Design Education as Woke Work



Design Education Strategy


  • Christina Sharpe, decolonised design, higher education, socially engaged design, woke work

Ashraf Jamal (2016b, p. 68) regards the work Us and them, the killer of the world by artist Simphiwe Ndzube (2015) as an important signifier of the sociopolitical turmoil in the national psyche which openly erupted in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in March of that year. Jamal highlights the essential work of interrogating social realities such as inequality on a structural level (which he argues this artwork accomplishes). He also reminds us that the dynamic of 'us and them' does not passively play out in institutions such as universities, invested in sustaining neoliberal interests as they are, but is actively replicated in such institutions. The work of dismantling the 'us and them' dynamic that consequently endures in South African (and global) societies and higher education, thus entails critically assessing the complicity of such institutions in reproducing existing injustices. In her academic work, African-Canadian theorist Christina Sharpe similarly highlights the importance of scholarship as intellectual activism that advances social justice. Such engagements can be seen as attempts to decolonise social institutions, including universities.

In this spirit, the current paper assesses design praxis as a broader sociopolitical phenomenon reflective of current social biases, and questions whether design can escape the imperatives of neoliberalism (directly implicated in the perpetuation of inequality), not only in terms of individual good will to do so, but structurally. Are there examples of decolonised design suitable for inclusion and validation in a decolonised curriculum?

Such design would have to demonstrate more than an attempt to ameliorate the effects of social injustice, but rather seek to pro-actively dismantle the apparatuses of exclusion. It would have to position itself as 'design by the people for the people' in order to escape the us / them binary, and do its work on the sociopolitical fabric as socially engaged design: design as woke work. A brief overview of initiatives (such as Ecoart Uganda, a community based project which has used recycled junk to create public spaces the community are proud of, and the African Robots project by Ralph Borland, which combines affordable robotics with the wire art of South African and migrant Zimbabwean street artists), facilitates the exploration of design from an alternative perspective which foregrounds social justice and that potentially repositions design praxis, and design education, as woke work.

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