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Informed Design

How does Empathy in Design play a role in Decolonization

August 21, 2020 8 minute read

June was Indigenous History Month in Canada and August is Emancipation Month. So in the midst of taking time to understand and learn about anti-black racism at Pivot we are also taking the time to learn about colonization in Canada.

2020 in the GTA means we are living in a culture, where we each do the pat down mantra before we leave the house (“wallet + phone +keys + mask + sanitizer + reusable straw + anti-racist attitude... CHECK!”) There is a huge mental load that comes with our daily life and unlearning systemic racism can feel like an overwhelming charge to uphold. But for a user experience designer and for someone in the pursuit of anti-racism and inclusion of all marginalized communities—be it sex, gender, race, and other forms of diversity—it’s hard not to see the responsibility of Design in decolonization as a way to help change the way we think. Here’s how to break it down…

What is colonization? A design perspective

Colonization in its most basic form is “the action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area”. It began ages ago and it kept growing and now we have entire government systems built upon this idea of "establishing control". It’s embedded so deeply that we don’t realize it’s there until you consciously wear the lens of the marginalized.

Colonization today in its simplest form can be seen when people of colour are lumped together as if we all face the same problems.

A designed output cannot be meaningful if it doesn’t consider our differences. Our stories and our histories are long and diverse... Decolonization through design means you, as a designer, take the time to learn through all the varied lenses of a user experience before you design a solution. It’s not about one-size-fits-all. Instead it is about understanding needs, motivations, and behaviours in order to inject familiarity, reason, usefulness, and empowerment into design.

There is great learning and evolution to be had when we look to past events, ideas, and methods and a very practical case to be made for a more integrated teaching of different cultural approaches. The how and the why of where we are today is inevitably influenced by what has come before, and to make positive change for the future we must always build on what has passed.

Design can do better

Often Design does NOT take into account the history of location and its peoples. Design today is almost always "forward-thinking" and striving for progress yet it does not always benchmark against the histories and cultures that came before. To emphasize, for example, here are some important principles from Indigenous philosophy (taken from a larger list of 12) that could also fit with many foundational design practices:

  • Wholeness (Holistic thinking): All things are interrelated. (In the service design world, we like to see how touchpoints are delivered through a holistic view of what happens "behind the scenes" in order to make things happen "on stage".)
  • Change: Everything is in a state of constant change. There are two kinds of change: the coming together of things and the coming apart of things. Both kinds of change are necessary and are always connected to each other. (Isn't digital strategy the epitome of this? Digital solutions are in a constant state of flux to serve the changing technologies and user needs.)
  • The only source of failure is a person’s own failure to follow the teachings. (Failure in design means you have taken the leap and tested an idea. It is proof that you strove to try something different and now you can iterate from your learnings to make things better.)

These are just a few examples of how even the field of design — whose traditional principles have primarily focused on balancing form and function — can benefit from a more nuanced understanding of a history, culture and way of life that has been oppressed by the system we currently live in. There is great learning and evolution to be had when we look to past events, ideas, and methods and a very practical case to be made for a more integrated teaching of different cultural approaches to design as a practice.

The how and the why of where we are today is inevitably influenced by what has come before, and to make positive change for the future we must always build on what has passed.

So, what’s next? Design can do better...

If you took time this summer to slow down, research and think about systemic racism, you might have come out of it with a precarious sense of shame, disillusionment, and even hopelessness. But the good news is that now you know. And the more steps you take in this direction of learning and unlearning, the more you will be able and willing to make better choices: to educate others; to support those trying to make a difference; and to actively design and implement more inclusive systems.

It comes down to empathy. When you learn about others, you can better understand both the similarities and differences at hand and with this understanding you can better EMPATHIZE with the perspective. Here are some practical pointers you can consider along the way:

1. Allow Space for Design Research

If you’re looking for more inclusive design outcomes, perhaps there is a need for a change in approach. Allowing space for immersive, ethnographic research and time for creative design thinking can be a way to realize new, and more inclusive outcomes.

  • TIP: Learning takes space — both physically and metaphorically. The key is to encourage the learning to fill up that space in ways that allow for a systematic exploration of individuals and cultures to gain insights into behaviours and motivations. If you understand the how and the why, you can better provide solutions to fill the need.

2. Design for the Margins

Understanding the audience should always be a primary consideration in design and design validation. So in this context, ask yourself whether a more specific, perhaps marginalized audience might actually yield better results to design outcomes than designing for a broader, less specific group of people. If it works for the margins, it could also work for the masses.

  • TIP: Always ask, “What about people using our product/service who live in rural or remote regions?” "What about differences in socio-economic status?" “What about the black/indigenous/people of colour and other marginalized identities in this scenario? (be specific)" Understand who the organization’s priorities are and why this is so. Having these conversations with stakeholder teams early and often can lead to groundbreaking revelations about what you think you know about your audience and organization goals.

3. Understand that Experiences are Influenced by Context

When co-creating personas we look at HOW and WHY people do the things that they do—their context. Sometimes, from a project perspective, it can help to name the persona with an interesting qualifier like the “Decision Maker” or the “Always Informed”. However, it can sometimes be easy for project teams to use stereotypes as qualifiers and this is where things can go wrong because the context is not taken into account.

  • TIP: Does the language we use reduce people to a single dimension of their experience? If the answer is yes, then you should try again to avoid the risk of alienation and exclusion. Persona-work is about feeling empathy for the people you are designing for and for the situations (or contexts) that they are in. It is not about thinking of our users as “less than” or “other”.

Empathy: A Commitment to Changing the Way We Think

Decolonizing design is as much about learning how to empathize as it is about unlearning systemic racism. It’s a process of educating ourselves about what it means to have privilege — and we are all privileged in different ways. Understanding that this is a process means we have the capacity to make change. The more we expose ourselves to new and different people, cultures and perspectives, the more we are able to empathize and be inclusive of those differences.

It’s constant, hard work and it is an important process that we should prioritize in order to consciously design better systems for people.

This work is design.


Iffat Jokhio, RGD
Experience Designer & Researcher

Iffat is a design thinker and doer. She fills her days with building a better understanding of the people she designs for through holistic service design thinking and visual storytelling. She is mom to 2 young kids, a community builder, explorer, and maker. Drop her a hello at

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