal relationship, where underdeveloped nations will achieve the same design standards as developed nations, because the development of the latter depends on the former.

What AI currently demonstrates is the hierarchy in world-shaping methods; the approach on the left side is deemed modern, while on the right, it’s considered unmodern. This includes the notion that the past should be viewed as superior to the future, which is not a perspective imposed by the colonies on the colonized. In fact, it’s the reverse; it’s a response from the colonized against the colonizers, who perpetually promise a bright future that never materializes. Consequently, the colonized often find themselves drawn to imaginaries of a significant period in their history, whether it be before, during, or just after colonization—a moment to which they aspire to return, as exemplified by the “Make America Great Again” campaign promoted by former President Trump. This issue with the futures promised by colonization, which have failed to materialize, often traps these nations in a cycle of reverting to their past following crises, thereby undoing what they have already achieved.

How, then, can society obscure the political dimension of world-making? I’ll now shift focus to explore the role of design in this context, aiming to replace politicized creation with a seemingly neutral form of making. This includes indigenous practices of creation, which we often label as handicraft or artisanship. Indigenous people do not perceive their work in these terms sometimes; they view it as an art form or as something akin to spirituality, in either case, inherently political. Their creations are manifestations of their world and the world they aspire to preserve, aiming to sustain the proliferation of these objects. Indigenous artifacts often depict various animals they coexist with, desiring to maintain this coexistence. This is a direct political challenge to the colonial approach of exploiting land through plantations or monocultures, which are inhospitable to biodiversity.

Design intervenes in this process, attempting to make the coloniality of making appear less political and more like a technical issue. For instance, if you consider the discourse around modern design—how it defends, markets, and theorizes itself—it’s always striving to appear purely beneficial and not at all political. The sentiment by Dieter Rams, along with his famous Braun radio, that “Good design is as little design as possible,” subtly suggests through implication that good design is essentially European design, perceived as inherently good and apolitical. When we look at politicized forms of making, such as the favelas in Rio de Janeiro and other major cities in former colonies, one might think this isn’t design. Favelas are a lack of design that should be replaced by proper design, like the buildings in the background of this picture of Rocinha, one of the largest favelas in Brazil. I was born close to there, so this division between where I was living and our neighbors just around the corner had made me think about this inequality since I was a child.

Exploring the history of design schools in our regions, the concept of coloniality of making offers a compelling rationale for the desire to emulate or adopt teaching and learning methods from Germany’s Bauhaus, or similar institutions that emerged later. This explains why, in Brazil, there was Escola Superior de Desenho Industrial (ESDI), or in India, the National Institute of Design, and in the United States, the New Bauhaus later Institute of Design at Illinois Tech. There’s a prevailing belief that local ways of making aren’t as effective as those developed abroad, leading to an inclination to adopt foreign practices. This perspective is indicative of a colonized mindset, preferring to lean on colonial influences rather than valuing indigenous traditions of handcraft and artisanship.

There have been efforts to counteract this trend. For instance, the Italian designer Lina Bo Bardi, who became a naturalized Brazilian, endeavored to establish a unique design school that would integrate lessons from artisans from marginalized communities, teaching urban dwellers. Unfortunately, her project did not progress much. One of her final efforts to highlight the significance of this approach in Brazil was the exhibition “A Mão do Povo Brasileiro” (The Hand of the Brazilian People), a remarkable showcase that was revisited in 2016. Many attendees, however, failed to see its relevance to design, missing Bo Bardi’s argument for basing our design practices on local artisanship instead of European models.

Regrettably, Lina Bo Bardi’s insights were largely ignored, and she faced persecution by the military dictatorship in Brazil, sidelining her and her contributions to the discussion on design education and practice.

Before the military dictatorship took hold, Brazil embarked on the ambitious project of building its new capital, Brasília, in the middle of nowhere. This project was a monumental feat of modern architecture, perhaps one of the most striking globally. However, the promise of Brasília to the Brazilian people has largely been unfulfilled. Many Brazilians harbor a sense of disappointment towards Brasília, feeling disconnected from this space. Politicians have adeptly used the promise of a bright future to perpetuate the coloniality of making, diverting attention from the present with visions of a better tomorrow. Yet, sometimes, these envisioned futures are far from desirable. For instance, Sol Nascente, recently surpassed Rocinha in the number of inhabitants, becoming the largest favela in Brazil. This sprawling favela highlights a missed opportunity for the country. Rocinha, almost a century old, could have served as a lesson to build a better city than Brasília, avoiding the necessity of such extensive favelas, since Brasília was planned and constructed much later.

Despite this, politicians and society at large failed to see this as a challenge in world-making. Designers, including architects like Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer who worked on Brasília, played a significant role in that. Designers usually consider themselves progressive, capable of envisioning a brighter future. Yet, they often hold onto conservative and colonialist views more than they might admit. This critique extends even to the realm of humor in design, particularly among Italian designers known for their admirable wit. However, jokes such as “make design great again,” drawing a parallel with “make America great again,” come across as poorly timed, especially given the current political climate in the US. Such jests can be seen as insensitive, not only to disenfranchised groups in the US but also to the global community, given the broader implications. It reflects a perspective among some designers that history might not matter or that change is not on the horizon, an outlook that can overlook the profound impacts of design and architecture on society and the lived experiences of its people. They sometimes embark into nihilism.

As much as futuristic they like to think of themselves, designers also fall into the trap of nostalgia, idolizing past designs and their designers. This tendency is critiqued through a speculative project titled the Church of Divine Design (described in this article). This project imagines a church where, instead of human-like deities, products designed by revered designers are worshipped as gods. This approach highlights the absurdity of placing such high value on objects and the designers behind them, questioning the real impact of these designs on humanity’s broader history. These selected products often benefit a narrow group—primarily their creators and manufacturers—without significantly changing the world in the ways they were purported to. This critique parallels the critique of massive churches that obscure reality from their followers, suggesting that the design world can similarly distract from the truth.

The nostalgia for past designs is not limited to individuals but is also institutional, as seen in the European Union’s initiative, the New European Bauhaus. This initiative seeks to draw inspiration from the past, specifically the historic Bauhaus movement, suggesting a return to something left behind. In my understanding, simply altering the vision of the future without addressing the present’s structural issues misses the mark in addressing contemporary challenges, such as the environmental crisis. The belief that Europe holds all the answers is a flawed approach.

This perspective calls for a shift in listening and learning from those who have historically been sidelined, particularly indigenous peoples. Indigenous communities have long warned of the consequences of certain practices and hold valuable insights into sustainable living and coexistence with nature. The emphasis on returning to past European design philosophies without integrating these lessons misses an opportunity to genuinely address the pressing issues of our time, illustrating a need to broaden the sources of inspiration and knowledge in design and beyond.

Indigenous peoples have long cautioned against the unsustainable practices of colonizers and settlers, emphasizing that such approaches would lead to a future incapable of sustaining life. Despite these warnings being ignored for centuries, leading to a replication of harmful past practices into the future, indigenous communities have adapted by integrating into urban environments and employing modern mediums to amplify their messages. For instance, Kunumi MC, a prominent Brazilian rapper, uses his music and visually striking video clips to convey a vision of indigenous futurism, warning of a doomed future unless significant changes are made. His work underscores that an indigenous future, rooted in sustainable practices and respect for the land, is the only viable path forward.

This shift is not limited to cultural expressions but extends into political and academic arenas, where indigenous voices are teaching the importance of land acknowledgment not as mere formality but as essential recognition of the ongoing impact of colonization. The speaker shares a personal commitment to acknowledging the land they occupy as historically belonging to indigenous communities such as the Muscogee, Seminole, Miccosukee, and Timucua peoples, highlighting tools like Native Land Digital for educating how our past can inform our future. This approach suggests a future where multiple nation’s coexistence over the same land might be possible, contrasting sharply with the historical removal and erasure experienced in places like the US and Brazil.

Furthermore, the discussion points to innovative projects like the African Diaspora Development Institute’s Wakanda One project, envisioned as a city built for the African diaspora to return and live in a sustainable community. This example, along with indigenous futurism, represents a broader call to undo the damages of colonization by imagining and creating spaces that honor and incorporate indigenous knowledge and practices.

Of course it’s a far-fetched vision for the future, very hard to implement, but I think it’s a great, peaceful way of understanding returning to your homeland. It contrasts so starkly with what we see now in Israel. Indeed, this genocide of Palestinian people cannot go forward. We have to stop this. We have to create a mass movement to denounce this. Within that frame of reference, I’d like to point at specific evidence of why this future doesn’t work. Some Israeli people, not all of them, but the more radical ones don’t want to co-exist with Arab people, they don’t want to design together a country, a nation, or a place, or even they don’t want to discuss, at least at this moment, the possibility of Palestinians having their state in Gaza. For example, the New Gaza futures designed by an Israeli Rabbi means no space for Palestinians in that territory. This is definitely unmaking the future of people who live there. Where would they live? If they flee to other places out of Gaza, they are still being bombarded by Israel. The War will go on for generations to come. Which home will be there for the Israeli and Palestinians to go back?

Africans got a better idea on how to return from the diaspora because they are remaking their pasts while remaking their futures. Indeed, anti-colonial design futures can only emerge from deviations from the past. We cannot keep doing the same things that the colonizers did to us. Otherwise, the colonial past makes its way into the future. With that in mind, we have been trying to develop a style for speculative design. It’s called futro. It’s a mix of futures and retro, but instead of having retro design, we actually want to have the future prevails. The difference between retro and futro is that the former brings the future into the past instead of going back to the past in a nostalgic way, so that in the past we still have a chance or a better chance in the present to react to oppression.

Here are a few examples of how we have been doing this with our design students. Futro first requires understanding the personal and social histories of the objects involved in the fiction. Students do ethnographic research with objects that existed from the 60s or the 70s or the decade that we are interested in. They interview people who had these objects during those times or later on and they understand the relationship between these objects before they actually envision a future where these objects would make sense. And they also use their entire bodies to understand the contradictions between these objects and the relationship between people mediated by these objects. We rely a lot on the Theater of the Oppressed for building and creating design fictions in this style.

Time Crisis (2017) is an example of how futro ends up being well equipped to deal with very serious political matters of a country, of a nation, like the ousting of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 through a white coup that was also apparently US-backed or at least had US FBI influence on it. This became known as a reality just a few years ago, but at the time these students were envisioning the future, just a few months after her ousting, it was all speculative. They hypothesized that one reason behind the ousting of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff might have been her reliance on an artificial intelligence developed in the US. This AI, used for organizing her schedule and that of many officials, even for national planning, was speculated to have a bias favoring the US. Eventually, Brazilian politicians purportedly discovered this bias, leading to her overthrow due to her dependence on what was seen as imperialistic technology. This speculative narrative reimagined the coup as having nationalist motivations, which, in reality, it lacked, ultimately paving the way for Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency, aligning closely with US politics at the time. This exercise by design students was an attempt to understand their role within such complex geopolitical and domestic political conflicts, demonstrating a highly engaged approach.

Before this speculation, I had been involved with Dilma Rousseff’s team, working on a futuristic app designed to foster dialogue within Brazil, allowing public participation in policy design. Users could provide feedback on policies, suggesting improvements. This app, which engaged 200,000 people in 2015, was discontinued following Rousseff’s ousting but was later reintroduced in a new form under President Lula’s administration last year. This revival signifies a return to the envisioned future of Brazilian democracy that was sidelined during Bolsonaro’s tenure, a development I view with great satisfaction, witnessing a denied future being reclaimed.

Returning to the general context of design, I want to emphasize that merely understanding design history isn’t sufficient for crafting anti-colonial futures. What is crucial is design historicity, or becoming more conscious about our roles in making history. Here, I’m deliberately playing with words, because historicity involves an understanding of history in which you recognize yourself as a participant, actively contributing to its making. Unfortunately, designers have historically aligned themselves with oppressors and colonizers, as I’ve tried to illustrate. However, I believe it’s entirely feasible to collaborate with the oppressed towards their liberation. The critical question for us then becomes: How might designers make history alongside the oppressed?

For nearly 15 years, I’ve been deeply involved with collaborative cultural producers in Brazil, working to preserve endangered popular cultures that fall outside the commercial mainstream. Among our projects, we’ve developed a local exchange trading system that has enabled a variety of initiatives to sustain themselves independently of conventional currency. This system allowed them to print their own money, ensuring the survival of, for example, a theater school threatened by the advent of governments less supportive of cultural initiatives. Hundreds of projects followed. This endeavor was a genuine act of making history.

Hearing about my personal commitment to making history with the oppressed, you, as a design student, might wonder about your own potential role. We have a rich example from UTFPR, where I was previously. Since 2021, the Laboratory of Design Against Oppression (LADO) has served as a remarkable hub where we’ve endeavored to design with social movements. Our work has spanned various domains, including collaboration with those responsible for garbage collection and distribution in the city, individuals dwelling new favelas, and groups aiming to prevent traffic accidents. These projects aimed to empower the oppressed, with our students leveraging university resources to envision and shape popular design futures.

What if your institution doesn’t have something like LADO? The Future of Design Education pluriversal design Working Group, which I’ve been a part of in recent years, discussing the future of design education, has published a set of recommendations aimed at design education programs. These guidelines suggest ways programs might gradually or radically incorporate the issues I’ve discussed. This paper was published by the Sheji Journal, a highly respected publication in the Design Studies field. Our suggestions include principles like designing with and by people, not merely for them, and recognizing that there is no singular universal design history but many alternative histories that need to be explored and understood by design students. If you’re a design student, you have the power to mobilize and pressure your faculty to adopt these recommendations, especially considering their publication in such a prestigious journal. This could pave the way for the kind of education we’re advocating for.

In conclusion, design futures can genuinely contribute to organizing worlds only if they are collectively designed by, with, and for the oppressed. There’s much more I could say on this topic, but I want to keep this brief. If you’re interested in diving deeper, you can find references and links on my website for further reading. I’m also more than happy to answer any questions or discuss any topic you might have.


Van Amstel, F. M. C. (2023). Decolonizing design research. In: Rodgers, Paul A. and Yee, Joyce (Eds). The Routledge Companion to Design Research (pp. 64-74). Routledge.

Van Amstel, Frederick M. C. and Gonzatto, Rodrigo Freese. (2022). Existential time and historicity in interaction design. Human-Computer Interaction, 37(1), pp.29-68. DOI:

Mazzarotto. M., Van Amstel. F. M. C., Serpa, B. O., Silva, S. B. (2023). Prospecting anti-colonial qualities in Design Education. V!RUS Journal, 26, 135-143. Translated from Portuguese by Giovana Blitzkow Scucato dos Santos. Available at:

Fabris, Y. (2021).A mao do povo brasileiro: cultura material popular e os projetos modernizadores brasileiros (1969-2016). Disponible en

De Castro, E. V. (2015). Cannibal metaphysics. U of Minnesota Press.

Lucy Pei, Edgard David Rincón Quijano, Angela D. R. Smith, Reem Talhouk, and Frederick van Amstel. 2022. Assets and community engagement: a roundtable with HCI researchers and designers. interactions 29, 5 (September – October 2022), 44–47.

Bizotto dos Santos, W., Mazzarotto, M., & Van Amstel, F. (2024). Tomando um LADO: formação crítica e prática de liberdade no Laboratório de Design contra Opressões. Arcos Design, 17(1), 143–175.

Gonzatto, R.F; Amstel, F.M.C.van; Merkle, L.E; Hartmann, T. 2013. The ideology of the future in design fictions. Digital Creativity. Vol. 24 (1).

Noel, L.-A., Ruiz, A., van Amstel, F. M. C., Udoewa, V., Verma, N., Botchway, N. K., Lodaya, A., & Agrawal, S. (2023). Pluriversal Futures for Design Education. In She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation (Vol. 9, Issue 2, pp. 179–196).

de Siqueira, I. L. M., & van Amstel, F. M. (2023). Service design as a practice of freedom in collaborative cultural producers. In Proceedings of the Service Design and Innovation Conference (ServDes 2023), Rio de Janeiro. pp. 315-325.

Gonzatto, R.F., van Amstel, F.,and Jatobá, P.H.(2021) Redesigning money as a tool for self-management in cultural production, in Leitão, R.M., Men, I., Noel, L-A., Lima, J., Meninato, T. (eds.), Pivot 2021: Dismantling/Reassembling, 22-23 July, Toronto, Canada.

Categories: Talks & Lectures.

Tags: , , , , ,