These days I come across a number of news articles about racism, poverty, surveillance, extremism, exploitation, sexual harassment and climate change, and they worry me as much as, I assume, every other designer who thinks they have a part in making our world a better place. What gives me, a trained designer, the idea to think I alone can make a difference? A difference that cannot come from being a farmer, a businesswoman, an analyst, a programmer, a banker or a journalist? What is in a designer? Who is a designer?
As a doctoral research candidate in design, I have many academically-framed answers to that question. But three years into my candidacy, I feel very much like an imposter to this title. I feel an urge to dig deeper to understand why I had not continued in the engineering field, a field that held a promise of future wealth and comfort. My shift to design was a grand leap of faith after being repeatedly disappointed with myself, the choices I was obligated to make, and the society I grew up in. Suddenly, with design, I discovered a safe space where I met others like myself who were also confused and unhappy with the dominant way of the world. I fell into the embrace of the graphic arts, animation, and interactivity — these mediums gave me the space I needed to express my ideas in a way that I couldn’t with engineering. Then onwards, I pursued a career in design in a wholesome manner, and my curiosities eventually landed me on a research path, literally a ‘re’-search — of the past, present and near futures we will encounter by design. I find myself stuck, though, because I forgot to ask myself along the way:
Why am I doing this?
So I dig into my past, all the way to my childhood — memories of my mom working on her computer, dad on his architect’s drawing board, brother playing street-cricket with the neighbour’s kids, grandparents watching TV, relatives visiting occasionally for dinners, kind teachers who gave me home-tuitions, friends with whom I shared comic-books and mixtapes, and domestic helpers who cleaned the dishes and washed the floors. My school was a fun space too, until I was seven years old. It was when I moved to a different school, to third grade, that I came to a self-realisation. A realisation that I was not like the other girls in my school — I was far too short, too dark-skinned, and poor at English to be acknowledged by my new peers. When I got home from school, I asked my mother what I should do to feel accepted. She told me that I should, bravely, walk up to those kids during lunch-hour and ask if I could eat with them. When I did, the group of girls refused to take me in. Every Sunday, my mother applied butter and milk cream on my face, arms and legs, hoping that my skin gets lighter, that I do not get outcasted in a society obsessed with fair-skinned women. When I resisted, she would say that no man would ever fall in love with a dark-skinned girl. These words stayed with me, throughout my later life, and I repeatedly questioned if my new friends (some fair-skinned) were really my friends or if they sought validation by having me, the dark-skinned girl, tagging by their side. Of course, I am not innocent here. I hung around fair-skinned kids and brought them home, partly to prove to my family that I am no less. I overlooked other dark-skinned children I met, reproducing the same discrimination I was dead-set against. I knew there was something wrong with what I was doing, even if I couldn’t put words on it. I knew my society was messed up but I was too proud to admit I was part of the problem.
When I was left to my own devices, I made cartoon-drawings. I practiced drawing the whole Disney parade — Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and sometimes dinosaurs, clowns and still-life paintings. If it wasn’t drawing and painting, it was my dolls and teddies who were part of my imaginary world that no other human was a part of.
I even made up visions of monsters, witches, and ghosts who would haunt my bedroom until I was thirteen or so. Even though I was frightened and fragile, these figures filled up my world in a way that the real world didn’t — a world where I could trust my teddy-friends, prove myself worthy through impeccable spoken gibberish, and slay the witch by saying a magical word thrice.
What I am hinting, is that I trained myself from childhood to use my creative mind and I grew accustomed to day-dreaming about other non-existent realities. All the fabulations I made up in my head were ways of coping with a reality that was too difficult, complex and unmanageable for a child.
The ability to be creative, to be visionary, and to find ways to cope with the world are strengths most designers are expected to possess, but in my case, they emerge from weakness, resistance, and resentment. I listened to my family’s wishes until I turned 21, but deep down I knew that I had to make choices that would disappoint my family and others who I have grown close with over the years. I was being selfish and was running away from the trouble that was myself. But I was privileged enough to take that risk because of my loving family who trusted me without asking too many questions or posing judgement. At 25, I moved to London where I took immense pleasure in being educated in design, learning from design-masters and interacting with people from every nook and corner of the world. I came into contact with wonderful people who didn’t identify me first-hand by my skin-colour but rather on my ability to bring child-like excitement into a conversation, my capacity for silliness, imagination and sharing stories. I felt like I gained new access to my individuality and I could experiment with a lifestyle that I had just begun discovering.
More opportunities came along the way while I was exercising this new freedom. I managed to procure a PhD research position in Sweden in 2015. In these few years of doing research, I found myself dealing with grand ideas, state-funded projects and research questions that felt distant and removed from my experiences of reality. But whenever I conducted fieldwork, I only sought research participants who spoke to my reality — a daring elderly gentleman who resisted his bodily old-age, a group of women who resisted the stereotype of a ‘child-bearing’ body, a bio-hacking community that resists dominant versions of medical innovation. The pattern was far too loud and clear. I, supposedly an objective designer-researcher, was projecting my own resistance of my body skin-tone on my participants. It became obvious that I was bridging the disconnect between my research and where I originally started — a fragile child who lived with fair-skinned monsters/friends in her head. The reason my research felt stuck is because I never truly acknowledged those monsters. To call myself a designer, I have to take my monsters into account.
I am not a designer simply because I am trained as a designer, rather I am a product of a society where marginalisation has left me little choice but to become a designer i.e. to engage my imaginary monsters with a responsibility towards them.
I know I have the capacity to engage my monsters because I have been doing it for the most part of my life. If calling myself a designer allows me to identify with others’ monsters, it already gives me hope for a better future. I started out this essay asking what makes a designer and I have come to understand that this is our difference: we have all befriended, tolerated and even slain monsters in our imaginations for a very long time, and to put simply, that IS our capacity — “to engage” and take those monsters seriously in ways other professions won’t. The trouble is in finding those monsters and staying with them until our (re)search feels complete.