Date of Award
Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
The general understanding and professional practice of graphic design have been shaped by the perspectives, needs, and desires of white, cis-gendered, heterosexual men in imperialist, capitalist societies. The tools, substrates, professional networks, institutions, processes, theories, grammars, and values that have come to define the discipline have been formed from this position. Consequently, graphic design primarily serves the needs of the settler in settler colonial regimes like the United States. This reality has prompted many designers like myself who come from colonized communities or whose identity troubles this rubric to question the framework of the discipline and our position within it.
My thesis is rooted within this broader inquiry, which for me, as a Black and Indigenous person, began a few years ago through the emergence of two decolonial movements in the communities I call home: the BlackLivesMatter movement in Minneapolis following the live-streamed extra-judicial killing of Philando Castile by a White police officer; and the NoDAPL movement in Standing Rock which sought to prevent the construction of an oil pipeline across the river my tribe depends upon for water. The inquiries that evolved from the social and political contexts in which I began my formal design education have particular salience now amidst current manifestations of colonial oppression: a deadly global pandemic that has disproportionately claimed the lives of Black and Indigenous people due to the violence of structural inequities in the United States; the resurgence of the Keystone XL oil pipeline threatening the ecological sovereignty and well-being of numerous indigenous communities in the Midwest, including my own; and the nation wide uprisings sparked by the extra-judicial killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. As I write this, I can hear the whir of police and military helicopters surveilling the streets of Providence for protesters out past state-mandated curfew. My background and the urgent socio-political contexts surrounding my design education have forced me to seek out creative and subversive methodologies to bend a design discipline defined for the service of settler colonialism towards ongoing decolonial movements in Black and Indigenous communities. Using design in the service of decolonial movements will require new articulations of tools, substrates, networks, institutions, processes, theories, grammars, and values. Fortunately, there is a long tradition to draw from in marginalized communities of repurposing tools not designed for us to meet our own needs.
Decolonization is not a destination along a binary array. Rather, it is a vector traversed through a lifelong practice seeking what lies beyond the decolonial horizon. In a decolonial design practice, design and the products of design are not an end; for endeavors with no end, process is the product. Design is the work that leads to and through the personal, interpersonal, and systemic work of decolonization. A radical design practice uses craft as a vehicle for the beyond, one of many possible methods that activate the decolonial moments, gestures, and utterances between people that triangulate new vectors for our collective liberation and help carry us there. As such, rather than catalog design works, the images in this publication utter a personal narrative of formative moments that transpired through the work of design. I am the work design helps make.
U+16E99 is one articulation of a decolonial design practice uttered through the poetic grammars of Black, Indigenous, Queer, and Feminist thinkers, makers, and organizers. It is an attempt to define a trajectory for my own creative practice that centers my values, needs, and desires, while navigating the demands, precarities, and limitations of the academic institutions and settler colonial contexts in which this mapping takes place.
Smith III, Bobby Joe, "U+16E99" (2020). Masters Theses. 477.
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