First Hand — Decolonising design: How Anoushka Khandwala’s dissertation caught the industry’s attention

Posted 04 September 2018 Written by Anoushka Khandwala

When it came to choosing a topic for her dissertation as part of a BA in graphic design, Anoushka Khandwala decided to explore a question that had played on her mind since starting her degree. Where were all the women of colour? In tandem with a creative industry beginning to wake up to its own diversity issues, Anoushka was paving the way for a much-needed discussion, and people began to take note. On top of connecting with creative heavyweights including Natasha Jen of Pentagram, an edit of her dissertation was published in Creative Review in March this year. Soon after, she was also contacted by organisers of Jessica Walsh’s initiative, Ladies Wine Design, to co-curate a panel discussion on the matter. She tells us how it all unfolded, the importance of highlighting these issues, and thoughts for others looking to land on a line of study that really resonates and connects with industry. 

A printed version of Anoushka’s dissertation, presented as a zine within a ‘protest poster’ kit, providing users with the tools to spread the words of the essay

Looking inwards to reach out
Connections are the beating heart of the creative industry. Without them, it becomes more difficult to source jobs, collaborations, or employees. Once you learn how to elicit these connections however, navigating the industry becomes far easier and for me, this journey began with my dissertation. 

When deciding what to base my essay on, I chose to look inwards, at myself. Writing about women of colour (WOC) in the design industry was almost a given; I couldn’t see anyone who was discussing the issue, so I decided to take a stand. 

I was disappointed by the immense lack of people of colour teaching at my university, a problem prevalent in the industry as well. Because there were few people to guide me on the topic within my institution, I had to seek out role models within industry to speak to. Although difficult at the time, this brought me valuable connections, which began to form a narrative that I would continue beyond graduation. As I put down Marshall McLuhan and picked up bell hooks, I became immersed in the subject, meeting up with women of colour from all parts of the industry.

“I was disappointed by the immense lack of people of colour teaching at my university, a problem prevalent in the industry as well.”

From graphic designers, to phD candidates, outreach students and even the manager of the D&AD New Blood programme, with each conversation I had, I became more and more well-versed in the rhetoric that comes with speaking about race and gender. Whilst I became aware of the problems within the industry, I found spaces where I felt so empowered that I never regretted pursuing such a difficult topic. Attending Black Girl Festival [co-founded by Nicole Crentsil and Paula Akpan] was a key moment for me; being in a room filled with WOC creatives really drove home the fact that designers of colour do exist; we are just not visible.

Part of Anoushka’s final project ‘Decolonising Design’

Pinpointing and tackling the issue
This ability to be visible within the mainstream design industry is largely affected by those that critique it. When discussing the lack of female film critics in Hollywood with The Guardian, Jessica Chastain declared, “Critics are the ones who suggest to an audience what stories are valuable and worthwhile.” Sites like Creative Review, It’s Nice That and Design Week carry such weight within the industry that they have a social responsibility to diversify the work that they praise. If they do not report on a range of designers, then no woman of colour will be given the recognition they deserve.

“When researching statistics, I found that only 12% of London creative directors are women and that the design industry is 87% white.”

When researching statistics, I found that only 12% of London creative directors are women and that the design industry is 87% white. This incites a studio culture that often reeks of toxic masculinity, paired with a rejection of non-Eurocentric cultures. For women of colour, this results in an overwhelming feeling of ‘othering’ within the industry. In order to avoid this, a lot of women end up working in-house, or freelance; why would you want to work somewhere that makes you feel uncomfortable within your own skin for five days a week? From micro-aggressions to discriminatory hiring practices, if design studios do not take into account how harmful their actions are, even if they are subconscious, then nothing will change. 

Integrating diversity into your way of thinking is essential; when creating a mood board, actively seeking inspiration from different countries makes a world of difference. But an account manager forcing you to change something you’ve already created, in an effort to appear more diverse, results in a completely performative activism, in which you internalise diversity as a ‘tickbox’ as opposed to part of your practice.

A printed version of Anoushka’s dissertation, presented as a zine within a ‘protest poster’ kit, providing users with the tools to spread the words of the essay

Gaining visibility in industry
Often, confronting this privilege is hard, which is why a lot of studios do not want to begin to tackle the rampant problem. This is why I was pleasantly surprised when Creative Review agreed to publish my dissertation as an article on their website. My tutor [at Central Saint Martins] Ruth Sykes, recommended I reach out to the editor. After numerous emails and edits later, the article (Why are there so few women of colour in Design?) went live on International Women’s Day.

This was the turning point of my final year. The publication of my words gave them more visibility than I could have ever dreamed of, and resulted in people contacting me from far and wide to discuss the issue. One of them was Emilie Chen, the organiser of Ladies Wine Design London, who wanted to make their events more inclusive. Over the next few months I worked in partnership with LWD to plan a panel discussion consisting of five women of colour (Kei Maye, Kaajal Modi, Araki Koman, Marisa Jensen and Jade Tomlin) making waves within the design industry.

“My advice to you is reach out. Reach out beyond your circle of friends, beyond your institution and into the big wide world.”

A printed version of Anoushka’s dissertation, presented as a zine within a ‘protest poster’ kit, providing users with the tools to spread the words of the essay

Three fantastic things happened as a result of this event. Firstly, it gave an elevated platform for these designers to showcase their work and increase their visibility, providing much needed representation for younger creatives. Secondly, it provided a safe space in which we could talk about the racist sexism which permeates the industry. Thirdly, the event gave us a chance to meet other WOC in the industry, and form valuable connections, enabling Kaajal and I to create a group for women and non binary people of colour in the creative world off the back of the event (you can find us here).

Our plan now is to continue to build this group; we are in the midst of organising our first meet up. During this, we hope to invite the group to air their thoughts on how they would like to tackle the problems we face, and in a more positive sense, what can we do to empower ourselves and others.

Images of the Ladies Wine Design event co-curated by Anoushka

Images of the Ladies Wine Design event co-curated by Anoushka

Images of the Ladies Wine Design event co-curated by Anoushka

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Create discussion and community around what you care about
My advice to anyone wanting to genuinely connect with industry while studying is to reach out. Reach out beyond your circle of friends, beyond your institution and into the big wide world. My most successful projects have been a result of conversation. I love to talk, and to me words are the only way to flesh out design problems, social issues and the complexities of knowing what we want to achieve. Reach out to people who have the same interests as you, however don’t expect anything other than a discussion. The magical feeling of relating to someone, of having something in common, is reward enough. Sometimes they may surprise you with an opportunity to advance your career, or a connection that proves valuable to your practice. But meeting people with this intention in mind ensures that the conversation will be equal, and you can steer it towards a conclusion. People are more likely to help those that they see as genuine friends.

So let your passions, work and social life blend into one. Introduce your friends to people they would get on with, create communities for those with common interests and facilitate conversation. And sooner or later, you will be working on projects you’re passionate about, that keep you up at night, that you’ll ultimately produce better work for, because you actually care.

A printed version of Anoushka’s dissertation, presented as a zine within a ‘protest poster’ kit, providing users with the tools to spread the words of the essay

Anoushka’s dissertation and final show were completed this year, as part of the graphic design course at Central Saint Martins. The work celebrated creatives including Resh Sidhu, Rachael Hardy, Araki Koman, Kaajal Modi, Miho Aishima, Aricka Lewis, Delores Eddington, Resh Sidhu, Nelly Ben Hayoun, Kelly Walters, Nikki Farquharson, Marisa Jensen, Natasha Jen, Leyya Sattar and Alyssa Johnson. See more at anoushkakhandwala.com

Posted 04 September 2018 Written by Anoushka Khandwala
Collection: First Hand
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Design
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